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Trump, a mediator in the GCC crisis? Open in fullscreen

Imad K. Harb

Trump, a mediator in the GCC crisis?

President Trump with Saudi Arabia's King Salman, and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed[AFP]

Date of publication: 13 March, 2018

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Comment: The Trump administration has emphasised the importance of GCC unity since the blockade of Qatar began, writes Imad K. Harb.
President Donald Trump is said to be planning to meet in the next few weeks with leaders from the Gulf Cooperation Council in an effort to resolve the now nine-month-old GCC crisis. 

The president even recently threatened to cancel an annual US-GCC meeting in May if Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain do not lift their blockade on Qatar and end the crisis. 

A unified position

The president's threat translates a fundamental change in his posture toward the crisis. It is also an indication that he may have finally arrived at a decision to defer to the Departments of State and Defense in charting American policy toward the GCC.

This policy rests on two important and mutually dependent realities. 

The first is that the United States attaches great importance to GCC unity in the service of its interests and those of the entente. Indeed, emphasising this unity has been the modus operandi of American efforts for mediating the GCC crisis since last June. 

The second is that American foreign policy and defense establishments see Qatar as an indispensable partner in the Gulf. The United States thus pledged during the recently-held US-Qatar strategic dialogue, "to work with Qatar to deter and confront any external threat to Qatar's territorial integrity…"

The United States attaches great importance to GCC unity in the service of its interests

Trump's insistence on breaking the impasse and lifting the siege on Qatar is thus a qualitative leap. But his upcoming meetings still represent serious challenges for him.

Unwarranted negotiations

In discussions in the next few weeks with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and putative UAE president Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), the president and his lieutenants may be in for a rude awakening. 

MbS has shown at the top of Saudi decision-making a healthy degree of unpredictability mixed with hubris. He has begun risky schemes whose outcomes are unknown and unwarranted. 

Read more:  Will Kushner-gate go down as the century's biggest scandal if allegations are proven?

Domestically, he is trying to restructure Saudi Arabia's oil-dependent economy, address its social issues such as women's rights, and fight 'corruption'. It is too early to tell how he is doing, but these projects by their very nature can easily create disaffection and discord. 

Regionally, he has plunged his country into a likely unwinable and brutal war in Yemen, that has thus far only brought international criticism and opprobrium. 

He has forced Lebanon's premier Saad al-Hariri to resign - a move he later rescinded - in effect almost plunging that country in political chaos. He pressured Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to accept an unacceptable American peace plan. His crusade against Iran appears without end. 

On the other hand, MbZ enjoys a more stable domestic environment and has long succeeded in sidelining any opposition within his family. With the illness of his half-brother, ruler of Abu Dhabi and UAE president Khalifa bin Zayed, he has created a state that marries economic power to an ambitious agenda of strategic reach. 

It is hard to see why MbS and MbZ would be amenable to lifting a blockade on Qatar that they have so willingly and enthusiastically imposed last June

Participating in the Yemen war alongside Saudi Arabia, the UAE has secured a dominant role in the south of that country. With MbZ's assistance, southern Yemen has become a region unto its own, independent of Yemeni President Hadi's government and fully reliant on the UAE. 

The UAE has also found strategic footholds in the Arabian Sea, Djibouti, Eritrea and the Bab al-Mandab Strait that controls shipping through the Red Sea. 

MbZ was instrumental in the Qatar blockade.

In fact, his lieutenants supervised the hacking of Qatar's News Agency and the planting of false information that was falsely attributed to Qatar's Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and used to justify the siege.

Kuwaiti and American mediation efforts do not seem to have found much Saudi and Emirati encouragement. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi instead insist on Qatar's implementation of their demands before reconciliation could be achieved. 

With records like these, it is hard to see why MbS and MbZ would be amenable to lifting a blockade on Qatar that they have so willingly and enthusiastically imposed last June. 

The Kushner factor

That said, they might see that their fortunes in Trump's White House will not be as good as they previously were when they had the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner pulling for them. 

Washington today is abuzz with news of special investigator Robert Mueller looking into Jared's mixing his official role with private family business. In the Gulf, Kushner has cosied up to MbS and MbZ, and allegedly played a role in the Qatar blockade, because he could not secure Qatari financial assistance for his troubled property in New York.

With him on the out and not being able to influence the president, Saudi Arabia and the UAE may see that it would be better to patch things up with Qatar, just to mollify an impetuous Trump.

But no one can be sure that even if the siege were lifted and the May summit were held, the animosity and acrimony that has pervaded intra-GCC relations will be easily forgotten.


Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.

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