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Anthony Harwood

GCC crisis: What's behind Trump's volte-face on Qatar?

The diplomatic and transport blockade of Qatar by a Saudi-led alliance began last June [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 19 January, 2018

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Comment: If America cannot bring the two sides to negotiate a settlement, it would be a huge blow to its standing in the region, writes Anthony Harwood.
In the eventful 12 months since Donald Trump was sworn in as 45th President of the United States we've become used to him falling out with friends.
 
Who can forget the firing of his new communications chief, Anthony Scaramucci, after just 10 days in the job, which the president called: "A great day at the White House"?
 
The fallout with his former chief strategist Steve Bannon rumbles on, and it's anyone's guess where that one will end.
 
But one thing we've not seen much of is The Donald making up with countries who he has previously been happy just to insult.
 
And yet, this is exactly what appears to be happening with Qatar, formerly labelled by the White House as a friend of the terrorist.
 
On Tuesday the former US Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Martin Indyk, took to Twitter to announce that the President had changed his mind on the biggest Middle East crisis in years, now in its seventh month.
 
He said: "Trump is no longer following the Saudi/UAE script on Qatar. Probably because the Qs are now cooperating on terrorism and showing willingness to negotiate the dispute. Whatever the reason, even Trump's best friends can't rely on him."
 
The diplomatic and transport blockade of Qatar by a Saudi-led alliance was launched in June, two weeks after the president chose Riyadh as his first overseas trip since taking office.

Not only did Mr Trump use the visit to announce a £270bn arms agreement with the Saudis, but he also attended an anti-terrorism summit of 50 leaders from Arab and Muslim nations.
The only person who can break deadlock is the man who, arguably, started the row in the first place
Taking to twitter afterwards he announced: "During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar- look!"
 
Emboldened by his anti-Doha rhetoric, the quartet of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt launched their boycott on 5 June, accusing Qatar of cosying up to Iran and supporting terrorism.
 
Mr Trump did not stop there. When he got back to Washington he continued dancing to the Saudi tune, standing in the Rose Garden at the White House on 9 June and calling out Qatar saying the tiny Gulf state had "historically been a funder of terrorism" and "at a very high level".
 
In the months that followed the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson criss-crossed the Middle East in desperate shuttle diplomacy missions to try and undo the damage his boss had caused.
 
The Saudi-Qatar row was no more than one of "a growing list of irritants in the region" and would not impair "the unified fight against terrorism", he said.
 
At the start of July, thanks to Tillerson's efforts, the US and Qatar signed a "memorandum of understanding" on fighting terrorism, which the top US diplomat described as "strong".
 
"Together the United States and Qatar will do more to track down funding sources, will do more to collaborate and share information and will do more to keep the region…safe," said Tillerson.
 
I haven't heard that Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain or Egypt have signed any similar memorandums since then.
 
Perhaps Riyadh should do so, given the findings of the Henry Jackson Society which, also in July, said Saudi Arabia was top of the list of countries in the Gulf providing financial support to mosques and Islamic educational institutions linked to extremist preachers and the spread of hate material.
 
The report said Saudi individuals and foundations have been heavily involved in spreading an "illiberal, bigoted Wahhabi ideology".
 
But no, chiefly through the two UAE attack dogs - Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash and Washington ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba - the attacks on Qatar continued, so convinced were the quartet that their friends in the US would hold firm.
 
However, there was a chink of light for Doha in September at the UN General Assembly in New York when the Emir of Qatar met the president who afterwards talked up hopes of the dispute being resolved.
 
Clearly Trump was starting to grow tired of the squabbling, but attempts to get the two sides together afterwards descended into acrimony.

Read more: Trump praises Qatar anti-terror efforts as UAE attempts to escalate crisis with airspace complaints
 
By the time the dispute entered its fourth month, the stalemate was plain for all to see.
 
This was because the quartet's ludicrous demands that Qatar close down its TV station, the internationally respected Al Jazeera, and give up pursuing an independent foreign policy, effectively meant that Doha was being asked to surrender its sovereignty.
 
Why shouldn't it have diplomatic relations with Iran if the two countries share a huge gas field from which Qatar derives enough wealth to make it the richest country in the world per capita?
 
Qatar rightly refuses to give in to the 13 demands and the quartet, in its arrogance and fearing huge loss of face, is not going to back down either.
America's biggest headache in the region is Iran, and Qatar is the only Gulf country to have any sway with the Tehran regime
So given the impasse, the only person who can break deadlock is the man who, arguably, started the row in the first place.
 
If America cannot bring the two sides to negotiate a settlement then it would be a huge blow to its standing in the region.
 
On Monday Trump was suddenly thanking the Emir of Qatar for "action to counter terrorism and extremism in all forms".
 
It seems the two had a phone call after which the White House released a statement  in which the president "reiterated his support for a strong, united Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) that is focused on countering regional threats".
 
This was another rap on the knuckles for the quartet following the decision of  three of its heads of state to boycott a GCC summit in Kuwait last month.
 
The umbrella organisation was set up in 1981 to counter the threat from Iran but was now divided against itself just as Tehran's influence in the region was growing in places such as Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
 
The White House statement ended: "The leaders discussed areas in which the United States and Qatar can partner to bring more stability to the region, counter malign Iranian influence, and defeat terrorism."
 
This hints at what may really be behind Trump's volte-face on Qatar.
 
America's biggest headache in the region is Iran, and Qatar is the only Gulf country to have any sway with the Tehran regime.
 
The Iran nuclear deal - Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) - agreed to in 2015 by Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, the so-called P5+1 - is possibly the biggest challenge on Trump's plate. 
 
Despite describing the JCPOA, which sees Tehran scale back its nuclear programme, as the "worst deal ever", the President has not yet followed through by re-imposing sanctions.
 
Russia has warned that if the deal collapses it could set a dangerous precedent with serious consequences for the standoff on the Korean peninsula.
 
Suddenly, ending the playground spat between the Saudi-led coalition and Qatar is looking like a very good idea for the White House.
 
Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail.

Follow him on Twitter: @anthonyjharwood 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.
 

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