Courtesy Reuters

How Saudi Arabia Botched Its Campaign Against Qatar

The Costs of the Pressure on Doha

The diplomatic and economic blockade of Qatar by its neighbors has plunged the Middle East into further discord. On June 5, Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates announced a complete boycott of Qatar, accusing the country of aiding regional terrorist groups. However, the primary reason for the condemnation is Qatar’s relationship with Iran.

The conflict has rapidly come to a head. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) gave Qatar a deadline of July 2 for meeting 13 demands, ranging from ending relations with Iran to closing down the Al-Jazeera TV station. Not one of the demands was ever likely to have been met; in fact, many of them were based on false premises about Qatar’s behavior to begin with.

Because Qatar complied with none of the GCC’s demands, the gambit’s lack of coherence is being laid bare. Without a plan B, immediate escalation is unlikely to transpire. Instead, it is probable that both sides will go forward for the time being in a state of mutual diplomatic paralysis. The GCC may apply additional token “sanctions,” but neither side is likely to back down soon; the stare-down will continue apace.

The Saudi-led group has made missteps from the start, beginning with pushing Qatar directly into Iran and Turkey’s hands by cutting it off with an economic blockade and thus requiring immediate food shipments from these countries. That, in turn, has created significant commercial benefits for Iran in addition to further solidifying the Qatari-Iranian diplomatic relationship. As such, the blockade is unlikely to result in Qatar’s returning to the GCC fold. Rather, it will essentially affirm that the new leadership in Saudi Arabia has a penchant for overplaying its hand.

In addition to Saudi Arabia driving Qatar closer to Iran, its behavior has weakened the GCC—a body that is fundamental for regional stability and commerce. Notably, Kuwait is not participating in the boycott; in fact, the Kuwaiti emir has traveled throughout the region in a frantic effort to patch things up between the newfound rivals and preserve the viability of the GCC.

The more fundamental question is why Riyadh made such a significant mistake. To be sure, Saudi concerns about Qatar’s support for extremists are real, as is its desire to see Qatar reduce its ties with Iran. Ironically, the UAE has as close a relationship with Iran as Qatar does. UAE airports are closed to Qatari airlines because of the blockade yet remain open to Iranian airlines. The UAE’s relationship with Iran is tolerated because the Emirates, by and large, do not challenge Saudi hegemony in the region. Conversely, Qatar is viewed as having outsized ambitions and is perceived to regularly undermine Saudi predominance. 

Unfortunately, by speaking so forcefully against Iran and in favor of Saudi Arabia during his recent trip to the region, Trump appears to have been the primary catalyst for the blockade, when he could have just as easily used the opportunity to discuss the war on ISIS. The tough talk against Tehran clearly emboldened Riyadh and made it even likelier that Qatar will double down on its support of extremist groups and partnership with Iran and Turkey.

It also sent the wrong message to Iran. Even the Trump administration has admitted that the Iran nuclear deal is working—meaning that the Iranians, thus far, have held up their side of the bargain. Both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster have formally confirmed this. In an April letter to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Tillerson wrote, “This letter certifies that the conditions of Section 135(d)(6) of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (AEA), as amended, including as amended by the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 (Public Law 114-17), enacted May 22, 2015, are met as of April 18, 2017.”

However, if Trump continues to belittle and berate Iran, the day will come when it will cheat on the deal, if not wholly renege on it. Iran had curbed its support for Shia groups in the region while the deal was being negotiated, first because Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei needed to allow conservatives some sway once the deal was in hand and second because of Republicans’ general and Trump’s specific vitriol aimed at it. Iran’s support for Hezbollah (and Assad) in Syria, Shia militias in Iraq, and the Houtis in Yemen has increased.

Qatar, of course, has been inconsistent in the region. Some of its policies have been strategically sound, including its numerous investments in the U.S. military installations at the Al Udeid Air Base and Camp As Sayliyah, whereas other Qatari policies have been unsound, such as backing the Muslim Brotherhood to the maximum. However, it is worth noting that the Muslim Brotherhood is widely respected among the general populace in Qatar, which makes cracking down on this group difficult from a domestic Qatari political perspective. Some political elites in Qatar argue that allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to exist while maintaining a close eye on it is a strategic balance that prevents both domestic political unrest in Qatar and any potential violent terrorist activities by the Muslim Brotherhood itself. Saudi Arabia has understandably criticized Qatar for even tolerating the Muslim Brotherhood. But one can easily criticize the Saudis and other Gulf states for tolerating extremist groups and ideologies within their borders as well.

The bottom line is that further political instability in the Middle East is not in the U.S. interest, and the blockade is demonstrably poor policy. Time and time again, political instability has led to armed violence around the region. At worst, this conflict could result in permanent damage to Qatar’s relations with its neighbors and a thorough disintegration of the GCC. Moreover, a closer Qatari allegiance to Iran would result in a significant power shift in the region away from a U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, to a U.S. foe, Iran. That is the opposite of the result the blockade was intended to produce. Meanwhile, continued hostile rhetoric toward Iran from the Trump administration would create a disincentive for the Iranian elite to maintain compliance with the deal. Were the White House to continue fomenting hostilities between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, there may also be a loss of domestic political support in Qatar for maintaining the U.S. military bases, which have proven integral to U.S. counterterrorism operations in the Middle East.

The best hope for Saudi Arabia and its allies is that some face-saving resolution to the conflict can be found. Maintaining the status quo is an untenable way to achieve Saudi strategic objectives and will continue to alienate Qatar and drive multiple wedges in the GCC. Without an immediate escalation of the GCC crisis, there is still ample room for diplomacy to work toward a resolution. A face-saving deal would likely involve Qatar privately committing to reduce its support of the Muslim Brotherhood and its ilk, with the rest of the GCC restoring economic ties. But such an outcome is likely to take some time to emerge; although it makes eminent sense for both sides to compromise, there is no obvious off-ramp toward such a mutually beneficial move.

Still, with 11,000 U.S. troops in Qatar, from which the United States runs the ISIS operation, it behooves the Trump administration to help broker such a compromise. U.S. Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has now placed a hold on future arms sales to the GCC. Trump would be wise to follow suit, cease holding forth on the dispute, and move on to defeating ISIS and ending the Syrian civil war.

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