Last week in this column, I wrote that despite the initial assessment about the full coordination between the U.S. and the Gulf states that cut diplomatic relations with Qatar, there may be a wide gap in terms of their approaches to this crisis. Thus, instead of there being common ground for further cooperation, this crisis could hurt ties between the U.S. and these countries. However, this is not the only confusing dimension of the crisis in the region. Despite the perceived full coordination among these countries against Qatar, there can be significant differences in terms of the priorities of these countries in regards to the crisis.
A diplomatic solution for the conflict can only be possible by understanding these differences and grasping the U.S. position and approach to this problem. Thus, what may be needed in the short term are negotiations among the various countries that put forward the 13 demands from Qatar in regards to their real common goal and strategic and geopolitical priorities. Furthermore, there needs to be clarification within the U.S. about its position in this crisis even before negotiating with Qatar to resolve the crisis.
The crisis in the Gulf between several Arab states and Qatar finished its first month this week. As of tomorrow, the 10-day deadline that the countries, led by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, put forward for their 13 demands from Qatar will end. Although U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a statement asking these countries to provide a list of demands that are “reasonable and actionable,” there is a general consensus among observers of the politics of the region that these demands in their entirety are not actionable. In particular, some of the demands are hard to understand, not only in the context of the current crisis but also in terms of the individual interests or foreign policy ambitions of the parties involved. To ask Qatar to pay compensation for the losses – which are not defined at all – that these countries suffered as a result of Qatar’s policy is just one of them. There is not an amount in this demand either.
Of course, asking Qatar to accept these demands within 10 days and putting forward monitoring schedules concerning Qatar’s compliance with these demands are also interesting. The vagueness and ambiguity of some demands have been interpreted in different ways by various people. For some, it demonstrated the ultra-determined attitude of these countries to curb the influence of Qatar in the region. So the volume of demands and the language demonstrated that the crisis may further escalate if Qatar rejects these demands. Of course, it is also important to mention that there is no “exit strategy” with regard to the crisis. However, for some others this list can also be interpreted as a confusion of priorities among these countries and instead of being a strategic approach to the conflict it can be considered a laundry list of things that can be negotiated. Thus, the non-starter nature of the list is interpreted as an effort to save time to strategize the next step after the possibly unexpected reactions from U.S. policy.
In fact, the question of who wrote this list has become very popular. Part of the issue may be the diverging priorities. On the one hand, there is a larger rivalry among different actors in the region. The tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia is probably one of the most significant among those. The nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran and the process of these negotiations, which provided ample opportunity for Iran to exert an immense amount of influence in the region through proxies and the militia backed by Tehran, generated a general lack of comfort and anger in the region against Iran. Thus, for countries like Saudi Arabia, the Iranian threat seems to be the most significant issue to be dealt with in the short term. Especially after Obama’s foreign policy on Iran, the Saudi foreign policy establishment may be considering this period as the best opportunity to find a way to stop the regional expansion of the post-sanction Iran.
There is a feeling that this stance, especially after U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, resonates in Washington, D.C. as well. Thus, by trying to sanction Qatar, Saudi Arabia may be giving a message to other actors in the region as well in regards to their relations with Iran. If the listed demands in the reports are in the same order that was handed to Qatar, the number one demand concerns relations with Iran as well. However, there are a few problems with this approach that need to be clarified.
First, despite President Trump’s endorsement of the position of the anti-Qatar coalition, both Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis are trying to find a diplomatic solution for the problem. They use their words very carefully while making comments about developments between the two sides. Second, none of the tweets or accusations that President Trump directed against Qatar was directly related to its relations to Iran. Instead, Qatar was accused of funding radicalism by the president, which is also listed in the demands. However, it is not clear if what they mean in terms of extremism is similar. Third, the fact that the sudden eruption of the crisis took place after President Trump attempted to build a coalition of Sunni states against Iran inadvertently hurt Trump’s own strategy as well, which could also hurt relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Fourth, some of the countries that want to sanction Qatar for its relations with Iran have fine economic relations with this country. If there is to be a differentiation of economic and political relations with Iran, the benchmark or standard is unclear.
Finally, since the eruption of the crisis and its aftermath, it has become clear that this is not the best way to stop the destabilizing policies of other actors in the region. Today, many observers argue that prolonging the crisis will benefit Iran more than any other country in the region. Thus, it is not clear how this crisis will help the predominant geopolitical concern of some coalition countries.
This article was first published in Daily Sabah on July 3, 2017.