Trump and Kuwaiti Emir Hint at End to Gulf Crisis

Photo: Kayhan Ozer/AP

President Donald Trump and the Emir of Kuwait – one of two Gulf countries that has not cut ties with Qatar – said in a joint news conference at the White House on Thursday that the boycott of Qatar by its Arab neighbors will soon be resolved. Trump even announced he would be willing to “help mediate [the Qatar dispute]… and I think you would have a deal worked out very quickly.”  But neither leader gave clear reasons for their optimism.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt began their boycott against Qatar in June, accusing Qatar of supporting Sunni Islamic terrorism and Iran’s influence in the region. They initially gave Doha a list of 13 demands, including scaling back ties with Iran, shutting down the Al Jazeera network, and ending Turkey’s military presence in the country. But they have since reduced those demands to six principles, saying Qatar no longer needs to shut down Turkey’s military base, but it does need to agree to general principles on fighting terrorism and extremism.

Qatar has not yet agreed to any of the latest demands. On August 30, Qatar’s foreign minister said his country was willing to negotiate an end to the dispute but “the blockading countries are not responding to any efforts being conducted by Kuwait or other friendly countries.”

Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah on Thursday reiterated, “I would like to affirm that Qatar is ready to meet all the demands… and is ready to sit at the table to negotiate and to discuss… everything related to the dispute between the Gulf parties.”

When the boycott against Qatar began, Iran and Turkey came to Qatar’s defense. Iran, a U.S. adversary, and Turkey, a European Union member and ostensible U.S. ally, started sending food by air and sea to the tiny nation on the Persian Gulf.

Turkey also recently opened a new land trade route to Qatar that passes through Iran and will transport goods, like food products, to the boycotted country.

“Qatar and Turkey have come closer together since the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] crisis started,” said former CIA Acting Director and Cipher Brief Expert Michael Morell. “Qatar, looking for any leverage it can get with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, has invited Turkish troops to deploy to Qatar and have conducted military exercises with the Turks.”

In July, Turkey sent a 25-member Turkish artillery unit to Qatar, adding to its 150 forces already there. In August, the two countries carried out joint military exercises called Iron Shield – where in addition to a naval drill, Qatari and Turkish infantry and artillery forces participated in a ground training exercise. The first Turkish troop deployment to Qatar was in 2015.

Morell told The Cipher Brief this is worrying because “not unlike Iran and Russia, Turkey has hegemonic ambitions. Those ambitions are rooted in the Ottoman Empire, and any hegemonic power in the region is not in the interests of the U.S. On top of that, Turkey, under [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, wants to spread its own brand of political Islam, one that is inconsistent with tolerance, democracy, and freedom.”

Meanwhile, concerns abound about Qatar’s relationship with Iran, which supports various extremist groups, including Hezbollah.

“The state of Qatar expressed its aspirations to strengthen bilateral relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran in all fields,” the Qatari Foreign Ministry said in a statement on August 24. A week earlier, Qatar had returned its ambassador to Iran.  

In a series of tweets in June, Trump showed his support for the Qatar boycott, emphasizing the fight on terror. “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!” tweeted Trump. “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to horror of terrorism!”

But could the boycott be backfiring, creating a growing Iran-Turkey-Qatar nexus?

Last week, Trump called Saudi Arabia’s King Salman to urge a diplomatic solution to the crisis, saying a resolution would fulfill the commitment to maintain unity while fighting terrorism that Trump and his Arab partners made when he visited Riyadh in May.

“I get a sense that patience in DC is wearing thin as the standoff enters its fourth month without any apparent sign of imminent resolution,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Baker Institute fellow for the Middle East. The White House “would much rather see the Gulf States come together again to focus on the issues that President Trump tried to rally regional states around during his visit to Riyadh,” he told The Cipher Brief.

Ulrichsen added that “U.S. officials are concerned that prolonging what many see as a needless crisis could provide inroads for Iran or other interested parties into what has hitherto been a solidly pro-Western political and security arrangement in the Gulf.”

Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and AEI scholar focusing on the Middle East, echoed that, telling The Cipher Brief, “The U.S. may worry about Qatar-Iran rapprochement, or the development of a Qatar-Iran-Turkey axis more broadly.”

But Rubin noted that ending the dispute is easier said than done. “It’s like telling the Palestinians and Israelis to ‘end the dispute’ and expect it to be that easy.”

Moreover, there appears to be a lack of consensus within the White House.

“The main worry of folks like Secretary [of Defense James] Mattis and Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson is maintaining continuity in regional military operations that the U.S. is conducting against ISIS, among other things,” Senior Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council Ilan Berman told The Cipher Brief.

Trump understands this and, thus, knows that the U.S. needs Qatar as a military base, at least temporarily, said Berman. Qatar’s Al Udeid Air Base hosts the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East, with more than 100 U.S. aircraft and approximately 11,000 U.S. military personnel. It is used to launch anti-terror operations – like in 2016, when the base was a staging ground to launch airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria.

At the same time, Berman says he thinks Trump is “receptive” to the idea that Qatar has been playing both sides of the war on terror and therefore needs to clarify its position. Trump understands Qatar is less reliable than he was led to believe “at first blush,” said Berman.

“The Qataris right now are banking on the fact that the U.S. in the service of … the anti ISIS coalition is willing to take their side. I’m not sure that’s an indefinite decision,” Berman said.

Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE Ambassador to the U.S., expressed a similar sentiment in a conversation with Morell on Charlie Rose, noting that to a certain extent, the U.S. base in Qatar gives the Qataris some “cover.”

Still, “You can’t sit around the table with us and support the groups that are threatening to kill us and kill our children. You can’t be inside the tent while you are supporting the groups that undermine our security,” he said.

This is the back-and-forth the Trump Administration is trying to manage right now. Trump initially took a hardline on Qatar, apparently supporting the boycott in an effort to clamp down on terrorism and Qatar’s connections with extremist state and non-state actors.

But the U.S. needs the Qatari air base in the short term to fight terrorism. Moreover, the crisis is drawing Qatar closer to Iran, an accused state-sponsor of terrorism, and Turkey, an increasingly fickle Western ally.

Kaitlin Lavinder is a reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @KaitLavinder.