The blogosphere has been flooded with suggestions regarding America’s role in mediating the intra-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) dispute between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. President Donald Trump, in his tweets and press conference, has clearly aligned himself with the three Gulf states, who have launched a blockade of their small neighbor, as has Egypt, which has taken a strong stand in their support. Jordan has downgraded its relations with Qatar, at least four African nations have recalled their ambassadors from Doha, and Israel has openly sided with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and the rest.
At the same time as Trump has made his position clear, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and the emir of Kuwait have both offered to mediate, with the Kuwaiti gaining more traction in that regard. In the meantime, Turkey, Russia, and Iran have all jumped in to the fray to support the Qataris. So too have human rights organizations that are concerned about the impact of food and other shortages that will result from the blockade.
Trump has a point about Qatar: it has played too many sides in the Middle East for far too long. As long ago as 1990, the Qataris were flirting with Saddam Hussein, the Iranians, and the Israelis — while doing what they could to infuriate the Saudis, especially by means of Al Jazeera broadcasts that featured opponents of the royal family. More recently, Qatar has maintained good relations with Hezbollah and has openly supported Hamas. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are both opposed to Hamas, the three Gulf states have branded Hezbollah a terrorist organization — so has the GCC. Israel shares their position on both organizations. The Saudis and Emiratis also accuse Doha of supporting radical Islamists in Syria, and the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the Middle East, one reason why Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is supporting the increasing pressure on Doha. Trump has bought into those accusations as well, though the Qataris dispute them.
On the other hand, Tillerson is reflecting the views not only of the State Department, but also of the Pentagon, which relies heavily on the al-Udeid Air Base. Having negotiated with the Qataris for their contribution to its expansion in the early 2000s, I can testify to its strategic importance in the region. There is much to be said for Tillerson’s efforts.