Hussain Abdul Hussain - Washington
At the 2015 Camp David summit, in which former President Barack Obama hosted heads of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), one leader complained of Libya’s instability and ongoing civil war. “The solution is here in the room,” Obama responded.
Since the downfall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and his regime in October 2011, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates had been supporting opposing parties.
Doha sponsored revolutionary groups, many of which called themselves Islamist, but not necessarily radical or connected to al-Qaeda or Daesh. The U.A.E., for its part, invested in the remnants of the Gaddafi army, headed by Khalifa Haftar, a former general who lived in exile in America for decades.
The Libyan fault line extended throughout the Arab world, especially in countries whose governments had collapsed under pressure from the popular rallies known as the Arab Spring.
In Tunisia, Qatar supported the toppling of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Saudi Arabia offered the toppled dictator a retirement home.
In Egypt, Qatar supported the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak. The U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia opposed the removal of Mubarak.
Only in Syria did the Saudis and Qataris seem to be on the same side, though not on the same team, with each country sponsoring its own set of rebel factions. Parting ways with Saudi Arabia, the Emirates secretly supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
On Iran, the biggest player in the region, Qatar was in harmony with other GCC members, though Doha was closer to Abu Dhabi than Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia perceives itself as the leader of Arab countries, and sees Iran as its arch rival. Smaller countries, such as Qatar, the U.A.E. and Kuwait behave differently toward Tehran.
Realizing that they are the “small kid on the block,” each one of the small oil-rich nations employ a balancing act. They stick close to Riyadh, but make sure not to enrage Tehran.
Bahrain is the only small GCC state to fully take Saudi side. The Bahrainis feel Iran is an existential threat to their kingdom. Iranian officials have occasionally expressed sentiments that the island kingdom was just another Iranian province.
The regional disagreement between Qatar on the one hand and Saudi and the Emirates on the other would have kept simmering on the back burner, had it not been for the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president.
Trump gave the Israelis hope that, on his watch, they could launch a charm offensive toward the Saudis and the Emiratis, and maybe conclude peace deals with them.
If such deal was ever signed, it would be a breach of the traditional Arab solidarity behind the Palestinians. The Arabs have always used their boycott of Israel as leverage, telling Tel Aviv that peace with them, with all the economic advantages that Israel can collect, is only possible if the Palestinians are given the peace treaty they crave.
Trump’s first foreign trip was choreographed along these lines, making Saudi Arabia the first foreign nation he ever visits, ahead of traditional allies such as Canada, the U.K., France or Germany.
From Riyadh, Trump flew to Tel Aviv, where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received him by saying that he aspired for the day when an Israeli PM would fly from Saudi to Israel, just like Trump had done.
Now we know that during his trip to Saudi Arabia, Trump made the Gulf-Israel peace his priority. It seems that Doha dissented and refused to consider GCC peace with Israel before the Palestinians.
Shortly after, and seemingly out of the blue, Saudi and Emirati media reported that Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani had delivered remarks in which he considered standing up to Iran a fool’s errand.
Now we know that the source of this statement was a hacked website of the Qatari News Agency. The Washington Post and NBC quoted U.S. officials as saying that they believe Emirati officials ordered the hack.
Whatever the spark was, it unleashed preexisting animosities. A Saudi, U.A.E., Bahraini and Egyptian front immediately formed and announced it was cutting ties with Qatar.
The front tried to make other nations follow suit, and was successful in only getting a handful of lightweight countries on board. Even Jordan, one of Saudi Arabia’s close allies, remained on the fence; it recalled its ambassador, but kept its embassy in Doha open.
Perhaps the step that affected Qatar the most was the closure of its only border crossing with Saudi Arabia, through which Doha imported 40 percent of its commodities. Shortly after the closure, Qatar rerouted its trade routes in such a way that looks to have made it immune to closure.
Doha contained the blitzkrieg offensive and weathered it. The Saudi-U.A.E. front sent Qatar a list of 13 demands, including the shutting down of the Al-Jazeera satellite channel, downgrading ties with Iran, and banning some Egyptian and Palestinian nationals from Doha, on account of their membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, a group the U.A.E.-led front considers to be terrorist.
The deadline for the demands passed, with Doha countering by saying that if it were to downgrade ties with Iran, then the U.A.E. should do so too.
Qatar did not leave its offenders space to save face. Shortly after, with Kuwait waging mediation, the U.A.E.-Saudi front cut its demands by half, asking that Doha accept six points that were agreed on between the contending parties in 2014, also after Kuwaiti mediation.
This time Qatar agreed to restore the 2014 agreement, but had a demand of its own. Doha was taken by surprise and heard of the U.A.E.-Saudi cutting of ties in the news. Doha wanted guarantees that such an offensive would not be repeated in the future, and that -- should disagreements arise -- GCC members can first try bilateral channels or even take up the issues with the GCC council.
Doha was not the only capital caught by surprise when the crisis broke out. Washington was also. In the first two weeks, America showed the confusion that has become a staple of the Trump administration.
While the Washington establishment -- such as the State and Defense Departments plus security agencies -- insisted that U.S. ties with Qatar were and should remain strong, Trump tweeted and gave statements in which he blamed Doha for funding terrorism.
Now we know that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was once turned down when applying for a Qatari loan for his real-estate projects. Perhaps this caused a personal vendetta that made Kushner prevail on his father-in-law to offend Qatar.
But it did not take long for Trump to fall in line behind the rest of Washington, which was now not only supporting Qatar, but attacking the U.A.E.-Saudi front. In addition to Washington, Qatar could count on its friends around the world, such as in London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow and Ankara.
To make it worse for its offenders, Doha announced it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Washington to further strengthen its efforts to counter terrorism and the funding thereof. Now the U.A.E.-Saudi front had few excuses left to keep on pushing against Qatar.
The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, appeared on television to address the nation. He said his country was ready to make up with its fellow GCC members, but was also able to withstand their ongoing embargo.
The Saudis and Emiratis did not reciprocate, and instead seem to have doubled down on their offensive as their media outlets continued targeting Qatar, while the anti-Qatar ads that they sponsor on U.S. networks increased drastically.
For an observer, the situation looks like a stalemate as each party adjusts to a new reality of living without the other. Yet it might be more pressing for the U.A.E.-Saudi front to show results because, after all, they were the ones launching the punitive offensive against Qatar, an offensive that does not seem to be going the way the offenders initially intended.
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