Did Trump’s Riyadh Visit Trigger the GCC Flare-up?

President Donald Trump talks with Saudi King Salman at the Arab Islamic American Summit, at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

AP / Evan Vucci

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President Donald Trump talks with Saudi King Salman at the Arab Islamic American Summit, at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Both the United States and the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council have an interest in a quick political resolution to this crisis.

Just weeks after Donald Trump told Arab and Muslim leaders that his administration is seeking “a coalition of nations who share the aim of stamping out extremism,” its prospects have been seriously damaged by the reemergence of a conflict among members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Largely sparked by differences about political Islam, the tensions may have been escalated by the U.S. president’s own statements. Indeed, in a series of tweets early on June 6, the President appeared to claim responsibility for the conflict.

The dispute pits Qatar, which supports Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, against Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which take a much harder line against the groups. The proximate cause of the new contretemps was a mysterious speech allegedly delivered days after the Trump visit by Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad. In the speech, Tamim supposedly extolled the virtues of Iran, praised Hamas as the “true representative” of the Palestinians, excoriated his Gulf allies, and criticized the United States. The Qataris insisted that the alleged remarks were bogus. Participants in the graduation ceremony insisted that Tamim had not spoken there. The Qataris ordered an investigation, inviting the FBI to assist. But the Saudi and Emirati responses were severe and unmoved by Qatar’s denials.

A hurried exchange of visits brought the Kuwaiti foreign minister, Sheikh Sabah Khaled al-Sabah, to Qatar, followed almost immediately by Tamim’s travel to Kuwait. Three years ago, the Kuwaitis had helped cool Gulf tempers and restore diplomatic relations among Qatar, the Saudis, and Emiratis following an earlier dispute. But their most recent efforts appear to have fallen short. Nevertheless, the Kuwaiti Amir’s visit to Jeddah on June 6 demonstrates that the effort is ongoing.

Over the weekend, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, Libya’s eastern-based government, and the Maldives broke diplomatic relations with Qatar. Deepening the sense of crisis, the countries also closed their land borders and air space to Qatar, ordered all Qatari nationals to depart their territory within two weeks, and ordered their own nationals to depart Qatar.

The Qatari response has thus far been defiant. Expressing regret over the break in relations, the foreign ministry reiterated that the decision was “unjustified and…based on baseless and unfounded allegations.” The statement concluded by noting that the government is determined “to thwart attempts to influence and harm the Qatari society and economy.”

Nevertheless, Qatar is vulnerable politically and economically to the pressure being exerted by its GCC partners and has proposed dialogue to address the dispute. It is almost entirely dependent on overland food shipments from Saudi Arabia to feed its population. Reports circulating of trucks backed up at the Saudi-Qatari border may well induce panic buying in Qatar. The country’s flagship air carrier, Qatar Airways, has been forced to cancel flights, stranding passengers and embarrassing the government.

The cracks in GCC solidarity pose a dilemma for the United States. Undoubtedly, American policymakers are sympathetic to the Emirati-Saudi viewpoint on extremism, political Islam, and confronting Iran. Despite their policy differences with Washington, however, the Qataris have been careful to maintain close relations with the United States.

There have been suggestions that U.S. Central Command should move its forward headquarters, home to some 10,000 U.S. servicemen and -women and now located at al-Udeid air base, elsewhere in the Gulf. Doing so is improbable. It would likely take years and billions of dollars to do so. (To date, all costs for al-Udeid have been borne by the Qataris.)

Moreover, the United States has often found that Qatar’s relations with some of the dodgier elements in the region — from Gaza to the Afghan Taliban — have been useful in the grey areas of diplomacy, including freeing American hostages and negotiating with the Taliban.

Previously, when the Qataris found themselves at odds with their GCC neighbors, Washington mediated behind-the-scenes to press the sides to resolve their differences and maintain cooperation. In particular, the United States actively encouraged the Kuwaitis and Omanis to use their good offices to hold the Gulf coalition together. But it’s unclear whether the Trump administration is either willing or able to play a mediating role this time.

Both the United States and the members of the GCC have an interest in a quick political resolution to this crisis. For a ‘coalition of nations’ to truly succeed in confronting and defeating terrorism, differences in policy certainly need to be addressed and resolved. But GCC unity is a key pillar of U.S. interests in the region and a key component of countering terrorism.

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