The year 2018 was a difficult one for American ambitions in the Middle East. The Trump Administration moved the US Embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but provoked widespread condemnation, while the Kushner peace plan (the so-called “deal of the century”) remained as amorphous and distant as ever. President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, but neglected to replace it with a coherent strategy to curtail the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions. Sanctions on Tehran were imposed and rhetoric escalated, leading to speculation that Washington’s real agenda was regime change there. With the help of Russia and Iran, the Assad regime catapulted to the brink of victory in Syria’s ruthless civil war. The conflict in Yemen careened and caused more humanitarian problems. Human rights, including civil and political liberties, continued to deteriorate region-wide. The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October escalated into a full-blown crisis in American-Saudi relations.
Beyond these headline-grabbing developments, however, another was often overlooked: the continuing rift in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Qatar’s alienation from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that have led an anti-Qatar campaign within the council and outside of it. This ongoing problem seems likely to complicate several critical American objectives in the region, among them containing Iran, and may permanently alter the relatively stable Pax Americana that has prevailed in the Gulf for decades.
This ongoing problem seems likely to complicate several critical American objectives in the region, among them containing Iran, and may permanently alter the relatively stable Pax Americana that has prevailed in the Gulf for decades.
Washington’s inability, or unwillingness, to force a resolution of this dispute has been intensified by the increasing weakness of the United States’ international standing, a most disconcerting trend made worse on December 21 when President Trump suddenly and surprisingly decided to withdraw all American troops from Syria. His decision prompted the resignation in protest of Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis, itself followed by the departure of Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envor for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS. If the United States is to maintain or reassert its leadership in the Gulf region, it must effectively and forcefully address the reasons behind the start of the crisis and its continuation into its second year.
To be sure, as Qatar has repeatedly rejected the 13 original demands made by the Saudi-Bahraini-Emirati coalition at the start of the crisis in June 2017, the United States has expressed its satisfaction with Doha’s work to address American concerns. Qatar worked with the United States on terrorism issues and began a strategic dialogue with it, signing in January 2018 a memorandum of understanding aimed at “increasing information sharing, disrupting terrorism financing flows, and intensifying counterterrorism activities.” Back in June 2017, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson expressed optimism that the Gulf dispute could be resolved quickly, but soon grew frustrated with the evident intransigence of the anti-Qatar bloc. Efforts to resolve the crisis by two US envoys, former CENTCOM Commander General Anthony Zinni and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arabian Gulf Affairs Timothy Lenderking, who were sent to the Gulf in August 2017 to work toward a solution, failed to make any real progress.
The Rift Grows Worse
Recent developments underscore how intractable the intra-GCC conflict has become. Qatar announced in November 2018 that it was pulling out of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting States (OPEC) by January 1, 2019, allowing itself to set an independent course in the international energy market. As the world’s largest exporter of liquified natural gas and only a minor player in petroleum, Qatar’s move made good business sense. But it also highlighted Doha’s determination to free itself from an organization (OPEC) long dominated by Saudi Arabia and used from time to time to restrict Qatari decision-making. Doha’s move to leave OPEC may also have ensured that Iran, with which Qatar shares the North Field (the biggest non-associated natural gas reservoir in the world), will become its major international partner on energy matters, a development sure to infuriate Riyadh.
Doha’s move to leave OPEC may have ensured that Iran, with which Qatar shares the North Field (the biggest non-associated natural gas reservoir in the world), will become its major international partner on energy matters, a development sure to infuriate Riyadh.
In another sign of growing discord, Qatar’s head of state, Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, declined to attend a one-day GCC summit in Riyadh on December 9, sending instead his Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Soltan bin Saad Al-Muraikhi. The refusal to attend at the head-of-state level was widely interpreted as a signal of Qatari displeasure with Saudi dominance of the GCC and its use as a tool against Doha, as well as an in-kind response to the Saudi king’s non-attendance of the GCC’s 2017 summit in Kuwait, where the only two heads of state present were Sheikh Tamim and the Kuwaiti Emir Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah.
Ironically, the summit’s focus was to have been the need for Gulf unity in the face of the Iranian challenge and the threat of terrorism. Instead, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar used the occasion to trade pointed barbs. The formulaic final communique, which stressed the importance of regional unity in the most anodyne terms, failed to mention the dispute with Qatar (a point acerbically noted by a Qatari foreign ministry spokesman), and did more to underscore the rifts afflicting the GCC than to address them, fueling new speculation about the possible breakup of the organization.
Saudi Arabia, for its part, has shown no signs of backing down and is instead undertaking a major project to cut off Qatar from the rest of the Arabian Peninsula—physically and quite literally—through the construction of a 37.5 mile-long canal zone along the Saudi-Qatari border, part of which would be utilized for a radioactive waste dump.
Current US Efforts
The Trump administration continues to value Gulf unity and understands its importance for achieving key administration goals. “Gulf unity is essential to our common interests of confronting Iran’s malign influence, countering terrorism, and ensuring a prosperous future for all of our Gulf partners,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said recently. In particular, the US sees restoration of the status quo ante as a prerequisite to moving ahead with the proposed Middle East Security Alliance (MESA), which would bring together the GCC states, Egypt, and Jordan into a new political, security, and economic partnership largely intended to counter Iran.
Last September, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo organized a meeting in New York, on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly annual gathering, that brought together all six GCC members and Egypt and Jordan to discuss plans for the security alliance as well as end the continued impasse with Qatar. However, few positive signs emerged. Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said following the meeting that the GCC situation remained in “stalemate,” noting that the organization “is suffering from a sort of complete paralysis.” It was pointless, he continued, to try to advance plans for MESA unless the rift were overcome. Ongoing efforts by Kuwait to mediate the crisis have also failed to yield progress, and leaders of the concerned countries seem to have concluded that the political will simply does not exist to reach an accommodation. General Zinni and Deputy Assistant Secretary Lenderking visited the region last September in an attempt to tout MESA and gauge the parties’ receptiveness to a new reconciliation effort. But at the recent GCC summit meeting in Riyadh, Zinni said that “I have not seen any break in the entrenchment that the Quartet [Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, and Egypt] has had on this issue in terms of willingness to bring this to a mediation.”
The Trump Administration calculates that its backing for Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (MbS) following the Khashoggi murder will translate into new leverage over the kingdom as it tries to stem the damage to its international reputation.
Nevertheless, the Trump Administration has recently become convinced that the time may be right to strike a deal. For one thing, the administration calculates that its backing for Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (MbS) following the Khashoggi murder will translate into new leverage over the kingdom as it tries to stem the damage to its international reputation. Acting on this conviction, US officials have stepped up contact with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to try to push for a solution. They saw some reason for optimism in a statement made by MbS at an investment conference last October lauding the strength of Qatar’s economy, briefly interpreted as an olive branch to Doha; but this hopeful reading fizzled a short time later as no further signs of rapprochement were offered.
Despite US efforts, as 2018 draws to a close the intra-GCC conflict remains stalemated with little indication that an acceptable political solution is emerging, a war of words continuing apace, and quietly ineffective American diplomacy failing to make much of a headway. It appears that the United States may have overestimated its leverage on MbS in the wake of the Khashoggi affair: in fact, it seems to actually have much less influence. The crown prince is likely determined to avoid being seen as backing down in the face of external pressure, lest he be viewed as weak and invite challenges to his authority. Moreover, the Trump Administration’s efforts to shield MbS and the US-Saudi relationship from any fallout due to the Khashoggi murder likely convinced the kingdom there was little price to pay in its relationship with the administration for pursuing its vendetta against Doha. Trump’s own mounting political and legal challenges may also influence Riyadh’s calculation on the costs of crossing the president.
Regardless, the United States needs to keep a resolution of the crisis in the GCC at the center of its policy in the region. Key issues depend on it, including the future of MESA, the Trump Administration’s intended bulwark against Iran. Gulf disunity also strengthens Iran’s strategic hand in the wider region and provides an avenue of influence for Russia, particularly in the wake of President Trump’s surprising decision on Syria. Economically, Qatar continues to do well despite the boycott, but long-term economic impacts on the Gulf region could be significant, especially in terms of transportation costs and damage to the banking industry. The continuing dispute is even adding to the chaos in Libya, where Qatar and the UAE find themselves on opposite sides.
With the resignation of Mattis, who was one of the key administration officials pressing the case for Gulf unity, any short-term prospect for the US to put sufficient diplomatic pressure on the parties to end their dispute is very likely off the table for now.
Conventional wisdom would argue that if the administration is serious about its regional security policy, it would have acted much more forcefully in 2017 to push the parties together and insist on a reasonable accommodation to end the crisis, ensuring unity of purpose among its Gulf allies even if the parties continue to mistrust and even despise one another. That this has not yet happened is another indication of the instability currently afflicting US leadership in the Middle East. With the resignation of Mattis, who was one of the key administration officials pressing the case for Gulf unity, any short-term prospect for the US to put sufficient diplomatic pressure on the parties to end their dispute is very likely off the table for now. It may be that the GCC states will be sufficiently shocked by the sudden withdrawal from Syria and Mattis’s departure to put aside their differences, at least for the moment, in the interests of protecting their political flanks. But there are few indications at present that this is likely.