Qatar dispute exposes Washington's limited influence on inter-regional conflict

Washington’s hopes for resolving the Qatar crisis have dwindled in the past two months, US official says

US President Donald Trump waits for a meeting with Qatar's Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani at the Palace Hotel on September 19, 2017 in New York City, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski
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On the one-year anniversary of the Qatar crisis, the conflict between Doha and its Arab neighbours sheds light on two major issues - Washington’s limited influence in pushing for a settlement and the Trump administration's strategic inconsistency.

US regional partners Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut ties with the small Qatari peninsula - also a US partner - on 5 June last year.

The four countries, known as the Quartet, cite Qatar's support for terrorist organisations, close links to Iran and reneging on their commitments to the 2013 Riyadh agreement - including ceasing support for "deviant groups" - as reasons for the break in relations.

While the Quartet has, from the onset of the crisis, pushed for a regional solution rather than an international one, the US has continuously waded in, in an attempt to play mediator.

But a US official who spoke to The National on condition of anonymity, said that Washington's hopes for a resolution had dwindled over the past two months.

President Donald Trump had hoped to bring together Gulf leaders in May  at Camp David. In April the talks were pushed to September and may no longer address the deadlock in the Qatar crisis. US officials said that Washington postponed the summit because of a busy calendar.

But the Qatar conflict, which took Washington by surprise, is no longer a critical item on the agenda of US-Gulf meetings and has instead been overshadowed by the Iranian nuclear programme, the war in Yemen and other more pressing bilateral issues such as trade and defence.

"This is not a priority for us or for them [US]," an Arab diplomat from one of the Quartet told The National. "We told the Americans we can have low-level meetings with Doha, as a save face measure."

The issues, said the diplomat, are deeper - "and we don't see a change." Resolving the Qatar problem, he added, had become marginal and if talks were to take place they would fall under deputy-ministerial duties.

The four Arab countries continue to stand firm in their decision to boycott Qatar, saying they are willing to re-establish ties with Doha only if it adheres to regional and international agreements as well as their demands and principles.

The Trump administration's conflicting messages have obscured US attempts to mend the year-long rift. While Mr Trump last summer called Qatar a “funder of terror” his secretary of state at the time, Rex Tillerson, was praising Doha’s efforts in countering terrorism.

“The US role...has been inconsistent from day one,” said Marcelle Wahba, president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and former US ambassador to the UAE.

The president, explained Ambassador Wahba, is focusing on re-energising ties with the Gulf countries with a focus on countering terrorism, while the secretaries of defence and state were attempting “to safeguard US equities in Al Udeid [airbase in Qatar] and to push for a more united Arab front vis-à-vis Iran”.

Mr Tillerson’s frayed relationship with Mr Trump — who fired Mr Tillerson in March — undermined Washington role in the crisis.

“No one in the Gulf was listening to Tillerson on this issue and all we focused on was the US president’s words and tweets,” said Ambassador Wahba.

More importantly, she added, is the regional nature of the conflict and the "competing" visions regarding the role of political Islam in the Middle East. This makes it harder for Washington to mediate, as it lies outside the scope of direct US interest.

This, explained Ambassador Wahba, has to be resolved by the regional players, while “the US can only encourage”.

“They need to find a way to coexist and, in my view, it is in Qatar’s long-term interests to re-gain the trust of its Arab neighbours by moderating its regional policies,” she said.

Lori Boghardt, a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that US leverage had taken a hit after continuously taking different sides in the dispute.

"The US has swung not only from one side to the other in terms of who it supports in the rift, but in terms of how it wants to address the rift and what it wants to see happen," she told The National.


Read more:

Qatar puts its political ambitions ahead of its people, UAE's Gargash says

Terrorist activity in Bahrain falls after Qatar boycott, foreign minister says


The US is encouraging their Gulf partners to follow a number of policies that run counter to their own security interests, explained Ms Boghardt. This complicates Washington's efforts to end the rift.

However “there’s been more consistency from the US in recent months in terms of what it wants to see materialise,” said Ms Boghardt in reference to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to Riyadh and his close relationship with Mr Trump.

Mr Pompeo has expressed his desire to see the Gulf dispute eased and eventually resolved, saying that the rift benefits Iran. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has been learning to deal with the new status quo of the continued standoff, and in May, had all the GCC members agree on new sanctions against senior figures of the Iran-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah.

Although US efforts to resolve the dispute are ongoing, Washington's mediation will continue to be challenged if the Trump administration does not settle for a coherent position or come to fully understand the region's changing dynamics.