The Gulf crisis could escalate in the coming days, with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt tightening the economic screws on Qatar. They would be doing this with a green light from Washington, which is anything but a neutral mediator.
Washington shares the goals of the four allies that imposed a boycott and severed diplomatic relations with Doha on June 5, saying the moves were a response to Qatari support for terrorism.
“This administration probably shares the broad sentiments driving the Saudi and Emirati pressure on Qatar but at the same time doesn’t want to see the situation spin out of control or deteriorate to the point of armed conflict or an unmanageable crisis,” said Brandon Friedman, a specialist on Gulf politics at Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center.
A two-day extension by the four allies of an ultimatum that Qatar meet a list of 13 demands to change its policies expires Tuesday. A meeting of the allies to discuss the next steps against Qatar will take place Wednesday unless Qatar caves in.
Among the demands are that Qatar close Al Jazeera television, curb ties with Iran, close a Turkish military base and hand over designated terrorists.
UAE Ambassador to Moscow Omar Ghobash was quoted recently by The Guardian as saying the allies could force their trading partners to choose between working with them or with Doha. There is also talk of expelling Qatar from the Gulf Cooperation Council.
In the view of Gabriel Ben-Dor, a Middle East specialist at Haifa University, “The US will go along with anything as long as it doesn’t involve the direct use of force. The problem is that the Saudis and their allies are threatening, if necessary, the use of force, which is really out of bounds as far as the international rules of the game are concerned.”
Washington and Kuwait are leading the diplomacy. But given the increasingly intimate US-Saudi ties – which became even closer during US President Donald Trump’s recent visit to Riyadh – this is a classic case of the umpire also wearing the uniform of one of the teams.
This was apparent at a Republican fund-raiser in Washington last week.
According to the website of Sky news and other media reports, Trump said: “We’re having a dispute with Qatar – we’re supposed to say Qatar,” making fun of the country’s name being pronounced in two different ways. “It’s Qatar, they prefer. I prefer that they don’t fund terrorism.”
Trump has even taken credit for the Saudi moves, saying on June 9 that they grew out of the Riyadh meeting. On Twitter he has accused Doha of funding terrorism “at a very high level,” although his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, perhaps mindful of the large US airbase in Qatar, has been more diplomatic.
Friedman, the Tel Aviv University analyst, said: “The US would like to see Qatar back in the Saudi-UAE camp and that it stop sitting on the fence trying to be all things to all people. The Saudis and Emiratis want the Qataris to choose a side, to choose their side. And the US is sympathetic to that.”
While hosting the US base, Doha has at the same time maintained ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban, groups affiliated with al-Qaida and Hamas, in addition to having cordial relations with Tehran.
In Ben-Dor’s view, the Qataris would like to find a compromise solution in which they concede some points but not ones essential to their national pride. But Turkey and Iran are encouraging Qatar to refuse compromise.
“They can’t sever relations with Iran and they can’t close down Al Jazeera,” Ben-Dor said. “But they can tone down its propaganda directed against Arab regimes. They can continue expelling some Hamas and other terrorist leaders to show they mean business. They can make some gestures which are not irreversible.”
The US would like a deal that largely meets Saudi demands while enabling the continuation of the airbase in Qatar, which is a center for operations in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan.
The problem, as Ben-Dor noted, is that the situation is highly combustible.
“If things keep deteriorating and Qatar appeals for assistance, the Russians might come into the picture and the Turks might become more assertive. Things are just dangerous.
The region might be set aflame.”
The question is whether Donald Trump has the judgment and skills to prevent such a conflagration.