Elephants in the Room
Why Trump Should Stand Down in the Gulf Crisis
The best course of action is for Washington to take a back seat to Kuwait’s efforts to negotiate an end to the Gulf impasse.
The blogosphere has been flooded with suggestions regarding America’s role in mediating the intra-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) dispute between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. President Donald Trump, in his tweets and press conference, has clearly aligned himself with the three Gulf states, who have launched a blockade of their small neighbor, as has Egypt, which has taken a strong stand in their support. Jordan has downgraded its relations with Qatar, at least four African nations have recalled their ambassadors from Doha, and Israel has openly sided with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and the rest.
At the same time as Trump has made his position clear, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and the emir of Kuwait have both offered to mediate, with the Kuwaiti gaining more traction in that regard. In the meantime, Turkey, Russia, and Iran have all jumped in to the fray to support the Qataris. So too have human rights organizations that are concerned about the impact of food and other shortages that will result from the blockade.
Trump has a point about Qatar: it has played too many sides in the Middle East for far too long. As long ago as 1990, the Qataris were flirting with Saddam Hussein, the Iranians, and the Israelis — while doing what they could to infuriate the Saudis, especially by means of Al Jazeera broadcasts that featured opponents of the royal family. More recently, Qatar has maintained good relations with Hezbollah and has openly supported Hamas. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are both opposed to Hamas, the three Gulf states have branded Hezbollah a terrorist organization — so has the GCC. Israel shares their position on both organizations. The Saudis and Emiratis also accuse Doha of supporting radical Islamists in Syria, and the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the Middle East, one reason why Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is supporting the increasing pressure on Doha. Trump has bought into those accusations as well, though the Qataris dispute them.
On the other hand, Tillerson is reflecting the views not only of the State Department, but also of the Pentagon, which relies heavily on the al-Udeid Air Base. Having negotiated with the Qataris for their contribution to its expansion in the early 2000s, I can testify to its strategic importance in the region. There is much to be said for Tillerson’s efforts.
Nevertheless, something must be done about Doha’s maverick policies. Given the divergence between what the president has said and what his national security agencies believe, the best course at this time is for Washington to take a back seat to Kuwait’s efforts to negotiate an end to the Gulf impasse. The administration does not have to threaten to leave al-Udeid; the Qataris know full well that this is possible. It knows as well that other Gulf states would be prepared to expand their own facilities quickly should the need arise. Indeed, the Saudis already have a major airbase that once hosted American forces.
At the same time, Washington should impress upon the Saudis and Emiratis not to humiliate the Qataris to the point where GCC-wide defense cooperation becomes a non-starter. Doha must be allowed to save face. That might mean ending any pressure to close down Al Jazeera, for example. The Saudis have learned to live with what is clearly an irritant, and they could continue to do so.
Similarly it may be asking too much to get Doha to break with Iran; Qatar is not the only Gulf state that does business with the Iranians. Instead, the key is to get Doha to stop supporting Hezbollah, Hamas, and other radical groups, whether directly or indirectly through so-called “private” donations. The Qataris should be ready to step back in this regard, for they have overplayed a hand that has long been very tenuous.
If Kuwait, with the backing of the United States and other Western nations can bring about such a settlement, it will represent a major blow to international terrorism while allowing a reconciliation among the Gulf states. It will also rob the Iranians and Russians in particular of an opportunity to create even more mischief in the Middle East. And that, in and of itself, would be a very good thing indeed.
Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images