A Difficult Position: US Mediation in the Gulf Dispute

Strengthening and maintaining the Gulf Cooperation Council are among the top goals of any American administration that seeks to preserve peace and stability in the Gulf region. This is especially true at a time of considerable regional strife and the growing possibility of confrontation with Iran. Nevertheless, Washington’s handling of the crisis pitting Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and their allies against Qatar has left much to be desired. The US response has been at various times inconsistent, neglectful, and diplomatically chaotic, as the White House initially undercut then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts to resolve the confrontation.

Despite some progress in the months since the crisis began, the standoff appears no closer to resolution. The persistence of this conflict undermines US aims in the region, provides opportunities for Iran, and may have a lasting impact on the viability of cooperative security arrangements in the Gulf.

Trump’s Original Foray

President Donald J. Trump stood before a large gathering of Arab and Muslim leaders in a conference hall in Riyadh on May 21, 2017, to deliver an address1 on the struggle “to conquer extremism and vanquish the forces of terrorism” by “strengthening partnerships, and forming new ones, to advance security and stability across the Middle East and beyond.” Trump praised US regional allies for their contributions and singled out, among others, Qatar as “a crucial strategic partner” for hosting 11,000 US troops and Central Command’s forward headquarters at Al-Udeid Air Base, the largest US military facility in the Middle East.2

Sixteen days later, the day after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt, and the Maldives cut diplomatic ties with Doha, Trump had changed his tune completely. On June 6, he tweeted3 criticisms of Qatar as a supporter of terrorism. Speaking in the Rose Garden on June 9, Trump expanded on his criticism (and contradicted a more measured statement made earlier that day by Secretary Tillerson), claiming that Qatar has “historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level.”4

What Went Wrong?

Qatar has long hewed to an independent foreign policy line, frequently drawing the ire5 of Saudi Arabia, the peninsula’s largest state and de facto leader. Qatar’s friendly relationship with Iran and its ownership of the Al Jazeera network, which is frequently critical of other Gulf governments, are principal irritants. But Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its offshoots is viewed as a singular threat by Saudi Arabia and its allies; the demonstrated ability of these Islamist groups to win elections and endanger the existing political order in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings terrified many regional governments—Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular. Qatar’s willingness to provide political and financial support to the government of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood after his election in 2013, as well as its sheltering of MB dissidents (and other Islamists critical of Gulf governments) after Morsi’s overthrow the following year, earned Doha the lasting enmity of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

It is likely that Saudi Arabia, working in tandem with the UAE, was largely responsible for Trump’s apparent volte-face on Qatar. Riyadh skillfully parlayed a glitzy royal welcome,6 designed to impress and flatter the visiting American president, into a successful pitch for holding Doha principally responsible for funding Islamist radicalism, despite the kingdom’s own well-documented record7 of doing the same. Trump himself seemed to confirm this in his June 6 tweet with a reference to unnamed “leaders” fingering Qatar during his Saudi trip. Presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner’s close relationship8 with both Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his UAE counterpart, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, also provided a useful channel to convey the two Gulf countries’ views to the president. The support for Saudi Arabia that Trump conveyed during the summit may have provided all the political cover Riyadh needed to move against Doha.9

The Saudis had other allies in the White House as well. Former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, speaking at an event on Qatar at the conservative Hudson Institute10 in October 2017, noted that the White House was preoccupied with Doha and its alleged involvement in spreading “radical ideology.” Likening Qatar to North Korea, Bannon explained that “Qatar had to be called to account for their continued funding of the Muslim Brotherhood.” Another former Trump advisor, Sebastian Gorka, also insisted that Qatar was in trouble with the administration, telling Al Arabiya television that Qatar should “stop backing the wrong people starting with the [Muslim Brotherhood].”11

Public Relations Battle

The escalating crisis quickly prompted a public relations competition as the main protagonists lined up lobbying firepower in an effort to win over official Washington. SCL Social Limited, a firm with ties to Steve Bannon, received a $330,000 contract from the UAE for “a global media campaign” aimed at Qatar. (Breitbart News, where Bannon had served as executive chairman since he left the White House in August 2017 before being forced out in January 2018, published no fewer than 80 anti-Qatar articles since the crisis began.)12 Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia signed significant contracts with other public relations firms as well.13 Qatar itself hired seven different lobbying groups14 over the course of three months in 2017, spending nearly $5 million to wage the influence war.

The State Department Lumbers into Action

With the White House initially adopting an anti-Qatar position in line with that of the Saudis and Emiratis, it was left to the State Department to try to devise a diplomatic solution that would protect US military, security, and political equities in the Gulf.

The Department of State initially sought to defuse the confrontation through intensive diplomatic contacts, which at one point early on involved more than 20 phone calls and meetings between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the parties to the dispute, other regional leaders, and international actors.15 Tillerson, who had built strong personal relationships with many Gulf leaders during his years as chairman and chief executive of ExxonMobil, hoped to leverage these ties to bring about a rapid conclusion to the crisis. His office repeatedly urged Saudi Arabia and its allies to specify what they wanted from Qatar as a starting point for negotiation. This proved remarkably difficult. The Saudis and their partners delayed for two and half weeks, as the State Department became increasingly testy and openly questioned the motives of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.16 Finally, on June 23, the boycott parties issued a list of 13 demands Qatar would have to accept.17 These included ending contact with the Muslim Brotherhood, shutting down the Al Jazeera network, cutting ties to Iran, and halting support for terrorist groups. While some of these demands seemed reasonable on the surface, they were widely viewed—and not only in Doha—as an attempt to end Qatar’s independent-minded foreign policy, firmly subordinate Doha to Saudi authority, and eliminate Qatar as a relatively safe haven for political opponents of the Saudi, Emirati, Egyptian, and Bahraini governments.

Qatar rejected the demands out of hand on grounds of national sovereignty. Tillerson appeared sympathetic, noting in a statement that “some of the elements will be very difficult for Qatar to meet, [but] there are significant areas which provide a basis for ongoing dialogue leading to resolution.”18 He called on the parties to negotiate directly.

Even so, the State Department seized on the demand regarding Qatari support for terrorism as something it could work with. Tillerson launched a round of public and private diplomacy to iron out a compromise whereby Qatar would bend over backwards to close the terrorism file, handing the Saudis a plausible claim of “victory” while enabling the Qataris to insist that their sovereignty remained inviolate.

The result of the US effort was a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on terrorism, signed by Tillerson and Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani in Doha on July 11, 2017. (The agreement had in fact been under negotiation for weeks, preceding the crisis.) The memorandum, which the Qataris claimed was the first of its kind in the Gulf,19 laid out bilateral commitments for “increasing information sharing, disrupting terrorism financing flows, and intensifying counterterrorism activities.”20

But Tillerson was unable to sell the MOU as the way out during stops in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which was also acting as mediator, nor did he succeed in bringing all sides to the negotiating table. In August, the State Department dispatched retired General Anthony Zinni, the former US Central Command (CENTCOM) commander, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arabian Gulf Affairs Timothy Lenderking to the Gulf21 in an effort to convince the boycotting parties that Qatar’s agreement to address the terrorism issue should suffice to end the confrontation. In announcing the trip, Tillerson noted that Qatar had been fulfilling its commitments to the United States under the MOU, affirming that “we are committed to see this disagreement resolved, restore Gulf unity, because we think it’s important to the long-term effort to defeat terrorism in the region.”22 Despite high praise and high hopes expressed by Washington experts for both the diplomats and their mission,23 the two were stonewalled.

Tillerson, clearly frustrated, began to blame Saudi Arabia and its boycott partners for the continuation of the dispute. Just before another fruitless trip to the Gulf in October 2017, the secretary told Bloomberg Politics that “there seems to be a real unwillingness on the part of some of the parties to want to engage. It’s up to the leadership of the quartet when they want to engage with Qatar because Qatar has been very clear: They’re ready to engage.”24

Despite these discouraging developments, both the State Department and the Pentagon continued to press forward. Trump himself seems to have been persuaded by Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, through persistent efforts over a period of months, to perceive that Qatar was now acting in good faith and that US objectives in the Gulf would be best served by a unified GCC. In a call to Saudi King Salman in August 2017, Trump “urged that all parties to the Qatar dispute find a diplomatic resolution that follows through on their commitments made at the Riyadh Summit, to maintain unity while fighting terrorism.”25 The president praised the “tremendous relationship” between Qatar and the United States during a meeting with Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, on the margins of the UN General Assembly in September, and expressed confidence that the standoff in the Gulf could be “solved pretty quickly.”26 In mid-January, Trump was sufficiently satisfied that Qatar had addressed key terrorism concerns to speak with the emir by telephone to thank him “for Qatari action to counter terrorism and extremism in all forms,” noting pointedly that Qatar was “one of the few countries to move forward on a bilateral memorandum of understanding” on the issue. Like Tillerson, Trump underscored the importance of a unified GCC to countering regional threats, including Iran.27

Qatar’s vigorous efforts to demonstrate its bona fides as a strong partner for the United States has also paid dividends. In addition to the counterterrorism MOU and the full-court lobbying press, Doha has proved helpful on Iraq (pledging $1 billion for Iraqi reconstruction at an international pledging conference in February),28 hosted prominent American Jewish leaders on trips to Qatar featuring meetings with the emir,29 and continued a rapid pace of investment in the United States. By contrast, the maximalist position adopted by the Saudis and the Emiratis toward Qatar did them no favors in Washington,30 despite their own public relations efforts, making them appear unreasonable and intransigent in comparison to Doha.

Current Impacts

With US diplomatic efforts to achieve a lasting resolution seemingly at an impasse, the United States finds itself in an uncomfortable but not dire situation, at least for the present.

The impact on military readiness has been minimal. Normal air operations continue out of Al-Udeid Air Base, and coalition forces, including Saudi and Emirati troops, continue to work in the Combined Air Operations Center, which provides command and control for missions in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in CENTCOM’s 20-nation Area of Operations (AOR). Qatari and American diplomatic efforts have been instrumental in ensuring continuity of operations during the political standoff.

The United States has, however, cancelled some Gulf war games because of the stalemate, an indication of possible future effects on joint readiness and defense planning.31 Joint maritime operations conducted out of US Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain have been impacted due to the forced withdrawal of Qatari naval officers from the facility.32 And GCC military planning, never robust to begin with, has come to a standstill.

While the short-term impacts on military operations in the CENTCOM AOR are limited, there is reason for longer-term concern. Any confrontation with Iran will require clear channels of communication and coordination among allied forces in the Gulf. In addition, there must be some sort of understanding on mutual defense responsibilities should a major conflict break out involving Iran, the Gulf States, and the United States. None of this is assured at the moment.

In addition, a less-discussed feature of the political standoff presents a worrisome risk: the real possibility of military conflict between Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Qatar.33 While talk of war has subsided, the possibility has not disappeared entirely, and the theme continues to crop up from time to time in the Saudi media. Alleged violations of Qatari airspace by UAE warplanes in December 2017 and the “interception” of two UAE passenger aircraft by Qatari fighters in January 2018 have highlighted the risks of miscalculation.34 Should a clash break out, whether through design or by accident, the consequences would be devastating for Gulf security and Washington’s continued ability to manage conflict in the region.

It is also worth noting that Iran has benefited considerably, strengthening political ties to Qatar as it emerged as an economic lifeline during the boycott’s early days— just the opposite of what Saudi Arabia intended. Indeed, the dispute hinders efforts to “[counter] the spread of Iran’s malign influence,” as Defense Secretary James Mattis said during the US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue in January 2018.35

Other potential consequences, should the standoff continue indefinitely, include negative effects on internal political stability in the Gulf such the following:

  • The Qatari populace appears firmly behind their emir in the present crisis, which has become a source of national pride and defiance. That might change, however, if the impasse persists and the economy suffers severely. Engineering some form of “regime change” in Doha, which the Saudis and the Emiratis once appeared intent on bringing about, is unrealistic at present but likely remains an unstated desire of the two countries.
  • Saudi Arabia has worries of its own. Through the agency of the energetic Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, it has intensified tensions with Iran, become involved in a devastating war in Yemen, bungled an effort to bring down the Lebanese government, and launched the confrontation with Qatar. These mounting external problems, combined with internal political, social, and economic upheaval, could eventually call into question the crown prince’s leadership and unsettle the power structure.
  • The UAE, while relatively less exposed than the Saudis, has nevertheless taken something of an economic hit—particularly in Dubai and Sharjah— as Qatari investment and business ties have dried up.36 The costs in lost sales and other opportunities have yet to be calculated. Economic pain in the UAE stemming from the Qatar crisis may well have a political effect down the road.

Signs of instability in any of these three countries should be a source of great concern to Washington inasmuch as the consequences for the regional security order it has so carefully nurtured over the decades could be severe. The persistence of the dispute makes this more likely the longer it goes on.

US Policy Options

At the beginning of 2018, there appeared to be renewed urgency on President Trump’s part to convene a US-hosted summit with GCC leaders to close the basic political gaps between the feuding parties. The idea had been raised as early as June 2017, shortly after the crisis first erupted, but the State Department was unable to bring the parties to the table at the time.37 But this has not so far come to pass, although Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Qatar’s ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani came to Washington in order to lay the groundwork for the summit. With the Trump Administration busy with investigations, Iran, and the North Korean nuclear issue, only time will tell what becomes of the idea.

Here is where President Trump’s self-regard as a master of persuasion and the art of the deal could play a crucial part. By leveraging his personal relationships with the protagonists and pushing American ideas for a win-win solution—perhaps an all-GCC pact on terror financing, including active monitoring components—the president might be able to effect at least a long-term truce that would protect Gulf stability and security arrangements.

At the same time, the administration would do well to speak with one voice on the issue, insisting on the importance of Gulf unity in the fight against terrorism and the centrality of Qatar to that effort. Fortunately, both the State and Defense Departments appear to be on the same page, and unhelpful static from the White House has died down. Indeed, in April 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo carried a message to Saudi Arabia that basically demanded that the kingdom end the crisis.38 The White House should be encouraged to remain in sync with its lead foreign affairs agencies and press more strongly, both privately and publicly, for reconciliation between the feuding parties.

Finally, the administration would do well to engage Congress in forestalling stronger anti-Qatar actions, which would more than likely perpetuate the crisis in the Gulf. While Doha has managed by and large to rehabilitate itself with the US administration and some important external influencers, Congress is a different story. Considerable anti-Qatar sentiment, based on the country’s alleged support for the Palestinian group Hamas, is rife on Capitol Hill.39 The best way to head this off is for the administration to effect some sort of accommodation among the parties and satisfy Congress that transparent and verifiable Qatari commitments on terrorism financing are in place and working.

The confrontation in the Gulf has not yet wreaked irreparable harm on US interests or on regional security. But the longer the dispute drags on, the more difficult and complicated any resolution becomes and the higher the risk to stability. The United States would be wise to push hard, and soon, for a real breakthrough.

1 “President Trump’s Speech to the Arab Islamic American Summit,” The White House, May 21, 2017, https://bit.ly/2FBKaFT.
2 Brad Lendon, “Qatar hosts largest US military base in Mideast,” CNN, https://cnn.it/2Gim7fY
3 Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump), “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar—look!,” Twitter post, June 6, 2017, https://bit.ly/2q31jRK, and Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump), “ …extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!,” Twitter post, June 6, 2017, https://bit.ly/2EhAHS1.
4 Steve Holland and Yeganeh Torbati, “Trump scolds Qatar as Tillerson seeks to ease crisis,” Reuters, June 8, 2017, https://reut.rs/2uIGMaZ.
5 Declan Walsh, “Tiny, Wealthy Qatar Goes Its Own Way, and Pays for It,” The New York Times, January 22, 2018, https://nyti.ms/2uESQcY.
6 Gregory Korte, “Royal welcome for Trump in Saudi Arabia as troubles mount at home,” USA Today, May 20, 2017, https://usat.ly/2GznaaN.
7 Tom Wilson, “Foreign Funded Islamist Extremism in the UK,” The Henry Jackson Society, July 2017, https://bit.ly/2tR8FMt.
8 Simon Henderson, “Meet the Two Princes Reshaping the Middle East. But for good or ill?,” Politico Magazine, June 13, 2017, https://politi.co/2sUtPX7.
9 Anthony Harwood, “Saudi Arabia has played Donald Trump like a fiddle when it comes to the dispute with Qatar,” The Independent, July 5, 2017, https://ind.pn/2GvNK8z.
10 The Hudson Institute, “Countering Violent Extremism: Qatar, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood” event, October 23, 2017, https://bit.ly/2y0Mykt.
11 Joseph Hammond, “How the Qatar crisis became a priority in the Trump White House,” Al Arabiya English, October 24, 2017, https://bit.ly/2GOfg0j.
12 “UAE hires Bannon-affiliated company to spread anti-Qatar ads,” The New Arab, November 9, 2017, https://bit.ly/2GtPFKF.
13 Anita Kumar and Ben Wieder, “Steve Bannon’s already murky Middle East ties deepen,” McClatchy Washington Bureau, October 23, 2017, https://bit.ly/2lb1SK8.
14 “Qatar hires 7 US lobbying firms in 3 months,” Gulf News, October 14, 2017, https://bit.ly/2uJGcK2.
15 Heather Nauert, Department of State Press Briefing, June 20, 2017, https://bit.ly/2synkce. (https://bit.ly/2QnNaeY)
16 Ibid. As State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert exclaimed during the June 20 briefing, “we are mystified that the Gulf states have not released to the public, nor to the Qataris, the details about the claims that they are making toward Qatar. The more that time goes by, the more doubt is raised about the actions taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. At this point, we are left with one simple question: Were the actions really about their concerns regarding Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism, or were they about the long simmering grievances between and among the GCC countries?”
17 “What are the 13 demands given to Qatar?,” Gulf News, June 23, 2017, https://bit.ly/2y6ujdp.
18 Rex W. Tillerson, press statement, US Department of State, June 25, 2017, https://bit.ly/2tJnqhg.
19 “Qatar, US Sign MoU on Combating Terrorism Financing,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Doha, July 11, 2017, https://bit.ly/2sM7gTq.
20 Office of the spokesperson, media note, “First U.S.-Qatar Counterterrorism Dialogue,” US Department of State, November 8, 2017, https://bit.ly/2zv5e04.
21 “Two U.S. envoys travel to Gulf to work on Qatar rift,” Reuters, August 7, 2017, https://reut.rs/2FYCsGu.
22 Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, “Remarks at a Press Availability,” US Department of State, August 1, 2017, https://bit.ly/2H7RdHp.
23 Joyce Karam, “US dispatching retired general to work on Qatar dispute,” The National, August 2, 2017, https://bit.ly/2wjbD9O.
24 Nick Wadhams, “Tillerson Signals Impatience With China While Vowing to Stay On,” Bloomberg Politics, October 19, 2017, https://bloom.bg/2yuMRrW.
25  “Readout of President Donald J. Trump’s Call with King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia,” The White House, August 30, 2017, https://bit.ly/2EgWaLa.
26 “Remarks by President Trump and Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani Before Bilateral Meeting,” The White House, September 19, 2017, https://bit.ly/2sIwdna.
27 “Readout of President Donald J. Trump’s Call with Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani of Qatar,” The White House, January 15, 2018, https://bit.ly/2DCateh
28 “Donors pledge $30bn for Iraq’s post-ISIL reconstruction,” Al Jazeera, February 14, 2018, https://bit.ly/2Eh0M3Y.
29 Gardiner Harris, “In Charm Offensive, Qatar Pushes for a Comeback in Washington,” The New York Times, February 9, 2018, https://nyti.ms/2H4wrIo.
30 Email to the author from a former US ambassador in the region, February 12, 2018.
31 Rebecca Kheel, “US halts some military exercises over Qatar crisis,” The Hill, October 6, 2017, https://bit.ly/2q2Ue4t.
32 “Bahrain orders Qatar troops to leave,” Al-Monitor, June 18, 2017, https://bit.ly/2q2oVH7.
33 Tom DiCristopher, “Qatar crisis: Armed conflict and protracted dispute are growing more likely, analysts say,” CNBC, June 30, 2017, https://cnb.cx/2Eh7UgD.
34 “UAE Protests to UN Over Qatar Flight ‘Interceptions’,” VOA, January 18, 2018, https://bit.ly/2FR80O3.
35 Terri Moon Cronk, “Mattis, Tillerson Co-Host First U.S.-Qatar Strategic Dialogue,” U.S. Department of Defense, January 31, 2018, https://bit.ly/2FA2PRM.
36 Author’s personal interview with former US ambassador, February 16, 2018.
37 Josh Rogin, “Inside the Trump-Tillerson divide over Qatar,” The Washington Post, June 14, 2017, https://wapo.st/2l10MO0.
38 Gardiner Harris, “Pompeo’s Message to Saudis? Enough Is Enough: Stop Qatar Blockade,” The New York Times, April 28, 2018, https://nyti.ms/2jcqGxw.
39 Gardiner Harris, “In Charm Offensive,” op. Cit.