All sides think they will be able to win the backing of the US for their claims
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in the region holding meetings
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in the Middle East hoping to ease tensions between Qatar and four Arab nations that accuse it of supporting terrorism.
There’s been some movement, but a solution seems a long way off.
Here’s analysis of what is happening and what could be next:
Remind us what is going on here
Saudi Arabia and its allies, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, are leading a group of countries that have cut ties with Qatar accusing it of supporting terrorism. The quartet issued a list of 13 demands that included not just ending support for terrorists and extremists – but shutting down Qatar’s al Jazeera TV network, severing ties with Iran, closing a Turkish military base and paying for lives lost through their policies. Qatar denies the charges and refuses to comply with the 13 demands, citing them as an attack on its sovereignty.
Both Qatar and the quartet are trying to win US support for their claims. Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi, UAE and Egypt all have close military ties or shared bases with the US. Each thinks it has leverage and hears what it wants to hear from the White House and State Department.
Tillerson is meeting separately with representatives from Qatar and the quartet, with Kuwaitis as interlocutors. This week, the Qataris have signed a memorandum of understanding with the US to combat terrorism.
Tillerson’s job of mediation is far from done. He went to the region to explore what was possible. He will leave better informed but a long way from brokering compromise.
What will it take to break the impasse between Qatar and the quartet?
One or both sides will have to back down. But the stakes are set so high that a face-saving climbdown for all parties is going to be hard to achieve. The quartet believes that a solution could include international (US and European) monitoring of:
- Finance – to stop monies reaching terrorists and extremists.
- Refuge – legal process against designated terrorists living in Qatar.
- Incitement – to ensure that al Jazeera and others are not inciting extremism or terrorism.
- Political support for terrorist groups – to ensure these groups are not aided politically by Qatar or from Qatar.
A significantly watered down version of this may be what Tillerson is aiming at. The memorandum of understanding he agreed with Qatar could be a first step. Even if it is, it highlights how much more needs to be done to pull these countries together.
Two significant factors mitigate against a quick resolution. One, most of these issues have been long-running regional sores or at the very least escalating concerns over the past few decades. To wit, concerns about Iran’s growing regional influence. Secondly, it would be wrong to underestimate the tribal nature of the culture of the region and the importance in that culture of saving face.
Are the Riyadh agreement leaks significant – and why would they have been made public now?
A source from the Middle East region with access to the documents recently gave CNN the Riyadh agreement – a series of pacts from 2013 and 2014 in which Qatar pledged not to support opposition in various countries in the region. They are significant for several reasons. The timing, right on the eve of Tillerson’s visit, amplifies the importance of the US role in mediation. All sides are playing to the US, all sides have skilled diplomats in DC who often hire cutting edge consultants to pitch and frame their arguments.
Leaking them this week could be an attempt to put Qatar on the back foot ahead of their time with Tillerson. More fundamentally, the quartet as a whole and the Saudis in particular believe that Qatar had been given a chance to mend its ways at the time of the agreements. That more elements have been added to the demands over the original agreement speaks to Saudi and Emirati frustrations that Qatar did not keep its word as well as to the changing regional environment. Iran is solidifying its place in Syria, it has growing influence in Iraq and has seen an economic emergence after the P5+1 nuclear deal. There is also a war in Yemen that Saudi blames in part on Iran, and Shia restiveness in Saudi and Bahrain to boot.
In the past few years since the 2013 and 2014 agreements, there has been an increasingly visceral anti-Iranian feeling in Saudi Arabia.
However, one of the biggest disappointments about the failed agreement was that today’s Saudi king, Salman – when he was still governor of Riyadh – was the principal royal who pushed for leniency for Qatar. It was him, according to a senior regional diplomat speaking on background to me, who said the Qataris should be given the benefit of the doubt and given time to make good on their word. That they have not is an affront to the king. In a culture where status counts, the rejection doesn’t get higher than that.
How much influence does the US have in the dispute? Did Tillerson achieve anything on this tour of the Gulf?
Tillerson has taken the first few steps and will no doubt face a barrage of pressure from both sides when he gets back to Washington.
He is unlikely to find a quick fix even if one can be found. He may resort to what many other diplomats do in similar situations the world over and that’s manage the crisis rather than fix it. Prevent its escalation and contain its fallout.
Is this a re-alignment of power in the region? What would the impact be on the region and beyond?
Since the Qatar crisis began, the tiny Gulf state has deepened ties with Turkey and Iran, both of which have stepped in to fill in trade and military gaps left behind by the embargo.
This plays into the core of the Saudi/UAE position that “You are either against us or you are with us.” That was the view of the Emirati diplomat I met; that eventually Qatar and its partners like Turkey will have to figure it out. Turkey, he told me, does far more trade with Saudi and the UAE than Qatar.
The Saudis and Emiratis do not see eye to eye on all their grievances with Qatar. Saudi is much more critical of Qatar’s relationship with mainly Shia Muslim Iran, for example, and is spearheading the evolution of a united Sunni voice in the region.
In part, this is a reaction to Iran’s growing regional clout and it’s a reaction to US failure to engage more fully in Syria. It also has its roots in the Arab Spring and a Saudi recognition that it needs to take care of its interests and those of its Sunni partners; as the Saudis believe the US failed to do in 2011. Saudi Arabia has also significantly bolstered its security forces and defense spending. In short, Saudi is more muscular and through the leadership of King Salman’s son, Mohammed bin Salman, has taken a stronger and more dominant regional position.
The Crown Prince is positioning Saudi Arabia for a future where he sees they need to have a stronger, more unified regional voice and, for right now, Qatar isn’t aligned with his view.
Has the crisis been damaging for Qatar or the quartet?
It has been damaging only in a limited way. Most people expect this confrontation to be contained without conflict. In that case the restrictions on food and other imports the Qataris are experiencing could be transitory and, given the high GDP per capita, they can be stomached for a while.
It is very unsettling for Qataris to be embroiled in this crisis, so in those terms it is probably harder for them than the quartet. That, of course, is what the quartet is counting on.
What is the likelihood of the crisis escalating into military confrontation?
In any crisis, military confrontation is possible. Saudi has a large army and has a land border with Qatar. Should they so choose, they could execute a swift military incursion into Qatar. But there is no talk of this publicly and any indication they were about to do this would bring swift calls to desist as the civilian cost would likely be huge. At this stage, military action could turn global opinion against Saudi Arabia.
Could Qatar lash out to draw more support to its side, could any side make a miscalculation or mistake? The answer has to be that every eventuality is possible. Again though, from where we stand today, military options seem unlikely. But should it happen escalation could be fast and the US, with Al Udeid airbase in Qatar, would be caught in the middle.
Two weeks ago, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said his government has given the United States a guarantee Al Udeid airbase will not be affected by this crisis. Such a statement seems to imply military conflict is off the table for now.