Trump seems to be have had second thoughts about supporting the Saudi-led campaign against Qatar, for now
By Abdel Bari Atwan
Donald Trump has intervened twice in the crisis that erupted between Qatar and Saudi Arabia (along with its allies the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain). On the first occasion, he tweeted his support for Qatar’s adversaries, accusing Qatar of funding extremism and suggesting that the country’s isolation would be ‘the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism.’ Later. The second time, he turned himself into a mediator, calling Qatar’s ruler, Tameem Bin-Hamad Al Thani, on Wednesday to offer to host a reconciliation summit in Washington
Trump’s call to the emir of Qatar followed one from Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, in which he reportedly affirmed that his country ‘seeks to achieve security and stability in the region,’ an apparent hint that the air, sea and land blockade that was imposed on the country may be at least partially lifted.
We do not have a full transcript of Trump’s call to the Qatari emir, but we can presume that he discussed with him the ‘payback’ for any US intercession to put an end to or – more precisely — contain the crisis. This man is motivated by money, and he views political issues through the eyes of a businessman, no more and no less. But he may also have been alerted to the risk of Qatar having other options to pursue.
In the fast-developing political crisis in the Gulf, there have been three recent developments which may have changed the rules of the game, and tipped the balance somewhat in favour of the State of Qatar.
First, the Turkish parliament agreed to send land air forces to the Turkish base in Qatar in accordance with the two countries’ mutual defence treaty.
Secondly, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif visited Ankara, amid growing talk of the possible formation of a Turkish-Iranian-Iraqi alliance to counter the Saudi-UAE-Bahrain-Egypt axis.
And third, the reported arrival in Doha – according to the Saudi TV channel al-Arabiya — of Iranian Revolutionary Guard units to train Qatari forces and enhance protection of the emir’s palace.
These three factors may encourage the Qatari authorities to reject the ten demands made of them by Saudi Arabia ad its allies, on the grounds that these violate Qatar’s sovereignty and constitute an attempt to subject it to tutelage.
Turkey and Iran’s implicit threats of intervention in the crisis could meanwhile prompt Saudi Arabia and the UAE to become more flexible and moderate their demands, enabling the mediation efforts of Kuwait and Oman to succeed.
Yet these attempts to ‘regionalize’ the crisis and pull it out of its Gulf context may also hasten the resort to a military solution if a political solution proves elusive. The Saudis and Emiratis appear to be in escalatory mood at present. This was affirmed in two media statements made by Anwar Gargaresh, the UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, stating that further economic ‘sanctions’ would be imposed on Qatar if it did not comply with the demands made of it, and that his country and its allies were intent on changing Doha’s policies rather than its regime.
We have been taught by other Arab crises – in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen – that it is hard to change a country’s policies without changing its regime. All these crises culminated in regional and international military intervention. This cannot have escaped Gargaresh and his bosses.
We are now witnessing a race between Gulf political mediation and military escalation, and between ‘regionalization’ and ‘Gulfization’ of the crisis – or either of those two options and internationalization. It is a hard-run race and the outcome is too close to call yet.
Qatar’s turning to Iran and Turkey for support, and its leadership’s non-rejection of the presence of the two countries forces on its soil, means that it is not prepared to capitulate or submit to tutelage. But Saudi Arabia and the UAEs threats of tougher sanctions do not suggest they are minded to back down.
So could another ‘Decisive Strom’ be in prospect, this time against Qatar? This cannot be ruled out. There have been precedents of Saudi military intervention against Qatar, some of them successful (the border standoff of 1992) and others not (the abortive 1996 coup attempt). So what outcome will be the outcome of this storm, should it be unleashed?
We have no answer to this question. All we can say is that that the ongoing Kuwaiti mediation, joined by Oman, and despite the obstacles it has faced, reflects a sense of alarm and fear of the consequences of failure
The prospects of military intervention are receding. The intervention of regional powers on the one hand and of Trump on the other could lead to a settlement that could defuse the situation without resolving the underlying issues, as happened after the row in 2014 when the Saudis and other Gulf states withdrew her ambassadors from Doha.
When the Saudi foreign minister reverts to referring to Qatar as a ‘fraternal state’, in the wake of a Saudi propaganda campaign that tore the country to pieces and insulted the honour of its ruling family, that suggests that the rules of the game are changing fast.