Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1360, (14 - 20 September 2017)
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1360, (14 - 20 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Qatar crisis grinds on

Trump’s attempt to mediate a compromise between key Gulf nations, Egypt and Qatar collapsed quickly, opening the door to angry exchanges, reports Khaled Dawoud


Qatar crisis grinds on
Qatar crisis grinds on

After three months of failed regional and international attempts to mediate a settlement for the unprecedented confrontation between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, on one side, and Qatar, on the other, US President Donald Trump managed to achieve a breakthrough. Yet it was short lived. It collapsed after nearly one hour over who expressed readiness to compromise and the party that proposed direct negotiations.

One day after holding summit talks in Washington 7 September with Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, who was considered the main mediator in the crisis until then, Trump conducted a round of phone calls with Saudi’s Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed and Qatar’s ruler Tamim Al-Thani, according to a White House statement.

On 5 June, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt announced they were severing all diplomatic ties with Doha, imposing a severe trade and transport boycott on the tiny but gas rich emirate for allegedly supporting terrorist groups in their countries, building strong ties with Riyadh’s main rival, Iran, and interfering in their affairs.

A few hours after Trump’s phone calls, Qatar’s Emir Al-Thani spoke directly for the first time since the crisis broke out with Saudi Arabia’s future leader, Crown Prince Salman. While many observers expressed a sigh of relief that one of many crises in the volatile region was coming to an end, their presumptions proved to be wrong.

As the news on the phone call between Salman and Al-Thani was first revealed by the mouthpiece of Qatar’s government, Al-Jazeera, the announcement was made with a twist that extremely angered the Saudis. Al-Jazeera, quoting Qatar’s News Agency, said that Al-Thani’s call was “coordinated” by Trump.

To make things worse, and in an attempt to put itself on an equal footing with the most influential and largest Gulf nation, Saudi Arabia, the Qataris said the “Emir welcomed the proposal of his brother, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, during the call to assign two envoys to resolve controversial issues in a way that does not affect the sovereignty of Qatar.”

An hour later, the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) charged that the Qatar News Agency’s report on the call “did not have any relevance to truth”, and insisted that it was the Qatari emir who proposed dialogue, and not the Saudi crown prince.

SPA said that this “clearly shows that the Qatari authority has not yet understood that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not ready at all to tolerate the change by the Qatari authority of agreements and facts. This is evident in the distortion of the content of the contact received by the crown prince from the Emir of the State of Qatar minutes after its completion.” SPA added that, “The contact was at the request of Qatar and its request for dialogue with the four countries.”

Thus, SPA quoted a Saudi Foreign Ministry official as saying that Riyadh decided, again, to suspend any direct contact with Qatar. “Because this proves that the authority in Qatar is not serious in dialogue and continues its previous policies, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia declares that any dialogue or communication with the authority in Qatar shall be suspended until a clear statement explaining its position is made in public and that its public statements are in conformity with its obligations,” SPA said. “The Kingdom affirms that the flounder of the Qatari policy does not enhance the confidence needed for dialogue,” it added.

Doha’s officials stuck to their version of the content of the call and claimed that the key reason why Saudis quickly decided to suspend the talks was the pressure put on Riyadh by Abu Dhabi and Cairo who were obviously not informed in advance of the late-night phone call between Al-Thani and Salman.

In their feud, the Qataris have insisted that they do not have a problem with Saudi Arabia, or even all of the seven emirates that make up UAE. They held the ruling family of the richest emirate of Abu Dhabi alone responsible for this escalation, trying to dig a split with the country’s second largest rich emirate of Dubai.

Abu-Dhabi’s Crown Prince Bin Zayed, who is second in line to become UAE president, has been a key supporter of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and the removal of former president and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi in 2013. The UAE considers the political Islamic group as a threat to their own security and has coordinated efforts with Egypt to confront Qatar, whose rulers provided vital support for the Brotherhood.

After key Brotherhood leaders were forced to flee Egypt following Morsi’s removal, many of them ended up in either Qatar or Turkey, headed by  Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who also strongly supports the political Islamic group. The one-time extremely popular Al-Jazeera turned into the Brotherhood’s mouthpiece, lashing out at the Egyptian government and providing a space for their spokesmen who consider Al-Sisi as a leader of a “military coup” against Morsi. The Qataris have also repeatedly attempted to exclude Egypt from the current dispute, saying this was mainly an issue among the six nations that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Since the crisis broke out in early June, both sides aimed at winning the United States to their side. However, Washington sent mixed signals, with Trump seeming to side with Saudi Arabia through his tweets, while the State Department and the Pentagon indicated they did not support this crackdown on the small nation of Qatar that hosts the largest military base in the Middle East, Al-Udeid Base.

However, in reality neither Trump nor US departments and agencies seemed to be in a rush to solve the crisis among its close allies. Although US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson personally toured the Gulf region to mediate a solution, along with key European leaders, Russia, Turkey and others, all ended up by stating that they left the key mediation task to Kuwait.

But Kuwaiti mediation has apparently came to an end following the joint news conference held between Trump and Sheikh Sabah at the White House a week ago. The four anti-Qatar nations issued a statement expressing “regret” over Sabah’s statement in which he said that his country’s mediation succeeded in avoiding a military escalation in the crisis. Saudi, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt said that the military option was never on the table in the first place. Sheikh Sabah also seemed to sympathise with Qatar, stating none of the 13 demands made by the four countries to restore ties with Doha should “effect its sovereignty”, a sentence always repeated by Qatari officials.

The quick collapse of the effort directly led by Trump contradicted his obvious confidence that a solution was near. “If I can help mediate between Qatar and, in particular, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, I would be willing to do so. And I think you’d have a deal worked out very quickly,” Trump told reporters as he stood next to Sheikh Sabah. “I think it’s something that’s going to get solved fairly easily. Kuwait has been really the leader of getting it solved, and we appreciate that very much. But I do believe that we’ll solve it. If we don’t solve it, I will be a mediator right here in the White House. We’ll come together. Very quickly, I think, we’ll have something solved,” he added.

While some analysts said that the first direct call between Al-Thani and Salman held out a hope that a compromise might be reached, the sharp exchange of accusations that followed will clearly require more pressure by Trump, who is overburdened with many domestic and international crises. 

At the White House Thursday, Trump was keen not to alienate his Saudi allies, especially after he signed an extremely lucrative weapons deal worth more than $400 billion with Riyadh in May. Trump said he would not tolerate “massive funding of terrorism by certain countries”. He added: “If they don’t stop the funding of terrorism, I don’t want them to come together,” referring to Qatar.

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