Widening the Gulf

Score-settling between Trump’s Arab allies undermines his plans against Iran

By Abdel Bari Atwan

We do not know what Donald Trump’s real intentions and motives were when he called the leaders of the three main parties to the Gulf dispute – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar – this week to invite them to visit Washington within the next two months. But it is safe to speculate that he has a bigger goal in mind than achieving a reconciliation between them. Now that they pay-up phase is over, he wants to rally the three countries into the American trench for a possible and impending confrontation with Iran.

In a lecture at a Washington think-tank in January, Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiyah remarked that the US president was capable of resolving the Gulf crisis with ‘a single phone call’ from the Oval Office, if he would only summon all parties to the quarrel to the negotiating table.

It is unlikely that Trump took this advice literally, though he was doubtless aware of it. A US-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit is held annually in Washington in May. But the gathering he has proposed seems set to be different, aimed at inaugurating a US-led Gulf-Egyptian-Jordanian alliance to confront Iran and its allies and paramilitary proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Afghanistan. The summit may convene without having achieved a reconciliation between Qatar and its detractors, as the GCC summit did in Kuwait at the end of last year.

The US Administration played a major role in triggering the Gulf crisis, notably during Trump’s visit to Riyadh last May. It achieved massive material gains as a consequence. Trump returned to Washington with a $460 billion package of arms sales and investment agreements in his pocket, including $110 billion in immediate weapons and warplanes purchases to support the Saudi military, and $350 billion over the next ten years. The UAE signed similar deals to the value of around $35 billion, as did Qatar to the tune of some $13.5 billion to buy F-16 warplanes. Even the GCC’s poorest member, Bahrain, got into the arms auction, buying Boeing civilian aircraft as well as spending $3.4 on more F-16s.

Once the Trump administration got what it wanted to create new American jobs and infrastructure projects, it began turning to the question of ending the Gulf crisis and resolving the quarrel between its Gulf Arab allies. But this was purely for its own, and Israel’s, reasons. As a senior US official explained to Reuters news agency, the US wants to resolve disputes among the Gulf states before the US-Gulf summit in order to be able to focus more on other strategic issues such as Iran.

The White House website’s account of Trump’s call to the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin-Hamad Al Thani, included a point that was not mentioned in the official Qatari report on the conversation: namely, that Trump thanked the Qatari emir for his leadership in seeking ways to bring the Gulf states together to confront Iran’s destabilizing activities more effectively.

After this conversation, the four countries involved in the eight-month boycott and blockade of Qatar – Saudi Arabia the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain — issued a statement signalling their disapproval of the American initiative. It featured a blistering attack on Qatar, accusing it of sparking a diplomatic war and affirming that any solution to the quarrel with it must be reached in the context of Kuwait’s mediation efforts.

This statement did not only reflect these states’ continuing hard-line stance towards Qatar, but also their disagreement with the current US administration regarding the crisis in the Gulf. This was reinforced by statements reported in their state-controlled media, which angrily accused Washington of overlooking Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s grievances against Qatar, and of convening the proposed US-Gulf summit at Camp David without consulting them or having a clear vision of its proposed mediation.

Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin-Salman, who got a phone call from Trump inviting him to the summit, is due to pay an extended visit to the US anyway in a couple of weeks’ time.  Muhammad Bin Zayed of the UAE is also expected there in April, ahead of a planned trip by the Qatari emir. The meetings held during these visits will determine the fate of the Camp David summit and the US mediation.

By affirming that the Kuwaiti initiative is the only route to resolving the Gulf crisis, the four countries – who have done their level best to thwart Kuwait’s efforts since the row began – are in fact saying that they reject the US initiative, and also Washington’s growing rapprochement with Doha.

In short, these four countries do not want a solution to the crisis. They want to maintain the boycott, and perhaps send out the message that, contrary to the Qatari view, the US is not capable of resolving the dispute alone, whether via a phone call or any other means. Score-settling is a key consideration for all five countries involved in the quarrel without exception. It may well prevail at this juncture too.