On Friday, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and a number of allied Arab states provided Qatar with a list of 13 steep demands that Doha must meet within 10 days in order to have ruinous sanctions lifted against the tiny Gulf state. Some of these demands include shutting down the al Jazeera network, severing all ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, reducing ties to Iran, and providing information on terrorist and opposition groups that Qatar has funded. These demands seem almost impossible to meet and are seemingly meant to embarrass the Qatari leadership, but are they negotiable?
The Cipher Brief’s Fritz Lodge spoke with F. Gregory Gause III, Head of the International Affairs Department at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University and noted expert on the Arabian Peninsula, about what this list of demands means for Qatar and U.S. policy in the region.
TCB: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt have provided Qatar with 13 demands that Qatar must meet within 10 days in order to have sanctions lifted. These demands seem almost impossible to meet and meant to embarrass the Qatari leadership. How realistic are they to you?
Gregory Gause III: I think it’s just the opening salvo.
TCB: How far can Qatar push back?
Gause: I think a lot depends on how the U.S. deals with this because Qatar’s real backstop here is U.S. support. The U.S. State Department indicated some amount of impatience with the Saudis and the Emiratis the other day, and that will probably give the Qataris some hope that they can hold out.
A lot of this is really about the U.S., despite the high-profile support from Turkey and Iran to Qatar. Much will depend on how the U.S. inserts itself on this. And on a lot of these demands, the Qataris can give half a loaf.
- Expel the citizens of countries like Iran which bother Saudi Arabia? Well, Qatar can expel some of them.
- Close down Al Jazeera? Qatar could refuse but promise to reign in the news organization.
- Stop funding extremist entities? Doha will say that it doesn’t fund extremist entities, but they could agree to revisit relations with some groups, which is something the U.S. would like to see Qatar do anyway.
- Cut relations with Iran? Well, maybe the Iranian Ambassador goes home but they don’t close the embassy. These kinds of compromises could work.
I don’t think that the situation with Qatar and the group of Arab states led by the Saudis will be solved, but I think it might be settled for a little while until these issues resurface at some point down the road.
TCB: Could Qatar decide to hold firm and double down on the support it’s been receiving from countries like Turkey and Iran?
Gause: That’s possible, but I would put it at a far less than 50 percent chance on the assumption that the United States is going to say to the Qataris, “look, we have to get this settled.”
TCB: Let’s say they do settle and come to some sort of agreement, what does Qatar’s relationship with the rest of the Gulf look like after that? Can they reach a new equilibrium? Can they get back to where they were?
Gause: I don’t think they can get back to where they were, but everybody will put on the diplomatic face, and there will be a lot of hugging and kissing. As long as Tamim bin Hamad al Thani is Emir of Qatar, and his father still has a big role in Qatari foreign policy, it’s hard for me to see the Saudis and the Emiratis getting back to normal with Doha. The young influencers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Salman [recently named Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia] and Mohammed bin Zayed [Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi] really seem to think that this is a regime issue in Qatar. They would like to see other members of the al Thani family take over in Qatar.
I don’t think that you’re ever going to get to a “normal” relationship between Qatar and these countries any time in the near future. But what you can do is climb down from this crisis, and that will improve things for everybody in the Arab Gulf; the blockade will be lifted, travel restrictions lifted, life will go back to normal for citizens of these places. However, the seeds will be there for some new blow-up further down the line.
TCB: You said that it looks like the U.S. is becoming a little bit annoyed with the Saudis, but we have also seen some very mixed messaging from the Trump Administration on this crisis, including tweets from President Trump that were very supportive of the blockade and contradicted his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. Do you feel that there is a unified policy on this now or could we see more surprises?
Gause: We could certainly see some major surprises. This administration does not have its act together on foreign policy, among other things, and the president has no discipline whatsoever.
We certainly know that Jared Kushner is the back channel for Mohammed bin Zayed and Mohammed bin Salman into the Trump Administration, so they can get directly to the president and sidestep the State Department.
Now, there hasn’t been a tweet on this for a while and one wonders if the president is now signed on to a Tillerson-Mattis plan to get this solved. But I have absolutely no confidence in predicting what this president is going to do on anything.
TCB: Last thoughts?
Gause: I really do think that the impetus for the Saudis and the Emiratis to escalate this situation was that they believed they had the U.S. behind them. Both the Obama and Bush ’43 Administrations had their problems with Qatar, but I think that they were always a restraint on any kind of real confrontation between Qatar and the rest of the Gulf countries. I think we saw that in 2014, which was the last time this blew up.
I believe that Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed just thought that they had a guy in the White House who was 100 percent behind them, and in the beginning, it looked like that might have been the case. If the United States had basically gone to the Qataris and said, “knuckle under or we move our military base and you’re on your own,” that would have put Doha in a terrible position. I don’t know how much the Qataris could rely on the Turks and the Iranians in a real confrontation. And we know that the Saudis and the Emiratis have many members of the al Thani royal family in Qatar who would be willing to play with them and help overthrow the regime.
However, it looks to me like Tillerson and Mattis have kind of defaulted to the traditional American position on these things, which is that we don’t like our allies to fight, and the al Udeid military base in Qatar is really important, and we can’t have this kind of upheaval at a time when al Udeid is so central to the campaign against ISIS, and at a time when the campaigns in Raqqa and Mosul are underway.
This is just my guess, but if that in fact is where the U.S. has come down and Kushner back channel for Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed is being rerouted to the State Department, then I think that some kind of face-saving solution will be found.
One more purely speculative thing. I actually think that the recent succession of Mohammed bin Salman to the position of Crown Prince in Saudi Arabia might increase the chances of this crisis being solved. I don’t think that he wants the first American interaction with him as the new Crown Prince to be tension-filled and negative because he’s pushing the Qataris too far. A compromise here will cement his reputation in Washington as someone that you can do business with.