Perspective: Can Washington Resolve the Impasse?

The White House—and more specifically, President Donald Trump—played a negative role in the GCC crisis when it started. The president initially supported the Saudi-led blockading countries, criticized Qatar and accused it of malfeasance, showed hesitation and confusion, and refrained from giving sufficient support to US institutions working to resolve the crisis. Of course, this situation characterizes American behavior around the world regarding several international issues beyond the Arabian Gulf. What could yield some positive results may be a new American push to end the crisis, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s message to Saudi leaders last April to finally end the Qatar blockade.

There is much speculation about Trump’s desire to host a summit with Gulf leaders to resolve the crisis. It is hard to know when this might take place. But questions arise about whether the summit could even be held and whether it would achieve anything since the parties’ positions have not changed. The blockading countries continue to insist on their unachievable demands, Qatar stands firm on defending its sovereignty and rejecting others’ diktats, and Washington remains confused despite the president allowing the Department of State some freedom to lead on this and other issues.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Qatar’s ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani have already visited the United States, but United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed has postponed a similar visit that was supposed to organize the summit. Looking at the current trajectory of developments, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will undoubtedly try hard to achieve one of two goals: postpone the dialogue indefinitely or push the White House to change its stance once again to pressure Qatar. From its side, Qatar appears adamant about an agreement with international guarantees and mutual commitments that the White House would facilitate after pressuring the blockading countries for concessions. What President Trump cares about is that the dialogue takes place under his direction and tutelage so that he can claim that he has kept his promise to resolve the crisis.

The problem has been, and remains, finding a face-saving resolution for the conflict. The blockading countries want their people and the world to see that their blockade has succeeded in bringing Qatar to heel after imposing their siege during Ramadan of 2017 and levying sanctions deleterious to Qatar and to their own people. Mohammed bin Salman desperately needs to show that he succeeded in at least one affair after his failure in Yemen and the episode with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, among others. President Trump wants to exploit a potential success in the Gulf to increase his transactions there and cover for the irresolution of the Palestine issue. For its part, Qatar still refuses to concede its sovereignty or international prestige since compromising on either would be a dangerous slippery slope for the future.

Limited and temporary initiatives seem to have been possible, such as the telephone call the Saudi crown prince made to Qatar’s emir in September 2017, although it failed to break the logjam. President Trump will pressure the parties to get concessions, but no one trusts that he is reliable enough to be an ally or partner, knowledgeable of the game states play, or able to serve as an honest broker. All are likely to make symbolic concessions and gestures. However, the matter deserves radical changes in the thinking of the blockading countries, from blackmail and imposition of demands to a real attempt at protecting common purposes and interests.

The original announcement about an upcoming summit and then its indefinite postponement indicate that each party to the conflict acts as if it is hostage to its position. The situation also shows that the Trump Administration is not ready to apply the necessary pressure for a solution. Qatar today considers that offering concessions is no longer useful since it has passed the test of the political, military, and economic blockade. While it still understands the moral imperative and political efficacy of a resolution, it is not convinced that normalization with its neighbors is possible in light of their leaders’ insistence on unachievable demands and visceral hatred of the Qatari regime. This is why Qatar would only be satisfied with American pressure on the blockading countries to make major concessions while it offers only symbolic ones. This indeed is an outcome of the neighbors’ insistence on a zero-sum game that, if played by Qatar, would lead to the latter’s complete capitulation—a totally unacceptable result that would point to the fragility of its political system.

The Saudi Arabian situation is more complicated. Mohammed bin Salman is trying to consolidate his position and cannot accept defeat, or even an easing of tensions in the Qatari or Yemeni affairs where he has expended much political capital and announced stark positions. He thus needs a clear and decisive symbolic victory. Additionally, his relationship with President Trump puts bin Salman in a difficult position as he anticipates a looming economic crisis generated by the continuing Yemen hemorrhage. Still, he is not subjected to direct and sustained American pressure to change his stance on Qatar; in fact, bin Salman is benefiting from the UAE’s stubborn position regarding reconciliation, since Abu Dhabi appears to be more capable of withstanding the pressure for now.

As for the UAE, its choices have become more limited. While it apparently succeeded in forcing former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson out, it suffers from the weakened Jared Kushner front in the White House and from its involvement as a party in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigations. Recently, Abu Dhabi began to be seen as less cooperative in resolving the GCC crisis; and indefinitely postponing Mohammed bin Zayed’s visit to Washington may be a clear indication that the honeymoon between him and Trump is over. Still, despite these developments, the UAE raises the ceiling of its demands and continues to secretly hinder and thwart reconciliation.

Finally, Washington’s biggest shortcoming is its lack of readiness: it has no clear strategy toward the Gulf except for the president’s insistence on blackmailing Gulf states into buying more American weapons to help the American job market. This blackmail may serve Washington’s interests in the short term through the president’s use of the carrot and stick approach. But in the end, the blockading countries may arrive at the realization that the most Washington can offer is a neutral position that will not benefit them.

The Trump Administration also suffers from a great shortage of professional cadres, especially diplomats. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lacks sufficient knowledge of the region and needs to appoint able leaders in his agency and ambassadors in the region’s capitals. The national security team is also limited as the new National Security Advisor John Bolton shapes it to his liking after General H.R. McMaster’s departure. Furthermore, the administration faces imminent decisions regarding a quickening series of foreign policy issues like North Korea’s nuclear program, the president’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, and Syria’s complicated war. All this while scandals continue to hit the White House, causing instability in dealing with foreign affairs.

It is therefore obvious that the general atmosphere is not ready for a comprehensive dialogue under American direction. The most likely scenario is a continuation of the status quo since no party to the dispute feels desperate enough to change it, least of all the blockading regimes. On the other hand, the real losers are the citizens of the countries of the dispute who are related by bonds of marriage, blood, and tribal alliances.

Majed M. al-Ansari is a Professor of Political Sociology and a researcher at Qatar University. He is also a columnist at Al-Arab weekly newspaper in Qatar

This paper is a translation from its original Arabic.