The dispute between Qatar and its four regional counterparts – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates – has entered into its fourth month with no end in sight. After severing ties with Qatar, the four Arab countries imposed a blockade on the small Gulf nation and provided Qatar with a list of steep demands that it must meet in order for the blockade to be lifted. Other regional players, namely Iran, have taken advantage of this crisis in order to form closer ties to Qatar. The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel sat down with Gary Grappo, former U.S. Ambassador to Oman, to discuss the possibility of reconciliation between the disputing parties, Iran’s budding relationship with Qatar, and the future of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The Cipher Brief: It seems as though Qatar and the Gulf countries that severed ties with it are at an impasse with neither side bending. Do you expect any reconciliation or additional confrontation in the short term?
Gary Grappo: Prospects for resolving this standoff in the near term are slim. There have been some minor actions taken, for example, allowing Qatar Airways overflight privileges in previously closed Emirati- and Bahraini-controlled air space. However, for the most part, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have shown little interest in backing away, and Qatar has begun to address the problems resulting from the economic blockade on its own. That has meant working with more hospitable GCC states, including Kuwait and Oman, as well as Iran and others. And, last month, a member of the ousted bloc of the Qatari ruling family paid a visit to a vacationing Saudi King Salman at his summer resort in Morocco, perhaps a deliberately provocative signal to Qatar’s ruling al-Thani faction. It still is uncertain how far the Saudis and Emiratis are willing to take this unnecessary confrontation.
TCB: Has Iran taken advantage of this situation to build stronger ties with any countries in the region?
Grappo: Last month, Doha restored full diplomatic relations with Tehran, returning its ambassador there after more than an 18-month absence and with a mandate to improve bilateral relations. Iran has wisely played this situation. Quietly, it is doing the kinds of things one would expect. For example, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani offered to open Iran’s air, ground, and sea space to Doha immediately and will likely continue to permit Qatar access to alternate routes for importing essential goods. Their partnership on the jointly shared offshore gas field is solid; in fact, gas exports, the Qatari treasury’s overwhelming source of revenue, grew by 7.8 percent the month following the blockade imposition. It’s fair to say that the longer the standoff continues, the more likely Qatar will strengthen its relationship with Tehran, if for no other reason than necessity.
TCB: Saudi Arabia’s government, led by King Salman and Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, seems to have orchestrated a string of arrests of senior clerics and members of the royal family in order to help the Crown Prince consolidate power. How have Saudi internal issues affected the Qatar crisis?
Grappo: The Crown Prince, since his promotion to that position by his father, is displaying predictable characteristics of a young and inexperienced leader by attempting to prove himself through seemingly tough but ill-considered actions like the Qatar blockade. That approach shows no sign of abating, which lends little hope for much-needed reason in this confrontation. Given the dissension within the ranks of the royal family to the young crown prince’s promotion, he will likely seek to maintain this image of strength and obstinacy.
TCB: The U.S. and Kuwait have both attempted to mediate the dispute – with little visible success. Is either of these parties an effective mediator? Why or why not?
Grappo: Sadly, mediation efforts by the U.S. and Kuwait have been futile. In fact, the crisis cries out for greater U.S. involvement, which could leverage the Kuwaiti role. Kuwait simply lacks the diplomatic heft, which only the U.S. can provide. So, a key American partnership in the Middle East, the GCC, remains threatened by discord from within. Yet, the U.S. seems unwilling to play a more assertively constructive role. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, perhaps too focused on redrawing the State Department’s organizational chart, has not been inclined to perform his most important job of being America’s top diplomat and engaging in this area of vital American interest.
TCB: It seems that the U.S. has managed to stay neutral in this conflict and still maintains ties with Qatar as well as its other Gulf allies. How has this crisis impacted U.S. relations with its Gulf allies?
Grappo: Washington still maintains good relations with Qatar as it must, given the major American military base at al-Udeid. And Washington’s relations with the other GCC governments are also strong. However, the weapons sales hold placed by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) will doubtlessly irk both the administration and the most affected GCC countries, namely Saudi Arabia and the UAE. But on the whole, US-GCC ties remain very good.
Nevertheless, we can expect that Iran will move carefully but firmly to strengthen its ties with the non-blockading GCC governments of Kuwait and Oman to elevate its standing in the Gulf. Washington needs to understand that Qatar will soon have no option but to turn to Iran. Qatar still hosts Turkish military forces and has opened closer dialog with Ankara, which has butted heads with Washington of late. Late last month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited several Gulf capitals, including Doha, in a reported effort to resolve the crisis. These should represent disturbing developments for the U.S. Again one must ask if Secretary Tillerson is listening to his experts in the Near East bureau.
TCB: Will Qatar return to being a full-fledged member of the GCC or has that bridge been burned?
Grappo: It’s hard to be hopeful when the U.S. seems to be standing on the sidelines and the two sides aren’t talking. Given the compromises that will be required, some very difficult diplomacy will be necessary to repair this rift. One is right to question whether this relationship, and indeed the integrity of the GCC, can be made healthy again. Shockingly, neither of the sides, nor the U.S., is taking the more fundamental and greater interests of the GCC into account, which does not bode well for the organization’s future.
TCB: What does the U.S stand to lose if this rift continues or if this crisis can’t be resolved?
Grappo: When added to the list of other areas where the U.S. has experienced diminished stature and role—such as in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Libya—reduced influence in the previously American-dominant Gulf and the concomitant rise of an Iranian presence will reduce U.S. standing and power in the region as a whole. A major U.S. policy objective for the Middle East, stability in the Gulf, is potentially undermined, especially with the continuing animus between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Ultimately, the ability of the U.S. to influence events and policies in the region is weakened.