First Published: 2017-07-17

Chronicle of a Failed US Mediation in the Gulf Foretold
In a sign that the showdown is likely to drag on much longer, Qatar reverted to boosting its alliance with Turkey shortly after Tillerson left the region, notes Thomas Seibert.
Middle East Online

WASHINGTON — US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s first Middle East diplomatic foray ended in failure and humiliation as his push for an end of the dispute pitting Qatar against four Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia led nowhere and President Donald Trump continued to undermine his top diplomat’s position in the crisis.

In a sign that the showdown is likely to drag on much longer, Qatar reverted to boosting its alliance with Turkey shortly after Tillerson left the region.

Following several days of talks in Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Tillerson on July 13 conceded that the United States had been unable to get the different sides in the dispute any closer to the negotiation table. “Right now, the parties are not even talking to one another at any level,” Tillerson said during his flight back to the United States, the New York Times reported.

With Qatar confronting a Saudi-led quartet of countries in a bitter dispute over terrorism issues and regional politics, Tillerson’s mission — his first mediation abroad since taking office — had been difficult from the start and was further complicated by several factors. That included the political process in Washington. Tillerson, a former CEO of oil giant Exxon Mobil, said decision-making in the US government was “fragmented,” unlike in his former career, in which he had been “the ultimate decision-maker.”

Tillerson stressed the need for compromises from all sides and has called Qatar’s position “reasonable,” a description rejected by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which from the start suspected Tillerson of a pro-Qatar bias. The secretary’s attempts at resolving the crisis were undercut by Trump, who continued to voice strong support for the Saudi-led camp in the dispute.

Trump told the Christian Broadcasting Network that he and Tillerson had had “a little bit of a difference, only in terms of tone” on the Qatar issue. Qatar was “known as a funder of terrorism,” Trump insisted, “and we said you can’t do that.” He also said the United States would have no problem giving up a key military base in Qatar. “If we ever had to leave, we would have ten countries willing to build us another one,” he said, adding that he wanted “a good relationship” with the country despite the crisis.

In a move that could seal the fate of US efforts to find a compromise solution after Tillerson’s trip, Trump reiterated support for the countries boycotting Qatar in a phone call with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on July 14. The “president emphasised the need to cut all funding for terrorism and discredit extremist ideology,” the White House said in a statement.

Another obstacle Tillerson could not surmount was the two sides’ apparent lack of interest in coming to a quick resolution. They instead seemed to be preparing for a drawn-out confrontation.

For members of the Arab quartet opposing Qatar, Doha has been less interested in considering the demands of its Arab rivals than in ensuring military protection from outside the region and organising alternative supply lines in response to its adversaries cutting land, sea and air connections.

Shortly after Tillerson’s visit, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani visited Turkey and reaffirmed Doha’s commitment to enhancing military cooperation with Ankara. Both Thani and his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, were adamant on rejecting the Saudi-led bloc’s demand that the Turkish military base in Qatar be shut down. No third country “has the right” to raise the issue, they both said in quite similar terms.

The United Arab Emirates warned it expected the dispute to last a long time. “We are headed for a long estrangement… we are very far from a political solution involving a change in Qatar’s course and, in light of that, nothing will change and we have to look for a different format of relations,” UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said. Gargash last month said Qatar’s isolation could last years.

Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.

Copyright ©2017 The Arab Weekly

 

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