The Cable

Tillerson Tries Hand at Shuttle Diplomacy to End Gulf Feud

The secretary of state will spend this week shoring up Kuwaiti efforts to end the GCC-Qatar showdown.


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will spend this week shuffling between Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar in a bid to end a deepening diplomatic crisis between its Gulf allies. For a quiet secretary of state with an aversion to the limelight, the Gulf dispute is one of the only foreign policy arenas where Tillerson has made a splash and stands as a litmus test for America’s neophyte top diplomat.

Tillerson’s new round of shuttle diplomacy comes amid growing fears the dispute between Qatar and four other Arab countries, entering its second month, is grinding into impasse. Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia have made nearly impossible demands on Qatar, who they say cozies up to Iran and underwrites extremism; Qatar refuses to act on those 13 demands and is hunkering down with the help of Iran and Turkey.

Tillerson will try to breath new life into negotiations to end the Arab spat, shoring up Kuwaiti mediation efforts that have been light on specifics other than pushing all parties to the negotiating table.

Last month, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and slapped a trade embargo on the small Gulf country after accusing it of financing terrorism. Qatar rejected a list of 13 demands the four countries submitted last week to end their punitive blockade, including cutting funding to Islamist groups, curbing ties with Iran, and shuttering the Qatari-funded global Al Jazeera news network.

The dispute threatens to hamstring U.S. cooperation with its Gulf allies and U.S.-led counter-terrorism efforts in the region. Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet while rival Qatar hosts a key U.S. air base that’s a launchpad for its campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, meanwhile, are also U.S. allies, especially when it comes to counterterrorism.

“The purpose of the trip is to explore the art of the possible of where a resolution can be found,” R.C. Hammond, Tillerson’s communications advisor, told reporters Monday.

Tillerson will be in Kuwait on Monday, while the rest of his schedule is up in the air until he returns to Washington from the region on Thursday. “The first thing is to check in with the Emir of Kuwait and map out what is our next viable step we can take,” Hammond said.

Tillerson’s Gulf trip follows his stops in Germany for the G-20 summit alongside Trump, Ukraine, and Turkey.

The administration is hoping Trump can leverage the extensive ties he built in the region during his tenure as CEO of U.S. oil giant ExxonMobil, the job he held prior to President Donald Trump tapping him to be secretary of state.

For weeks, the State Department indicated Tillerson would play only a supporting role as Kuwait took the lead in mediating the dispute, in line with the behind-the-scenes traits that have characterized the secretary of state in his first months on the job.

But Tillerson’s travel to the Gulf, announced only days in advance, signals his reluctant acknowledgement things could get worse if he doesn’t play a more active and higher-profile role.

“We’ve become increasingly concerned that that dispute is at an impasse at this point,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters last week. “We believe that this could potentially drag on for weeks; it could drag on for months; it could possibly even intensify.”

Hammond insisted Kuwait would still be in the driver’s seat on dispute negotiations, however. “The Emir of Kuwait is leading these efforts, our job is to make sure everybody continues to talk to each other,” he said. “What we’re doing primarily is listening and finding common ground.”

Photo credit: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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