There is no choice but to contain the crisis with Qatar because any further deterioration will force not just Qatar and its people, but the entire Gulf region and its citizens and expats to pay a heavy price. Doha’s obstinacy could also lead to dangerous repercussions in the active conflicts in the Arab region, with implications for its people and for Europe and beyond, including a possible new influx of refugees – and perhaps terrorists – through Libya and Syria in particular. One hopes for the FBI-assisted inquiries to determine that the trigger for the current crisis was indeed the hacking of the Qatar News Agency by non-Gulf hackers. In that case, it will be easier to contain the standoff, with the help of Qatari, Saudi, Emirati, and American parties. However, the exploding and astonishing developments this week make it plain that containing the crisis may not be enough, and that a change in Qatar’s policy has become a fixed demand for Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Arab countries.
The relationship with Iran and its many layers are the top item in the list of things on which Doha’s policy needs to change, followed by Qatar’s sponsorship of the Muslim Brotherhood project, although Qatar denies this accusation levelled mainly by the UAE. Doha will have to make some fateful decisions with clarity and guarantees, with little room for equivocation, not to cave to Saudi and Emirati demands and conditions, but because Qatar’s interests require softening its discourse and show a stronger commitment to stability in the Gulf and the Arab region.
Qatar needs to dispel the long-standing impression it plays hidden roles in the Middle East and even subversive roles in more than a place, given that such a reputation holds back Doha’s ambitions and interests. For its part, Saudi Arabia can resume the role of the region’s wise older brother, if it should be established that the hacking took place with a view to instigate the dangerous crisis in the GCC, split the anti-terror alliance, or undermine the new pressures against Iran launched by the Riyadh summit with Donald Trump’s visit.
According to CNN, quoting intelligence sources, Russian hackers are involved in the cyber-attack on QNA. High-level US military sources confirm that Iran is one of just five countries capable of orchestrating such sophisticated electronic attacks, alongside the US, Russia, China, an North Korea.
To avoid falling into the trap targeting inter-Gulf relations, it is important for all sides to show some prudence and to be vigilant about the consequences of allowing the crisis to evolve into a permanent estrangement, given the harm this would inflict on the Gulf’s economic, political, and security priorities as well as the peoples of these countries and the conflict-ridden countries. Even U.S. interests can be harmed, which explains the U.S. administration’s scramble to address the rift and restore unity in the long run, while the president has taken to Twitter to send preliminary messages to all those concerns focusing on fighting terror and its sources of funding, and to suggest that while U.S. bases in the Gulf region are crucial, locations are available in more than one place if needed.
Kuwaiti mediation efforts led by the country’s emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad, a veteran statesman seasoned in Gulf and Arab relations, are key. The emir’s visits to Riyadh, Dubai, and Doha to meet the countries’ leaders were aimed at creating a climate that could prevent the crisis from snowballing. While resuming these meetings is unlikely at present, efforts continue to prevent a spiraling deterioration of inter-Gulf relations.
Oman is also involved, as usual behind the scenes. A message was reportedly sent privately by the country’s foreign minister Yusuf al-Alawi to Doha a day after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen severed ties with Qatar. Oman’s role may serve to calm Doha and urge it to think strategically, rather than reactively, because Qatar stands to be harmed the most by the consequences. The measures taken against Qatar have a high cost, in light of the economic embargo and political isolation, both in the short and long term, and will impact Qatar’s development plans and projects including the construction of the 2022 World Cup infrastructure.
The UN has steered away from the crisis, waiting for more clarity. However, its concerns for Libya are taking on an urgent character given the rivalry between Qatar and the UAE in a fragile country on the cusp of full civil war. Such a war is a terrifying prospect for the Europeans, who fear a major influx of refugees and migrants and a dramatic growth of terrorism at a time when Europe is already dealing with terrorist breaches.
Western diplomats are reporting a persona role being undertaken by the UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, in Libya, who is keen to push the peace process forward based on key amendments to the Sukhairat Agreement. They speak of reassuring Egyptian, Algerian, and Tunisian cooperation, but also of fears that UAE-Qatari differences in Libya could escalate with dangerous implications. Guterres may therefore play some role in calming UAE and Qatari nerves to prevent an escalation in Libya that would be costly for the country, and for its Arab and European neighbors.
Yet it is the American role with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar that is essential. Firstly, there is the outcome of the FBI’s investigations on the hacking. Then there is the messages that will be delivered by the members of the U.S. administration and its Tweeter-in-chief to the three countries.
Some are peddling the conspiracy theory that the U.S. has instigated the crisis to further bleed the GCC countries and exploit their rivalries and divisions. Others have counter-argued that Russia is seeking to undermine the new security system launched by the Riyadh summit, led by the U.S. with Arab and Islamic participation, but from which Russia was excluded. Others still have blamed Iran for the hacking, because unravelling the GCC is part and parcel of its goals and strategy.
Many in the Trump administration, especially the former generals now in civilian posts, are strong advocates of the Surge doctrine, the mindset of making a strong and determined push to radically influence the target, either to change its approach or contain if it decides to resist. This is the mindset that seems to be behind the current U.S. policy on Iran, for example, and it seems to be a clear feature of the Gulf measures against Qatar. This is not to say that the Trump administration pushed Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt to come down on Qatar, but according to high-level U.S. sources, a ‘hint’ may have come from the National Security Council and the U.S. Department of Defense to encourage serious pressures on Qatar with measures aimed at curbing support for terrorism. Still the sources stress the matter is not black or white, because U.S. relations with Qatar are mature and Qatar is home to a major U.S. base, and because the US needs Qatar. Curbing terrorism, according to the sources, is crucial however. “We do not control their measures against Qatar, all we have suggested is that we need the strongest possible support against terrorism,” they add.
Egypt wanted to be in the forefront not only because of the radical differences with Qatar because of the Muslim Brotherhood, but also because Cairo wants to highlight the special relationship with President Trump and comply with his call for fighting terror. However, Egypt’s involvement in the Gulf crisis has complicated it, and the non-Gulf countries that have severed ties with Qatar are a burden in terms of the efforts to resolve the crisis. It is possible the confrontation with Qatar may further expand – albeit military measures remain off the table – to the extent that it risks becoming a problem as complex as Yemen, with consequences for the entire people of the Gulf region including expats.
The sometimes absurd escalations and contradiction of visions in the Gulf region may not lead to the dismantlement of the GCC, as four members remain strongly committed to it, namely Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Kuwait, bearing in mind that Oman has expressed reservations on parts of the GCC policy and has diverged from its position on Iran. But a de facto paralysis of the GCC could be an outcome if the crisis continues. This will have consequences, including security ones, bearing in mind that Iran has been seeking to establish a new security system in the region that would comprise the GCC six, Iraq, and Iran, replacing the GCC security umbrella. The Trump administration is not willing to bless any of this, and it seems bent on standing up to rather than appeasing Iran.
According to the New York Times, Michael D’Andrea has been appointed to lead a new initiative against Iran in the CIA. He was called ‘the Dark Prince’, and his appointment is being seen as an indication of the Trump administration’s hardline position on Iran.
The U.S. military does not want to involve its men in any hardline position on the ground with Iran, despite Trump’s escalation against Tehran especially during the summit in Riyadh, branding Iran the world’s top terrorist state, and despite the concerns regarding Iran’s capabilities in cyberwarfare. The U.S. military leaders want the Gulf countries who want to confront Iran or curb its incursions in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, to be in the front row. They want the Arab and Gulf countries to take that decision and supply forces and funds themselves, because the U.S. will not but may offer support and advice when necessary.
The U.S. military does not want to preoccupy itself with the Middle East and its details, because the existential threat for the U.S. now is Russia. The top brass in Washington want to end the fixation with Russia’s alleged role in meddling in U.S. elections, and want to address the implications in preparation for reviving dialogue with Russia at the level of military institutions, either as a friend, a foe, or partner in various spheres of overlapping interests in the world. The military wants clarity to avoid confrontation and contain existential threats.
Iran is important for the U.S. military in terms of planning Middle East policy, as well as Turkey and Israel and the revival of traditional ties with the Gulf countries. From the Gulf point of view, there is a dangerous and existential crisis stemming from Qatar’s vision for relations with Iran and the Revolutionary Guards, with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and their extensions in the UAE and beyond, and with groups in Syria and Iraq that have links to terrorism. All this deviates from the Arab and Gulf policy.
Qatar can rebut all these allegations and declare a clear roadmap for its vision and policies that would help mend ties with the Gulf and the U.S.. All that has happened so far is a serious and loud warning, from Arab countries and the U.S., suggesting the siege of Qatar is not a reactive outpouring but a dangerous turning point unless Doha adjusts and changes tack.
The Trump administration can play a constructive role away from incitements and adding fuel to the fire that will not be easy to contain. This is not an electronic game, be it Russian or American, because the fate of the entire Arab region is at stake. We can only hope that the Tweeter-in-chief will consult with his rational advisers to contain the deterioration, by showing U.S. determination to protect its strategic interests.