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A mechanism for US mediation in the Gulf

The current crisis between heavyweight Arab countries and Qatar requires exceptional and decisive US mediation. It should be led by a veteran high-level envoy well experienced in Arab affairs, who is respected and supported by President Donald Trump and top members of his administration.

The envoy’s mission must be clearly articulated and well defined as part of a specific mechanism and timetable for tit-for-tat measures by Qatar. Only this kind of approach will be able to contain the crisis and mend intra-Gulf ties.

It may be prudent to consider Gen. David Petraeus given the confidence he enjoys in Washington, and the fact that he understands the language of decisiveness in the Arab world.

It is encouraging that all the parties concerned with the spat with Qatar have been keen not to close the door to mediation, welcoming in particular Washington’s central role that has complemented Kuwaiti-led Gulf mediation. The main parties involved — Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar — have approached and sought to convince the Trump administration of the veracity of their positions, while affirming their commitment to US interests in the region.

The messages sent by Trump and his top aides have suggested support for Saudi and Emirati measures against Qatar, for which he took credit as part of his efforts against terrorism. But they also sent messages encouraging de-escalation. This is not necessarily contradictory. It may be an attempt to defuse the situation while upholding key principles affirmed in the American-Arab Summit in Riyadh.

Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad has pursued intensive efforts to find necessary common ground to launch his mediation efforts, but he was met with rigid positions despite verbal commitments to what he is trying to achieve.

While Gulf mediation is certainly distinctive and valuable, it appears the climate surrounding Kuwait’s efforts is one of frustration and hopelessness.

Kuwaiti mediation needs a push from US mediation in order to lead to a breakthrough. Perhaps there is room for both to complement one another, but there is no alternative to American leadership and a US-led implementation mechanism.

So far, Doha’s priority seems to be to persuade the Trump administration that its best interests lie in maintaining equal distance from all parties to the crisis, as Qatar’s former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim said on his way to Washington. He said those accusing Doha of backing terrorism must provide proof, and expressed disappointment with the US position that had endorsed such allegations.

Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al-Baker was furious with Trump’s positions, accusing his administration of bias and prejudice. Qatar’s ambassador to the US, Meshaal Hamad Al-Thani, left the door open to mending ties with the US despite Trump’s surprising tweets supporting the measures against Qatar.

Forging an exceptional relationship with the US will require Doha to set the record straight on its ties to Iran and controversial groups. This is not a hegemonic matter but one of shared interests, and Qatar’s interests lie in ties with the US and its Arab and Gulf surroundings.

Raghida Dergham

The Trump administration will not remain at an equal distance from the main parties to this crisis. The US is determined and committed to maintaining its major base in Qatar. This continues to have the support of Saudi Arabia and the UAE as the latter’s US envoy Youssef Al-Otaiba, who is leading a media campaign to highlight Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism, has made clear.

But those who favor a deeper rift with Doha — believing it will not change course or keep its promises — say the closure of the base would be the only way to isolate Qatar, and all that is being said about the advantages of keeping it there is lip service for the time being.

Closing the base is the nuclear option that the Trump administration is unlikely to use unless Doha forces it to, if it decides to escalate and forge an alliance with Iran, and continues to back entities Washington designates as terror groups.

At this stage, the main thrust seems to be to keep the base and preserve bilateral relations, but with US conditions based on what was agreed at the Riyadh Summit. The outcomes of that summit are crucial for Trump, who launched a new front against terrorism with Arab-Islamic partnership and cannot afford to have holes in it.

For this reason, emotion and intransigence are a wrong approach in this important juncture in the relationship with the US. Rational pragmatism is the best possible path for Qatar and the wider Gulf region.

While all parties have the financial wherewithal to withstand the cost of escalation, this could completely blow up what the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has achieved in terms of economic and security cooperation. Undermining these gains would benefit Iran first and foremost, as well as Turkey, further eroding Arab weight in the regional balance of power.

For Qatar, wisdom means understanding the danger of what some stubborn voices are urging, namely to forge an alliance with Iran, step up cooperation with the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood branches in Egypt and the UAE, and financing fundamentalist Shiite groups in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and extremist groups in Libya and Palestine. This is not in Qatar’s long-term interest, which lies in remaining a full-fledged GCC member, equal in rights and privileges with all other member states.

This inevitably detracts from a strict and traditional notion of sovereignty. Indeed, every state in a collective framework like the EU or the GCC by default accepts a modern understanding of sovereignty as part of collective collaboration. There is no need to fear hegemony if each state commits to integration. The alternative is withdrawal.

Forging an exceptional relationship with the US will require Doha to set the record straight on its ties to Iran and controversial groups. This is not a hegemonic matter but one of shared interests, and Qatar’s interests lie in ties with the US and its Arab and Gulf surroundings.

These issues are the foundation of any mediation, be it US- or Kuwait-led. The difference lies in the tools used for influence, and it is here where the US should come in, because it has the means to apply pressure on both sides of the crisis. The Trump administration must not delay, because prolonging the crisis will increase its complexity and dangers.

The first step must be a decision by Trump to play a vital role not just to contain the crisis but to develop the foundations of a solution, showing determination and firmness in positions and conduct. It will make a great difference if he appoints a special envoy with good ties to the Department of State, Department of Defense, National Security Council and all other relevant departments in the US as well as the White House.

He or she should be a presidential envoy, and should understand the complex dynamics of the region. Petraeus seems a natural choice, but there are other candidates if he is not available or if there are other obstacles to his appointment.

The US role must be based on quid-pro-quo measures from those involved, as part of a timetable with strict monitoring and guarantees, and a list of priorities put together by either the envoy or whatever other entity is chosen to address the crisis. For example, Qatar’s demand to lift airspace restrictions could be met in return for ending its support for the Brotherhood.

These are crucial details, and delivering on them will require opening back channels in some cases to save face, while others may need public commitments.

• Raghida Dergham is a columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent, and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is the founder and executive chairman of the Beirut Institute. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an honorary fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She has served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham.

— Originally published in Al-Hayat.