Regional states should bear the burden on Qatar diplomacy

By Daniel DePetris

For the past week, the Gulf Cooperation Council—the body of six Arab Gulf monarchs and sheikdoms that have been the most stable subsection of an unstable region—has been at war with itself. Qatar, a small but extremely wealthy peninsular nation jutting out from Saudi Arabia, has been experiencing nothing short of an economic and political squeeze from its fellow Arab neighbors. Alleging that Qatar has provided massive amounts of funding to Islamist militant groups for far too long, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and several other states cut diplomatic relations with Doha and or shut down air, land, and sea links to the nation.

The land border between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has been closed; Qatari Airways is prohibited from flying in much of the Gulf’s airspace; individuals and entities associated with Qatar have been sanctioned and designated as sponsors of terrorism; and Qatari food and water imports have slowed to a trickle. Even Qatari television stations have been targeted—in a notice from the UAE authorities, hotels are prohibited from broadcasting Al-Jazeera for their guests. Anyone in the Emirates who even expresses support for the Qatari position is at risk of being slapped with a $136,000 fine and sentenced to a 3- to 15-year prison term.

In a normal situation with a more conventional president, Qatari and Saudi leaders would look to Washington for diplomatic leadership. In addition to the United States having the world’s most powerful, dedicated, and professional military, the U.S. boasts some of the world’s most experienced and knowledgeable diplomats.

Being a world superpower has it’s perks, but it also has it’s drawbacks; other nations, particularly allies who are used to the U.S. stepping into the breach during troubling times, have certain expectations of what U.S. global leadership is or should be. When a diplomatic spat occurs, people reach for the phone and call the White House or the State Department for assistance, oftentimes even before they have reached out to a neighbor.

But what if this crisis is an opportunity as well—a moment for states like Kuwait, Turkey, and Oman that haven’t yet taken sides to embrace more responsibility for the stability of their own regions?

This isn’t the first time relations among the Gulf States have been in turmoil. Qatar has been the black sheep of the GCC family, a country proud of its independent foreign policy and it’s unwillingness to buck to Saudi Arabia’s pressure to follow their lead on Arab affairs. There is no question that Doha has provided a media platform for political Islamists that rulers in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Manama castigate as dangers to their own regimes. Nor is there any doubt Qataris, inside and outside of the ruling family, see Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in a much more sympathetic light; this January, Doha alleviated a power outage in the Gaza Strip by sending $12 million to keep the lines running, a donation that Saudi leaders probably perceived as a lifeline to the Hamas movement.

The material support of terrorist groups will continue to be a hindrance on the west’s counterterrorism campaign as long as the Gulf’s banking channels remain lax or Arab governments view Iranian expansionism as a priority above and beyond the Sunni jihadism that the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda represents.  

If regional states are indeed sincere about solving the Qatari crisis– Turkey, Kuwait, and Oman have all offered to act as mediators– the Trump administration would be smart to allow these countries to work on persuading all sides in this drama to tone down their rhetoric and get back on the same page. In a statement at the State Department last Friday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested that the GCC would be an appropriate forum to address the war of words between Doha, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi.  And he’s right; Gulf officials running foreign and national security policy know each other on a personal level and have dealt with one another for decades. All the parties need is an honest broker, genuinely committed to bringing everybody in the same room and pushing the sides to comprise.  

The Kuwaiti’s emir’s activism is therefore a welcoming prospect. Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah has already been busy making trips to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar to talk with the main players.

A diplomatic track is slowly but surely being paved, so there is no reason why the United States ought to feel compelled to take the primary responsibility. The Trump administration, in other words, should provide the Kuwaiti emir with the room he needs to operate.

The Washington establishment won’t be especially jubilant about such an approach, and some may refer to such an idea as a deliberate weakening of America's global leadership. But the establishment, much to their dismay, would be wrong. There is nothing inherently fanciful with promoting regional solutions to regional problems. And the goal of our foreign policy isn’t simply to lead—our goal is to improve the position of the U.S. in relation to others, to achieve the best possible outcome for America.

The Qatar episode– the biggest diplomatic rupture in the Gulf since the GCC was founded over 35 years ago– will be an opportunity for Arab states to prove to the U.S. and everybody else that they are mature and capable enough to talk with one another in a constructive way and arrive at a diplomatic solution that everybody can live with. And the United States should allow those in the region do the heavy lifting for a change.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Huffington Post on June 13, 2017. Read more HERE.