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Is ending the Saudi-led blockade on Qatar now the right answer?

Donald Trump has bungled the intra-Gulf Cooperation Council dispute so badly that perhaps it might be a good idea to wait for a potential Biden administration to pick up the pieces.

Analysis | Middle East

Speaking in Qatar after a meeting with the foreign minister, U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Brian Hook said, “The dispute has continued for too long and it ultimately harms our shared regional interests in stability, prosperity and security. Bringing an end to this dispute really will advance the collective interests of all the parties to this conflict.”

Hook was referring to the standoff between Qatar and a coalition of Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, that is now entering its fourth year. For much of that time, the United States, along with Kuwait, has been trying to mediate a resolution of the dispute. But, as with most of the Trump administration’s efforts at diplomacy, this one has been a failure.

In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt severed ties with Qatar and ended all travel there by land, sea, or air from their territories. Ironically, that meant that Americans traveling to Qatar often had to cross into Iranian airspace to get there. Iran benefits from flights having to use their airspace, with one report estimating that it receives some $133 million per year in overflight fees. That doesn’t line up well with the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy.

What Hook failed to mention is that the United States bears great responsibility for this standoff. It is the direct result of Donald Trump’s complete ignorance of the politics of the Persian Gulf, his refusal to take his job seriously and accept briefings and preparation from experts, and the ease with which a touch of flattery can convince him of almost anything.

In 2017, Trump made Saudi Arabia his first foreign destination as president, even before Israel (or Canada, as is traditionally the case). The Saudi royal family not only welcomed him like a king, but they regaled him with tales of Qatari perfidy. They told him of Qatar’s support for “terrorism,” an accusation that then-Republican Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Corker responded to by saying, "The amount of support for terrorism by Saudi Arabia dwarfs what Qatar is doing." It’s a measure of how far off the ranch Trump had wandered that Corker made this comment despite the fact that he had received campaign donations from Saudi lobbyists.

Trump gave the Saudis a green light to confront Qatar, and the blockade was the result, with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt supported by the Maldives and parts of the fractured governments of Libya and Yemen.

Before long, Trump lost interest in Qatar, and was convinced by his staff that allowing the Saudis and Emiratis to isolate their wealthy neighbor was not in U.S. interests. But undoing this foolish step was quite a bit harder than initiating it.

Divergent interests

The intervening years of diplomacy have failed to produce results. At the root, this is due to the fact that the Saudi demands on Qatar would take most of Qatar’s tools for competing with Saudi Arabia away while giving Qatar nothing but relief from a blockade that, while inconvenient, the wealthy emirate has the resources to withstand. Eventually, the Trump administration realized what was obvious to the Gulf states and they accepted that they would have to try to dismantle the blockade one piece at a time. The U.S. and Kuwait have focused on relieving the air blockade and, while that has also proven unsuccessful thus far, there has at least been progress, demonstrating that there is some hope down that road.

The 13 demands the Saudi-led coalition placed on Qatar boil down to three key points: they want the Qataris to sever relations with Iran; stop supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and other, similar groups; and shut down popular regional media sources under Qatari patronage, chiefly Al Jazeera. While Qatar is not nearly the regional power that Saudi Arabia is, what influence it has comes from the use of their enormous wealth in these very ways.

Even setting aside the Trump administration’s disdain for diplomacy, the circumstances here make an agreement difficult. There is little room for compromise on the Saudi demands; they are absolute conditions, which can either be granted or refused, and Qatar has little reason to grant such great favors. The Saudis might be willing to return to the status quo ante but doing so means the humiliating admission that their attempt to discipline Qatar was a complete failure.

Trump’s wrong direction

Hook’s sudden realization that the U.S. has a strong interest in ending the Gulf stalemate raises some difficult questions for those advocating for a more moderate, peaceful U.S. approach in the Gulf.

Trump’s blunder back in 2017 was a true “own goal,” needlessly opening the door to a diplomatic row that frustrated other ambitions. Qatar has long been a thorn in the Saudi side, pushing the boundaries of diplomacy, and allowing Al Jazeera and other news sources to harshly criticize the Saudis and other competitors, while, naturally, keeping a tight rein on what the news sources said about themselves. But previous U.S. administrations had worked to maintain stability in the Gulf, so the disparate states could all work together on U.S. regional initiatives and policies.

But Trump blew that apart. Qatar, which houses the largest American military base in the region, was cut off from the U.S.’s key allies. That put an obstacle in the way of a more militant stance against Iran, which the Saudis had hoped would end with sufficient pressure to open the door to regime change in the Islamic Republic.

Indeed, this is precisely why Hook wants to get this resolved, to unite the Gulf Arab states against Iran. But even the limited deal the U.S. managed to broker between the Saudis and Qatar earlier this month was put on hold when the UAE intervened and asked the Saudis to hold off on the agreement.

This opens the question of whether resolving this stalemate is in the best interests of peace in the Gulf. Trump wants to amplify his failed maximum pressure strategy, plus he desperately needs a win as he plummets in the polls over his bumbling of the coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter protests.

It’s important to note that many citizens of the Gulf states are impacted by the blockade, which interferes with normal travel for business and other reasons.

Qatar could also play a vital role, with similarly moderate states like Oman and Kuwait, in opening dialogue between the Gulf Arab countries and Iran. Indeed, this was the hope represented by the Iran nuclear deal that seems all but a distant memory. In President Barack Obama’s more positive visions of the deal’s impact, it would have led to Iran rejoining the “community of nations.” States that have relationships with both Iran and the Saudis, like Qatar, would have to play a key role in building such a future.

But that is not where Trump hopes to go, and it is unclear what direction a Joe Biden presidency would take with Iran. It might be better for this stalemate to continue until we can be sure that Qatar would be free to help moderate the approach to Iran, rather than to solidify the forces arrayed against it.

Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook addresses reporters at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on December 5, 2019. [State Department photo by Freddie Everett]
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