As Washington loses patience with the Gulf crisis, the Saudi-led campaign resorts to extreme measures.
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
Now, Qatar has a list.
On Thursday evening, news reports surfaced of 13 demands from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and four other nations that, if fulfilled by Doha, will resolve their ongoing standoff with the tiny Gulf nation. Among the more onerous demands appearing on the list, which may or may not be official, are that Qatar sever all ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements in the Middle East, downgrade diplomatic relations with Iran, close all Al Jazeera affiliates and several other Qatar-funded media outlets, pay an unspecified sum in compensation for loss of life and damage caused by Qatari regional policies in recent years, and submit to regular monitoring for up to 12 years to ensure compliance.
By producing their list of demands, the Saudis and Emiratis are hoping to regain the momentum that they may have felt was slipping away. Placing so much emphasis on Qatar’s alleged ties to terrorism, they calculate, will play well with the White House, if not at State or the Pentagon.
Yet, the extent and scale of the demands appear designed to induce a rejection by Qatar, and a possible justification for a continuation, if not escalation, of the crisis. The list, if accurate, represents an intrusion into the internal affairs of Qatar that would threaten its very sovereignty. Because Qatar forms a cornerstone of the U.S. military presence in the Middle East, America has a stake both in its domestic security and regional stability. So, too, do the emerging and industrial economies around the world that rely heavily on its liquefied natural gas exports, whose security would be imperiled in the event of a full-blown crisis in Doha.
As with so much else in the crisis, the line between fact and alternative fact is sometimes difficult to divine. The affair began on May 23, the date of an alleged hack of the Qatar News Agency, in which a news story was posted that cited comments purportedly made by Qatar’s Emir Tamim in support of regional Islamist movements and Iran. Soon, articles in Saudi and Emirati-owned outlets began to appear linking Qatar to a range of destabilizing state and non-state actors, portraying it as co-conspirator with Iran; one article in Al Arabiya even suggested that the emir’s palace was under guard by members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. On June 5, the Saudi- and Emirati-led bloc sundered diplomatic relations with Qatar and imposed punitive economic measures on the country—unprecedented in the 36-year history of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
All along, a key objective of the anti-Qatar campaign appears to have been winning the battle for hearts and minds in Washington, and, in particular, within a White House deemed sympathetic to the Saudis and Emiratis. One imagines that the articles associating Qatar with Iran and various Islamist groups across the Middle East were tailored with Trump officials like James Mattis and H.R. McMaster in mind—their hawkish views are aligned closely with those in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. That the media campaign against Qatar began two days after Trump’s visit to Riyadh may have encouraged officials in regional capitals to believe that the White House would take sides in the dispute.
Initially, Trump appeared to back the Saudi-Emirati position in a series of characteristically direct tweets posted on June 6 that suggested that Qatar was indeed a funder of “radical ideology,” and implied that he had discussed the issue with regional leaders during his visit to Saudi Arabia. But in the days since, the Departments of State and Defense have reaffirmed the strategic and commercial value of the Qatar partnership to U.S. interests. The June 14 confirmation of a $12-billion sale of F-15 jets to Qatar signaled that Washington was not about to abandon the country that has hosted the forward headquarters of U.S. Central Command since 2003. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also advocated for a negotiated solution to the standoff, and is well aware, from his tenure at ExxonMobil, of Qatar’s importance both to global energy markets and U.S. energy companies.
What may have spurred the Saudi-led bloc to send its list of demands to the Qataris via their Kuwaiti mediators: unusually blunt criticism from State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert, who challenged the nations to back up their hitherto-generic accusations with specific examples of Qatari wrongdoing. On June 20, Nauert stated that Washington is “mystified that the Gulf states have not released to the public nor to the Qataris the details about the claims that they are making,” adding that with each passing day, “the more doubt is raised about the actions taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.” These comments reflected a sense of unease bubbling up within parts of the U.S. government that the standoff was an unnecessary one that complicated, if not undermined completely, Trump’s effort in Riyadh to assemble a (Sunni) Arab alliance against regional extremist groups and Iran. Washington’s patience for the dispute indeed appears to be wearing thin.
If the list is accurate, it does not appear to constitute a promising basis for negotiation, even if several of its demands reflect longstanding concerns that have been expressed by U.S. government officials at various points in recent years. Al Jazeera is so closely intertwined with the Qatari ruling family, which has funded the network since its inception in 1996, that the attempt to shut it down represents a dagger aimed at the heart of the Qatari political establishment. Another demand, that a Turkish base that opened in 2016 be closed, would deprive Qatar of a key partner that it has courted precisely in order to diversify its regional security options beyond the United States and the GCC.
The apparent requirement that Qatar pays reparations and submit to regular monitoring inspections over 12 years is reminiscent of the demands placed upon Serbia by the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914. Those demands were made in the expectation that their rejection would form the basis for military action against Serbia, which triggered the chain of events culminating in the outbreak of World War I. While the strong U.S. military presence in all disputant states makes a similar conflagration unlikely, the signs that both sides are settling in for the long haul lends urgency to U.S. and Kuwaiti efforts to at least prevent events in the Gulf from spiraling further out of control.
Given that Qatar is unlikely to accept the conditions laid out in the list and that the U.S. government, as a whole, is unlikely to pick one side over the other, a key question is whether the Saudi- and Emirati-led bloc is prepared to go it alone in any further escalation. It may be that going in hard at the beginning offers room for compromise further down the line, but feelings on both sides of this dispute have been so inflamed that it is difficult to see either one backing down and risk losing face, even if Washington redoubles its efforts to work with Kuwait on a mediated solution.