Written By: Najam-ud-din Shaikh
As I write this article on the 20th July, it initially appeared that despite Secretary Tillerson’s best efforts the impasse between the grouping of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain on the one hand and the state of Qatar was continuing. Tillerson’s aide, commenting on the efforts Tillerson made over a four day period shuttling between capitals and even concluding a U.S.-Qatar agreement to eliminate financing of terror, acknowledged that no solution had been arrived at and that the Americans expected no near term resolution.1 According to this briefing the Secretary had left “behind proposals with the “Saudi bloc” and with Qatar including a common set of principles that all countries can agree to so that we start from... a common place.”2
More recently however it seems that a via media has been found. Without withdrawing their 13 demands the combination of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt announced that at their meeting in Cairo on July 5, it had been decided that 6 principles should be proposed to Qatar. These principles, according to a briefing for UN correspondents by Saudi Arabia's U.N. Ambassador Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, included commitments to combat extremism and terrorism, prevent financing and safe havens for such groups, and suspend all acts of provocation and speeches inciting hatred or violence.3 Another conciliatory note was struck by the Ambassador when he said that “while stopping incitement to violence is essential, but closing Al-Jazeera might not be necessary.”4 In effect the 13 demands initially framed can be deemed to have been dropped.
So there is a good chance that Qatar will accept these principles as a basis for discussion and negotiation and the rift in the ranks of the GCC will be repaired at least temporarily.
What has been the effect of the stand-off and the cutting of ties between Qatar on the one hand and the Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt combined? It has pushed Qatar to rely on Iran and Turkey for food supplies and for the use of Iranian air space to keep its Airline operational. It had to cope with the return of Qatari nationals ordinarily resident in these countries to Qatar creating a major humanitarian problem. These will not be easily forgotten even when Qatar returns to the fold.
Who should one hold responsible? What impact does this have on the so-called alliance of Muslim countries with the USA that was theoretically cemented during President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May. In making Saudi Arabia the first country he visited Trump sought to highlight his interest in joining with Muslim countries to counter terrorism by such organisations as the ISIS and Al-Qaeda. But he also focused on labelling Iran as the source of terrorism. In his speech, President Trump said “From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds arms and trains terrorists, militias and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region.” Mr. Trump told dozens of Muslim heads of state, “It is a government that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing the destruction of Israel, death to America, and ruin for many leaders and nations in this very room.”5 At the joint press appearance with his Saudi counterpart Tillerson said, “Iran continues its hegemonic activities in this region in Yemen, in Iraq, in Syria, and its support of Hezbollah in Lebanon. And until Iran shows its willingness to be a good neighbor, I think is the words that were used by many, that shows its willingness to cease its enablement of the kind of destabilizing activities that go on, their payment of foreign fighters, their payment of militias to go into other countries and destabilize those countries, then Iran will not have a place around this table that was set today.”6
Clearly Saudi Arabia had achieved from the Trump visit what it had desired – a labelling of Iran as the villain of the peace and an American alliance with the Muslim countries that Saudi Arabia had brought together. It should be noted that what Trump claimed to have achieved in addition – Saudi agreement to buy $110 billion worth of U.S. arms and $400 billion in investments in the USA and Saudi Arabia turned out to be no more than agreements on paper. Bruce Riedel says, “There is no $110 billion deal. Instead, there are a bunch of letters of interest or intent, but not contracts… What the Saudis and the administration did is put together a notional package of the Saudi wish list of possible deals and portray that as a deal. Even then the numbers don’t add up. It’s fake news".7
It does not require much research to come to the conclusion that while waging an expensive war in Yemen and pursuing the vision for 2030 the Saudis are not going to have the funds available to make investments of $400 billion in the foreseeable future.
Why did it go further and choose to use the opportunity to settle old scores with Qatar. The answer to my mind lay in the encouragement they received from President Trump – an encouragement that ignored the close ties Qatar had assiduously built with the USA and which included hosting the airbase at which more than 10,000 American personnel were based and which was critical for the American air operations in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan.
It has now become clear that the current row began when the Qatar’s official account was hacked and aggressive statements were attributed to Qatari Amir. Ostensibly this prompted the June 5 severing of links by the Saudi-led group. A careful perusal of the reports published in the American media show that the hacking of the site was allegedly orchestrated from Washington by UAE Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef al-Otaiba.8 While he has denied this categorically,9 it has been confirmed by other reports that quoting American intelligence sources have made the same assertion.
Ambassador al-Otaiba has been over time perceived as one of the most well connected Ambassadors in Washington. His contacts with Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law and the man to whom Trump has entrusted the Middle East diplomacy are well recognised as are the contacts he appears to have developed with such Trump advisers as Steve Bannon. It would be reasonable to assume that he used these contacts to prompt the Trump tweets branding Qatar a terrorist state.
It is also clear that Tillerson and Mattis both have been strongly opposed to allowing these elements to determine policy and it seems that his tweets notwithstanding Trump has decided to give Tillerson the authority to determine policy on this issue. It is true however that Trump still cannot resist making statements that are out of line. In a recent interview to Christian Broadcasting Network, he underplayed the importance of the base in Qatar claiming that “If we ever had to leave, we would have 10 countries willing to build us another one, believe me, and they will pay for it.”10
He also suggested that he had differences with Tillerson but maintained that “Rex is doing a terrific job but he and I had a little bit of a difference only in terms of tone.”11
It is this mixed messaging that has created problems and will continue to do so.
In the meanwhile, we also have to look at the situation within Saudi Arabia. It does seem that there was a certain amount of discomfort at the removal of Mohammad bin Nayef from the line of succession. The royal family did get the approval of the appropriate bodies and as has been the practice in the past the family will stick together to ensure the stability they all need but it will bear watching as the new Crown Prince marches ahead with both the Vision 2030 and the war in Yemen.
For the time being at least it would seem that the plans for the Islamic army have either been abandoned or will be in cold storage.
The writer is a former Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to the USA and Iran is now the Head of the Global and Regional Studies Centre in the Institute of Business Management, a Karachi based University.
1 UAE orchestrated hacking of Qatari government sites, sparking regional upheaval, according to U.S. intelligence officials, The Washington Post, July 18, 2017.
3 Arabs Urge Qatar to Accept 6 Principles to Combat Extremism, Dawn, July 19, 2017.
5 In Saudi Arabia, Trump Reaches Out to Sunni Nations, at Iran’s Expense, The New York Times, May 21, 2017.
6 Tillerson press appearance with Saudi FM, May 21, 2017.
7 The $110 billion arms deal to Saudi Arabia is fake news, Bruce Riedel, Brookings, June 5, 2017.
8 UAE orchestrated hacking of Qatari government sites, sparking regional upheaval, according to U.S. intelligence officials, The Washington Post, July 16, 2017.
10 Trump says US has alternatives to Qatar’s Al Udeid airbase, The National Dubai, July 14, 2017.