What Tillerson’s exit means for efforts to resolve GCC crisis
Since Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE cut diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar last June, the views from Washington have been mixed. Some quarters have embraced the stereotypical assessment that the intra-Gulf Cooperation Council tensions are a manageable brawl between irresponsible cousins, inconveniently standing in the way of more critical regional matters. Others have been alarmed over the future of the GCC and the impact this crisis could have on US regional priorities, strategic ties with its various regional allies and the viability of its Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar.
Within the Trump administration, a split became evident between a camp more sympathetic to the concerns raised about Qatar by the four Arab states, and the State Department led by Tillerson, which was seen as having a soft spot for the Qatari position.
The internal differences on the matter were out in the open early on. Soon after President Donald Trump tweeted his support for Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s “hard but necessary” move, a statement by a US State Department spokesperson read: “Now that it has been more than two weeks since the embargo started, we are mystified that the Gulf states have not released to the public, nor to the Qataris, the details about the claims that they are making toward Qatar.”
It went on: “At this point we are left with one simple question: Were the actions really about their concerns regarding Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism or were they about the long-simmering grievances between and among the GCC countries?”
More than its undiplomatic tone, the message’s seeming unawareness of the long-standing concerns raised by various Arab states about Qatar and the background of the crisis caught many in the region by surprise. Relations between Qatar and other members of the GCC had already been broken in March 2014, when Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors from Doha in response to Qatar’s interference in the affairs of its Arab neighbors, its support for the Muslim Brotherhood’s various branches and other similar groups, the pro-extremist message of Al-Jazeera Arabic, and its duplicitous relationship with Iran. In response, Qatar signed a second agreement — it had already signed one in 2013 — known as the Riyadh agreement, in which it renewed its commitment to addressing these concerns.
Trump and various members of his administration, including the newly appointed secretary of state, shared the Arab states’ displeasure with the status of Doha as “Islamist central,” with all sorts of militants, prominent clerics and dissidents from other Arab countries encouraged and funded to set up shop in the Qatari capital. Among the many radical extremists to have found solace in Doha was the mastermind of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, during the 1990s.
The Qataris will inevitably view Tillerson’s departure with concern, as they have lost their most receptive interlocutor in the present administration and seen him replaced by ex-CIA director Mike Pompeo — a figure far more hawkish on extremism than his predecessor.
Dr. Manuel Almeida
Influenced by the view that the spat between the members of the GCC would primarily benefit Iran, and aware of the deal-making opportunity represented by a Qatari leadership that was more willing than ever to invest its largesse to get out of a troubled situation, the Trump administration embarked on reconciliation efforts. One example of direct US involvement is the US-Qatar memorandum of understanding, signed in July last year, on the steps to be taken by Qatar to stop the funding of terrorism, the details of which remain secret. Led by Tillerson, these contacts evolved into a US-Qatari strategic partnership, which was inaugurated in January.
Following the upcoming visits of Crown Prince Mohammed, Sheikh Mohammed and the emir of Qatar, next on the White House’s agenda will be the hosting of a summit of GCC leaders at Camp David aimed at bringing this crisis to an end.
How Tillerson’s departure will impact these efforts (if at all) remains to be seen. The untenable relationship between the president and his secretary of state, who failed to see eye-to-eye on any major regional or global issue, surely did not help matters. The Qataris will inevitably view Tillerson’s departure with concern, as they have lost their most receptive interlocutor in the present administration and seen him replaced by ex-CIA director Mike Pompeo — a figure far more hawkish on extremism than his predecessor.
Above all, treating the most severe crisis the GCC bloc has experienced in almost four decades of existence as a mere sideshow to more important regional issues could well prove to be a mistake down the line. The tensions that revolve around Qatar’s regional policies speak of the most critical matters affecting the region today, from the spread of extremist militancy and the future of the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist groups, to the respect for the sovereign integrity of neighboring states and Iran’s regional ambitions.
Dr. Manuel Almeida is a political analyst and consultant focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, and holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science