The diplomatic spat between Qatar and its neighbors in the Gulf and further afield continues to develop in a dramatic fashion. Some are linking it with US President Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh, and some to matters involving Iran. There were suppositions that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) had to act during Ramadan, as a preventive step to some unknown hostile maneuver Qatar was getting ready to launch. There are many different conspiracy theories.
Whatever the reasons for the crisis, Qatar has, for a long time, been a thorn in the side of its neighbors and many other Arab states. The coverage by Qatar’s media weapon, Al Jazeera, has endangered the stability of neighboring countries through its support of the notorious Muslim Brotherhood and even some terrorist groups. All of this has been causing a severe headache for regional players. Qatar has been a troublemaker in the region for too long. The conflict has been stewing for a long time with what was a “sworn friend” in GCC. Having erupted now, the conflict poses quite a substantial threat to the region’s stability.
The ongoing crisis in the GCC is really quite dangerous. Despite the efforts to mediate by certain regional and global powers, there is a serious risk that the conflict could escalate into war. The GCC is not homogeneous. Even the closest of allies such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE seem to have different public approaches and understandings of the ongoing crisis. Turkey has demonstrated its direct involvement in the conflict on the side of Qatar, having deployed troops there. Turkey is attempting to prevent the worst scenario by launching preventive measures, giving a strong message in case of hostile military maneuvers against Qatar. Turkey will not step aside, and that means a serious escalation of the conflict if any military action is taken.
The crisis in the GCC developed not long after the historic summit in Riyadh, which brought together all GCC states — including Qatar — and countries of the Islamic world. Numerous deals, worth billions of dollars, were reached between the GCC states and the US. A center for countering extremism was launched, and countries declared a common desire to join forces to fight radicalism and terrorism. The post-summit euphoria was strong but did not last long.
Where does the US administration stand on the Qatari crisis? This question was bound to be raised following the $12 billion deal in which Qatar will buy US-made F-15 fighter jets. The deal was reached just days after Trump said Qatar funds terrorism.
Together with a Turkish military base, Qatar also hosts a US base. And the latter is used by the US Air Force to carry out airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. Obviously the US has no interest in losing its presence in this strategic spot, but at the same time Trump is quite tough on Qatar, and is even harsher on Iran and its allies.
Questions about Washington’s stance on Doha were bound to be raised following a $12 billion defense deal reached just days after Trump said Qatar funds terrorism.
What is clear is that the US administration has no concrete agenda on the Middle East, acting not only ad hoc, but also discordantly. Statements by US officials often contradict each other, and that questions the value and reliability of declarations and undermines the trust toward Washington. There is a severe noticeable gap between Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on the crisis in GCC. Tillerson was making attempts to negotiate the crisis and assist with mediation, while Trump has undermined these attempts, making harsh and undiplomatic declarations, as well as sharing a tough anti-Iranian position.
In such circumstances, foreign officials cannot count on what the US is promising or stating, and that dramatically complicates the decision-making process. There is no agreement even inside the State Department itself. Rumors that Tillerson was looking to hold talks between Qatar and the GCC were probably not groundless, but were denied by the US Department of State, which said there was no intention to hold a summit in Washington to find a solution to the ongoing crisis.
Under Trump, the US is guided by business, not by political principles. Trump is grabbing US allies in the region by their wallets, to rephrase his own words.
The ambiguity of the US position may cost the GCC dearly if regional powers continue to follow everything they like to hear from Washington, but ignore disturbing signals. Evaluations and calculations should be built exclusively from regional perspectives. The Qatar crisis must only be handled by GCC countries themselves, politically. The deepening split caused by the crisis will play into Iran’s hands. And if the crisis does escalate, the US will unlikely come to the aid of its allies.
• Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). She can be reached on Twitter: @politblogme.