The Doubts Surrounding Trump’s Work on GCC Reconciliation

President Donald Trump is following through on his invitations to three key Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders for bilateral meetings at the White House related to the ongoing GCC crisis that has split the alliance and weakened its strategic position. Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, is due to meet with the president in Washington on April 10, after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who met Trump March 20, and before Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, who comes later in April. Trump has announced that he would like his guests to work on resolving their differences in preparation for a multilateral summit, initially scheduled for May but now postponed until September.

While the visits are welcome since they are arguably the most promising diplomatic option for mediation considering the GCC stalemate, they may not lead to resolving the crisis in the immediate future. Conditions in the Gulf and in Washington do not augur well for successful negotiations, although all players are making the necessary declarations and expressing their goodwill and intentions. If anything has been clear since the start of the crisis in June 2017, it is that emotions between the GCC protagonists are still raw and the Trump Administration’s requisite depth of knowledge is lacking about the GCC, the alliance that is considered to be an essential strategic partner in the Middle East.

Unattainable Demands

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt on the one hand, and Qatar on the other, remain at loggerheads. Qatar is still coping with a land, sea, and air blockade the four countries had imposed. None of the accusations the quartet had leveled at Qatar, which supposedly led to the breakout of the crisis, has been resolved or disappeared with the passage of time. Neither has the UAE acknowledged, let along apologized for, the hack it sponsored of the Qatar News Agency and the publishing of false material attributed to Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim. In fact, the crisis may have become more complicated now that all these states are having to deal with different issues brought about by its deepening implications.

The quartet countries do not appear to be eager to compromise on their inalterable demands of Qatar.

One important condition that will be hard to overcome in trying to find common ground between GCC states is the status quo of severed political, economic, and social relations in the now ten-month-old blockade. As the quartet countries still believe that their blockade will not be lifted until Qatar yields on the demands they imposed on June 23, 2017, Doha has found alternative economic, trade, political, and military relations to secure its needs––which had been mainly supplied overland through Saudi Arabia before the crisis––and strategic positioning. Oman stepped up to build a floating bridge to help secure goods and household items. Turkey immediately declared that it would provide military assistance, and the Ankara-Doha relationship only became stronger as time passed. After the failure of initial Kuwaiti and American mediation efforts, Qatar sought to improve its relations with Iran, deciding to resume full diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic.

While Qatar may not think that its fortunes lie with Iran and Turkey, two regional powers with hegemonic designs of their own, it is not unfathomable to think that Doha did well securing their friendship, at least for the foreseeable future. This is in line with its long-standing policy of hedging against unknowns, even with states from outside the GCC. That this will make a rapprochement with the blockading countries more difficult is a foregone conclusion; but any American effort to reconcile Qatar with its detractors in the GCC must take this reality into account.

The quartet countries do not appear to be eager to compromise on what they said are inalterable conditions––the aforementioned demands––for a reconciliation with Qatar, which rejected their demands entirely as interference in its domestic affairs. First, Al Jazeera and affiliated media outlets, accused of destabilizing other GCC states, simply cannot be shut down for at least two reasons: the Qatari government is unlikely to clamp down on them, and they are premier sources of information for the Arab world. Second, Turkey’s military presence and relations with Qatar have become firmer and more pronounced and cannot be ended simply. Third, reducing diplomatic and trade relations with Iran is a domestic affair for Qatar, which has reopened its embassy in Tehran.

Fourth, Qatar does not appear interested in expelling personalities connected with the Muslim Brotherhood, which the blockading countries consider a terrorist organization. Neither is Qatar going to hand over dissidents that Saudi Arabia and its allies have designated as terrorists. Fifth, there is little possibility that other demands related to suspending individuals’ citizenship and paying reparations to the blockading countries will be realized. Indeed, if the Trump Administration wants to spur reconciliation, it would have to persuade Qatar to abide by these and other demands, something Doha said it would not do, or to convince Saudi Arabia and its cohorts of the merits of backing down—a politically complicated proposition.

There are other developments that point to real difficulties in finding common ground between the disputants. Bahrain has already called for suspending Qatar’s membership in the GCC, an explicit indication that a full break with Doha is preferable since Manama makes no moves without clearing them with Riyadh. It also revived an old territorial dispute with Qatar that was already adjudicated by the International Court of Justice in 2001. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may indeed think that the crisis with Qatar does not deserve special attention now that he tries to handle his self-appointed responsibilities of playing a premier role in Middle East politics. On a trip to Egypt last March, MbS stated that he does not concern himself with the Qatar crisis and instead relegates it to sub-cabinet-level bureaucrats.

Trump is interested in re-building GCC unity to counter Iran’s malign influence but it is doubtful that the GCC states are going to be the right partners in challenging the Islamic Republic.

Additionally, in an Arab world where symbolism plays an essential role in politics, two developments point to difficult psychological barriers to surmount. Saudi Arabia today is rumored to be planning to build a 60-kilometer canal (about 37 miles) along its entire border with peninsular Qatar, a project that would render the latter an island in the Arabian Gulf. Earlier this year, the UAE also sent a clear message when a map of the Gulf at the government-sponsored Louvre Museum did not include the Qatar peninsula. While the UAE blamed this on an honest mistake, Qatar and others did not miss the political significance of the incident.

The Trump Administration would be hard pressed to require Qatar to compromise its sovereignty and independent decision-making, just to satisfy what until now Washington sees as unfair demands by the blockading countries. When the demands were first made in June 2017, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson deemed them unattainable, a position that has not changed. The US Department of Defense still considers al-Udeid Air Base, forward headquarters of the US Central Command, to be an essential node in the United States’ strategic posture from the Mediterranean Sea to the far reaches of the Indian Ocean. Indeed, the US-Qatar relationship was firmly asserted, despite the crisis, by numerous memorandums of understanding signed last January during the first round of the US-Qatar strategic dialogue.

Conditions in Washington

It appears that President Trump is eager to find a working formula for resolving the GCC crisis, if for no other reason than to solidify an anti-Iran alliance in the region. In recent communications with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim, the president expressed his hope for GCC unity “to counter Iranian malign influence and defeat terrorists and extremists.” To him, the Iran angle could be the dominant consideration since the administration has already attested to Qatar’s adherence to fighting terrorism. Media reports have triggered an alarm that the administration may be on its way to dump the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action of 2015 that regulates the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. With incoming National Security Advisor John Bolton, this warning has become more credible. But it also seems that the president may face a number of impediments that could hinder his positive and fruitful engagement.

First, the administration lacks the institutional setup and personnel necessary for a full-fledged effort to reconcile the Gulf protagonists. While the State Department was not necessarily the fulcrum of activity during the tenure of former Secretary Tillerson, the awaited confirmation of his replacement, Mike Pompeo, may practically grind the department’s operations to a halt. The president’s pick for national security advisor, John Bolton, is known for being opinionated about world affairs; he should take some time to study the issue of the GCC crisis from an insider’s perspective and become accustomed to a file essential to US national security—that is, if he survives scrutiny of allegations of illegal activity related to the Russia investigation. The chaos engulfing the White House and the administration’s messages on all domestic and international affairs make cohesion a distant goal. In essence, only the Department of Defense is seen as having credibility and experience by virtue of longevity and connectedness with the GCC’s political and military leaders.

Second, President Trump is operating under a dark cloud of investigation into his campaign’s potential illegal coordination with Russia during the 2016 presidential election. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has identified several figures connected to Trump and one of them has actually been sentenced to a 30-day prison term. The Trump campaign’s purported engagement in illegal activities in 2016 involving relations with British company Cambridge Analytica and Wikileaks is slowly coming to light. The president’s alleged extramarital relations and aggressive behavior before he was elected, and the ethical problems engulfing his administration today, will most likely hinder his role as mediator in the GCC crisis. The investigations and attempts to mitigate their impact on his ability to bring people and countries together will surely impact Trump’s mediator role. It is also doubtful that his personal charm, which captivated some in the Gulf, would be sufficient to break the current GCC logjam.

From the president’s side, what would be welcome is a statement that includes a declaration about Washington’s desire for GCC unity.

Third, the president’s—and his administration’s—intent to mediate between GCC leaders for the purpose of presenting a unified front to challenge Iran may both be a bridge too far and an unattainable goal, given circumstances, abilities, and developments in the Gulf. While the administration, Israel, and Saudi Arabia and its cohorts speak tough regarding the Islamic Republic, it is hard to believe that they would be able to present the necessary unified stance, which would have to include the threat of military action to achieve the desired effect. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain cannot face Iran militarily, and Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar cannot be corralled for a confrontation with Iran. For its part, Israel is not immune to retaliation by Iran and its affiliates. Absent the success of uniting against Iran, it is arguable that Donald Trump would desire to expend much energy trying to reconcile the GCC countries.

Fourth, it is doubtful that what the president said at the outset of the crisis––when he agreed that Qatar was indeed guilty of supporting terrorism––has truly become water under the bridge as far as Qatar’s leadership is concerned. Perhaps that is why Doha was keen to sign memorandums of understanding with the Departments of Defense and State so that it could seal an institutional arrangement with the US government that the president would not easily undo. Since last summer, Trump has changed his tone, met with Qatar’s emir and telephoned him, and praised Qatar; but everyone has come to know that the president could change his mind on a whim. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that Trump would indeed ignore the counsel of his advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has been widely reported to have swayed his father-in-law’s position on this matter after his family failed to secure Qatar’s financial assistance to shore up the Kushners’ properties in New York.

A Look at What Is Possible

Many events and developments have made reconciliation between GCC countries more difficult and cast doubt on American influence on the process. Moreover, it is hard to imagine President Trump to be a dedicated, detail-oriented mediator in a dispute that appears to be more personal than political and more grounded in rivalry than geostrategic imperatives. Thus, what may be possible are some important gestures and pronouncements that could become a basis for a reconciliation in the future, which, admittedly, will be slow-moving and time-consuming.

From the president’s side, what would be welcome is a statement that includes a declaration about Washington’s desire for, and insistence on, GCC unity in the service of US and GCC states’ national interests. The statement would also do well to loudly affirm American neutrality in the dispute, clearly commit to maintaining both al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar and the Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain, and insist on joint training and military exercises with the combined forces of GCC states. Only such clear enunciations send the required signals for all concerned that the United States is truly committed to playing a fair, decisive, and unbiased role and that it should be trusted as an effective go-between.

Much is to be expected from the Saudi-led countries, since their blockade and boycott of Qatar began unjustifiably—indeed, after an unprovoked UAE-sponsored hack of Qatar’s official news agency. As the seemingly undisputed leader, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is called upon to convince his allies to lift the Qatar embargo as a goodwill gesture, to be followed by further action on economic and humanitarian issues. The UAE may be wise to consider ending whatever work it started on an alternative alliance with Saudi Arabia, the formation of which it announced last December. Bahrain should also rescind its call for suspending Qatar’s membership in the GCC and end renewed talk of an old territorial dispute. All three states should declare that they are ready for reconciliation without preconditions––such as the implementation of last June’s demands––and to end anti-Qatar public relations campaigns in Washington. They also should stop the virulent anti-Qatar social media attacks that still push for regime change in Doha.

As the country on the receiving end of many ill-founded accusations and vitriol, Qatar may only have to provide assurances to the blockading countries as well as the United States. The Qatari government has already shown much goodwill regarding the crisis and its resolution. It has facilitated Kuwaiti and American mediation efforts, maintained a positive public discourse about all GCC states, continued supplying natural gas that meets about 40 percent of the UAE’s needs, and refrained from reciprocating the actions of the blockading countries. What it currently can do is reaffirm its commitment to the GCC and assure Saudi Arabia and the others that its relations with Iran and Turkey are diplomatic and not directed against any government. Above all, Qatar would do well to follow a tried and true foreign policy orientation of seeking good relations with all as it defends its sovereignty and independence.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here