The Gulf crisis roiling the Arab World is generally seen as a dangerous escalation and diversion in an already unstable region. While the crisis itself is certainly unwanted and unnecessary, it is far from the unmitigated catastrophe that it has been portrayed. The effects and risks of the crisis are modest and containable, and the Gulf divide may even offer the United States diplomatic openings and opportunities—but only if Donald Trump is able to restrain himself and cease his unscripted and unhelpful interventions in crisis diplomacy.
The decision by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to initiate the crisis is likely a function of the mixed signals they have received from the Trump administration and their sense that in President Trump they have an impressionable and inexperienced leader who would be sympathetic to their positions on Qatar. In making their decision, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E seized on the shift in climate to test whether an erratic Trump might initiate a much more thoroughgoing break with Qatar, but prepared to pursue a longer-term punitive strategy of isolation if that unlikely result did not come to pass. While Trump’s undisciplined tweets and comments have likely affirmed those initial impulses, the restraining influence of key senior leaders like Secretaries Mattis and Tillerson and the imperatives of their respective institutions have ensured that such rash and potentially disastrous decisions have been avoided. The Saudi and U.A.E. effort was not undertaken with the naïve assumption that Qatar would capitulate to the draconian demands they presented. However, U.S. restraint also seems to have tempered the sweeping scope of the initial thirteen demands made of Qatar, with those countries now shifting to six broader principles, which they contend are aimed at combatting extremism. Nonetheless, the anti-Qatar axis seems willing to let the crisis play out if necessary.
While the anti-Qatar axis seems prepared for a confrontation that surfaces the Gulf’s dividing lines, the standoff presents a test for American diplomacy. The United States should be patient, avoid explicit taking of sides, and focus on the pursuit of U.S. priorities that may be more achievable in the wake of the crisis.
Both sides of the Gulf crisis, the Saudi-led bloc that includes the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt, and Qatar, are deeply flawed actors and much of the back and forth is an exercise in hypocrisy. Both sides, in fact, have legitimate grievances, and the United States should take the opportunity to quietly exploit the openings created by the Gulf rift. With the airing of derogatory information meant to further the propaganda war between the sides, the United States will also have further leverage to push for appropriate remedial steps.
A Complicated History
The rift itself is nothing new, and has defined regional political dynamics since the uprisings of 2011. The succeeding years were marked by major differences on political Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood, militancy, al-Jazeera and other related media, and coordination, or the lack thereof, of regional policies. In 2014, these divisions spilled over, and resulted in the withdrawal of ambassadors from Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., and Bahrain. While that crisis was ended following conciliatory steps by Qatar, the underlying divergences of worldviews has never been resolved. The intensification of this underlying conflict simply makes explicit the tensions that have long been latent.
Qatar is both pragmatic and ideological in the pursuit of its regional policy. Understanding the primacy of Saudi Arabia in Gulf affairs, Qatar has chosen over many years to pursue a policy of broad engagement and diplomatic mediation, bolstered by its fantastical wealth, as a step to make itself relevant as an independent diplomatic actor with useful connections and influence. Much of that was undertaken with the goal of ensuring that Qatar would not be beholden to Saudi preferences and priorities. That hedging and maneuvering also included cultivating close military relations with the United States.
But Qatar has also displayed an ideological commitment to a wide array of Islamist actors, often in reckless fashion, as has been the case throughout the war in Syria. In siding with Islamists across the region, Qatar believed it was setting the stage for the inevitable next era in Arab politics, which would be dominated by like-minded actors and afford Qatar a leadership role in the region. Those actions prompted concerted and at times furious responses from its Gulf neighbors, particularly the U.A.E., which took a rigid and activist approach to the Muslim Brotherhood and a dim view of the use and cultivation of militant proxies.
The approach of Saudi Arabia has varied over time, with the late King Abdullah’s sharp views and antipathy to the Muslim Brotherhood leading the Kingdom to take a harder line against Qatar, and his successor, King Salman, seeking a more pragmatic and flexible engagement with both Qatar and certain of its Islamist allies. In the wake of that shift, some Islamists believed that the recalibrated Saudi approach offered them a chance for rehabilitation following key losses and retaliatory repression. That approach, however, is no longer, and Saudi Arabia has once again realigned much more closely with the U.A.E.
The Trump Effect, and the Implications of the Crisis
That realignment, along with renewed Saudi disillusionment with Qatar, dovetailed with the new regional realities and uncertainties created by the Trump administration. President Trump’s persistent efforts to mend fences with the Kingdom and the lack of policy guidance created an enabling environment and a vacuum in which Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. felt emboldened to test the limits of U.S. responses.
That risk-taking has certainly created serious problems, but their fallout is manageable. Many observers have pointed to the potential negative impact of the crisis and have gone as far as arguing that the crisis “threatened U.S. counterterrorism operations in the Middle East.” But this is overblown. While the crisis may not be resolved in the near-term, it has not and will not have material impact on current U.S.-led military operations in the region. Much focus has understandably been put on al-Udeid Air Base, the largest U.S. military facility in the region, housing 10,000 U.S. services members and serving as the hub for U.S. military operations in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. Hosting the base was and continues to be a form of insurance and buffering for Qatar. Doha will do nothing to jeopardize that relationship by taking retaliatory action against the United States unless the Trump administration reverses course and undertakes radically different anti-Qatar policies. And while there have previously been Gulf liaison personnel at the base, their role was limited and does not impact ongoing military operations.
While the crisis may not be resolved in the near-term, it has not and will not have material impact on current U.S.-led military operations in the region.
It has also been argued that the latest crisis will damage the preparedness of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Anthony Cordesman has suggested that the Gulf does not need “princely ego trips, dead-end confrontations that….paralyze effective military cooperation….” But the limitations of GCC cooperation and efforts to develop military interoperability are longstanding. The latest dispute may further hamper those issues but does not fundamentally alter the already frustrating trajectory of those military efforts. Further, while there are plans to build an integrated ballistic missile defense architecture with significant infrastructure in Qatar, there are no indications that those plans have been impacted.
Others have raised the possibility that the crisis will open the door to deepening Turkish relations with Qatar, further opportunities for an emboldened Russia, and increase Iranian influence in the Gulf. It is true that Turkey-Qatar relations will likely further deepen, but that tightening of relations preceded the current crisis and the division it represents appears particularly difficult to fully bridge. The pro-Islamist Turkey-Qatar axis has been and will continue to be a feature of the region and at times a difficult hurdle for U.S. regional policy. With respect to Russia and Iran, however, there are real natural limits to how far improved relations can go, even if trade and other activities pick up. Qatar is a Wahhabi Sunni society with deep links to the rest of the Gulf, and a close ally of the United States. Those factors will limit the ability of Qatar to radically alter its relations and approach to Iran.
There are economic costs associated with the attempted isolation of Qatar, particularly as these societies and economies are interlinked. The negative impact on trade and investment is real, particularly if the conflict becomes entrenched and endures, but so far the economic spillover from the standoff remains contained.
The United States’ Next Move
While the United States should continue seeking to mediate and lower tensions, it should also prioritize policy goals that may be easier to achieve as a result of the current crisis. Perhaps the biggest such opportunity is the prospect of improved Iraq-Gulf ties. The new rifts create further impetus for Gulf rebalancing with Iraq as an alternative pathway to counteracting Iranian influence in the region. Following the disastrous U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Gulf States have looked warily at political developments in Baghdad and largely shunned the Shia-led political order that emerged. That was preceded by years of Iraqi isolation brought on by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Reengaging in Iraq and providing Iraqi leaders with another pathway to counterbalancing Iranian influence represents a much more realistic manner of engaging with Iraq. Iraq cannot afford negative relations with Tehran, but this is not an insurmountable barrier to productive relationships with the Sunni Arab world. It would also have the added benefit of undermining Turkey’s lackluster and counterproductive efforts to cultivate Iraqi Sunni leadership, which have become toxic in the eyes of many Iraqi political leaders.
Recent signals on this front have been encouraging, with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir visiting Baghdad in February 2017 (the first visit by a Saudi foreign minister since 1990), Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi travelling to Riyadh in June 2017, and Iraqi Minister of Interior Qasim al-Araji visiting Riyadh last week and concluding an agreement on border security aimed at increasing cooperation and intelligence sharing and combatting terrorism and drug smuggling. The latter meeting in particular is notable both for its concrete results and for the presence of Araji in Saudi Arabia—a man who was arrested on two separate occasions by the United States and who had previously lived and trained in Iran and was a member of the Badr Organization. The engagement with an Iraqi Shia leader with such a profile was previously inconceivable and represents a sea change in Saudi policy. That meeting was swiftly followed by the arrival in Baghdad of the Chief of Staff of the Saudi armed forces, General Abdul Rahman bin Saleh.
Dealing with Iraq as it exists, particularly at this sensitive juncture as Iraqi forces successfully prosecute their military campaign against ISIS, provides a genuine opportunity to reintegrate Baghdad into the Arab fold. With reconstruction and political mediation high on Iraq’s political agenda, the Gulf States have an opening to reconfigure Iraq’s relationship with the Arab World and blunt Iran’s efforts to project political power. Successful engagement on this front may also encourage other nonmilitary responses to Iranian influence throughout the region, something that is sorely lacking in the ill-fated Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.
Relatedly, the United States should use the current rift to bolster its de-escalatory diplomacy in Syria by seeking to further distinguish Saudi’s Syria policy from Qatar, which continues to freelance in counterproductive ways. Saudi Arabia seems resigned to the Assad regime’s sustainability, and its own shifts with respect to Syria policy should be used as a further inducement to current U.S.-Russian diplomatic efforts, which have received significant backing from Jordan.
The United States should use its leverage to press Qatar further on the well-known issues of terrorism financing and support to militancy.
Secondly, as its source of protection in the current dispute, the United States should use its leverage to press Qatar further on the well-known issues of terrorism financing and support to militancy. The agreement reached this month between the United States and Qatar on this very issue is a promising first step, but there is much more to be done on this front, including pressing Qatar to abandon its destructive freelancing in its support to rebels and militants in Syria. The issue has long been an irritant for the United States and some Arab leaders and officials, and has been raised as a significant problem in many of my discussions with them over the years. The United States should also seek to curb the outright sectarian demagoguery and explicit support for militancy that often airs on al-Jazeera. While the network has afforded space for opposition voices in the region, its Arabic coverage has long since abandoned any pretense to objectivity and has become a driver of negative dynamics. Altering the tone and nature of its coverage is a perfectly reasonable request by the United States and would go some ways in blunting the ability to propagate sectarian and militant viewpoints.
Of course, the other side to this conflict is often guilty of many of these same offenses, and the United States should use this moment to insist that the anti-Qatar bloc get its own house in order on these issues. Saudi Arabia, in particular, remains a high-profile target on the issue of terror finance. While such claims are at times hyperbolic, Saudi undoubtedly continues to face challenges on this front and could certainly do more to undercut regional militancy. The most obvious example here is its military effort in Yemen where its approach has empowered al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and provided the group room to operate and expand.
Another such example is the presence and fundraising activities of Taliban and Taliban-linked officials in the U.A.E. Diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks make clear that the issue has long been on the radar of American officials, and discussions with Afghan leaders have also indicated this as a source of some concern. This is but one example of many, and the hypocrisy on display at present could be an effective cudgel to insist on more proactive attention to these issues.
The rationale for these U.S. policy steps—reintegrating Iraq back into the Arab world and restoring some degree of regional equilibrium—is obvious and would be an important goal even if the Gulf crisis is resolved in the near-term. The success of any of these efforts, however, will be dependent on quiet diplomacy and U.S. neutrality. Clumsy and ill-conceived proclamations by an erratic U.S. president can only create opacity and encourage reckless behavior. But if President Trump is kept to the sidelines, the current crisis can be managed and potentially even exploited to advance American policy priorities.
Cover photo: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with His Highness the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani at the Sea Palace in Doha on July 11, 2017.