Diplomacy: Unraveling a Complicated Crisis
Institute for Near East Policy
a diplomatic row erupted last June between Qatar and the coalition of Saudi
Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain, various efforts to resolve
the dispute have failed. In the past week, however, Washington appears to have
launched a new round of U.S. diplomacy.
the White House reportedly intends to invite all six members of the Gulf
Cooperation Council (GCC) to a May summit at Camp David. And on February 27-28,
President Trump held separate telephone calls with Crown Prince Muhammad bin
Salman of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi (the
leading emirate of the UAE), and Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani of Qatar. The
White House readouts of the three conversations were essentially
identical—each leader was thanked for highlighting ways in which all GCC
states "can better counter Iranian destabilizing activities and defeat
terrorists and extremists."
Trump then spoke with Egyptian president Abdul Fattah al-Sisi on March 4. This
time the readout mentioned "Russia and Iran's irresponsible support for the
Assad regime's brutal attacks against innocent civilians," as well as a
pledge to "work together on...achieving Arab unity and security in the
region." So far there has been no report of Trump contacting the fourth
leader of the Arab coalition, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain.
is the context?
Arabia is the region's largest oil exporter; the UAE is second. Qatar is the
world's largest exporter of liquefied natural gas and shares its largest gas
field with Iran. By virtue of its small citizen population of around 300,000,
Qatar also has the world's highest per capita income, and it has used this
wealth to carve out an independent foreign policy, for example inviting Iranian
president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the 2007 GCC summit in Doha. At the same time,
Qatar hosts 10,000 U.S. military personnel at al-Udeid Air Base, from which U.S.
aircraft routinely launch strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria.
are the key players?
two most important figures in resolving the dispute are the crown princes of
Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, respectively known as MbS and MbZ, and the de facto
leaders of their countries. MbZ has apparently taken the lead role on this
matter. On the Qatari side, Emir Tamim is not as powerful on the regional stage,
and his father, Hamad bin Khalifa, is not regarded as a significant player by
foreign diplomats in Doha, despite Emirati claims that he is crucial. U.S.
diplomacy is led by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James
Mattis. Emir Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah of Kuwait has also been laboring for months
to resolve the crisis.
is the dispute?
the most relevant differences between the Arab coalition and Qatar has become
increasingly complicated. Their historical enmity predates the discovery of
local oil and gas deposits. The current crisis also seems like a re-run of a
previous row in early 2014, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain withdrew
their ambassadors from Qatar for several months after accusing it of meddling in
their domestic affairs. When the latest rupture occurred, the Arab coalition
produced a list of thirteen demands (subsequently recast as six
"principles") and closed Qatar's land border and air links.
times, the key issue—particularly for MbZ, but also for Egypt—seems to be
Doha's reputation for allowing exiled Muslim Brotherhood members to live in
Qatar. Other demands relate to restraining Al Jazeera's often-inflammatory
satellite television broadcasts and ceasing support for terrorism. But the first
item on the coalition's list is all about Iran. Specifically, Doha has been
ordered to do the following: "Curb diplomatic ties with Iran and close its
diplomatic missions there. Expel members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard from
Qatar and cut off any joint military cooperation with Iran. Only trade and
commerce with Iran that complies with U.S. and international sanctions will be
deep are the differences?
commented this week that the crisis with Qatar "could last for a long
time," comparing it with the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Yet however serious the
dispute may be to the parties themselves, some of their behavior thus far seems
petty to outsiders. For example, the children's section of the new Louvre Abu
Dhabi museum recently displayed a map of the southern Gulf that erased the
Qatari peninsula. The museum described the omission as an "oversight,"
but the problem resurfaced just last week, when a map provided to Bloomberg
television by the Saudi state-owned oil company made an identical omission.
(Bloomberg offered an on-air apology a day later.) Meanwhile, MbZ has been
hosting peripheral disenchanted members of the Qatari royal family in Abu Dhabi;
one left in January after protesting he was being held against his will; another
was welcomed on February 20.
do reports of foreign hacking fit in?
Qatar and the UAE have used cyberwarfare during the dispute. At some point, the
personal email account of the UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba,
was compromised by individuals presumably acting on Doha's behalf. And last May,
just after President Trump celebrated Gulf unity at a summit in Riyadh, hackers
infiltrated the Qatar News Agency and sent out a story that was supportive of
Iran, prompting outrage from the UAE and Saudi Arabia. U.S. officials have
reportedly concluded that the hack was perpetrated by or on behalf of the UAE.
there policy differences within the Trump administration?
Trump's initial tweets about the dispute appeared to take Saudi Arabia and the
UAE's side, while Tillerson and Mattis seemed to regard the crisis as a
distraction from Washington's main regional priority: supporting Gulf allies
against the Iranian threat. But they now seem to share unity of purpose.
January, Tillerson and Mattis jointly hosted the first
U.S.-Qatar Strategic Dialogue, which was reportedly a great success. And
when MbS visits the White House this month, Qatar will be on the agenda.
President Trump may try to split him off from MbZ on this issue; MbZ himself has
been invited for a White House meeting a few days later, while Emir Tamim is
scheduled to visit in April. Whether President Trump can broker an accord may
depend on the extent to which the three leaders pride their relationship with
him and the United States. The proposed Camp David summit in May is unlikely to
happen unless the crisis is resolved by then.
the crisis amenable to negotiation?
coalition's demand that Qatar break diplomatic links with Iran is especially
thorny given Tehran's complicated relations with several of the parties.
Although Saudi Arabia and Bahrain broke off formal relations with the Islamic
Republic after the Saudi embassy in Tehran was attacked by rioters in 2016, the
UAE has maintained official links. Iran has a large consulate in Dubai, where a
significant proportion of UAE citizens with Iranian heritage live. Iran is also
the UAE's second-largest export market, accounting for around 9 percent of its
outgoing trade, worth about $30 billion annually.
Qatar's ties with Iran have been exaggerated at times. The coalition demand to
expel Revolutionary Guard troops is probably based on a false news report that
such personnel had been stationed outside palaces in Doha. Foreign diplomats
posted in the Qatari capital say that there is no truth to the allegation, and
that there are no significant military or political ties between the two
countries. Their bilateral trade has increased only marginally in the past few
months and remains very low. Now that its border with Saudi Arabia is closed,
Qatar has to import everything it needs via sea or air. Iranian milk is on sale
in Qatari supermarkets, but so is milk from Turkey and Britain.
there an Israeli angle?
has a stake in the dispute given its own concerns about Iran and terrorism, but
its relationship with the Gulf players is similarly complicated. In late
January, after prominent American Jews visited Doha at Qatar's expense, the
Israeli embassy in Washington tweeted, "We oppose Qatar's outreach to
pro-Israel Jews." At the same time, Israel used to have a diplomatic office
in Doha, and its passport holders are still permitted entry to attend
conferences in Qatar. Israel is also grateful for Qatar's financial support to
reconstruction efforts in Gaza and parallel mediation role with Hamas. Yet while
such funds are required to pass through official Israeli channels, concerns
persist that some of the money has been leaked to Hamas and similar groups for
the other side of the dispute, the UAE is central to what Israeli diplomats call
the "iceberg strategy," which entails cementing discreet ties with
Gulf states threatened by Iran. The UAE is the only Gulf state with an official
Israeli diplomatic presence, in the form of a representative office to the
International Renewable Energy Agency headquartered in Abu Dhabi.
there a domestic U.S. angle?
New York Times reported last weekend that Special Counsel Robert
Mueller was investigating Lebanese American businessman George Nader regarding
possible UAE attempts to buy political influence via financial support for
Trump's presidential campaign. Nader apparently received a detailed report from
top Trump fundraiser Elliott Broidy about an Oval Office meeting in which Broidy
lobbied the president to meet privately with MbZ, back the UAE's regional
policies, and fire Secretary Tillerson. Broidy has accused Qatar of hacking his
emails to get that report.