Rexit – the firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo’s nomination as his replacement – has unnerved many in Qatar, but was applauded by pundits in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This difference in reaction was based on the assumption that Secretary Pompeo would be less likely to push for a resolution to the Gulf crisis. Also, experts in the region speculated that without Tillerson’s balancing act, the Trump administration would start favouring Saudi Arabia and the UAE against Qatar in the ongoing crisis.
The optimism of Saudi Arabia and the UAE is misplaced, however. Following Tillerson’s sacking, the Department of State may initially take some actions in favour of their camp, but this phase will not last long enough for them to exploit the situation, given the expressly anti-Muslim, “clash of civilisations” rhetoric evinced by Pompeo, former chief of the CIA. As he establishes himself in that post, his contempt for Arabs and Muslims is unlikely to allow him to distinguish Saudis and Emiratis from others.
Trump prefers a stalemate in the conflict
With or without Tillerson, the Trump administration has several reasons for not viewing the Gulf crisis as a strategic priority, as they recognise that the stalemate serves at least three main domestic objectives outlined by the president.
First, the crisis is helping Trump achieve his goal of putting “America First” and creating jobs by driving an arms race between rich Gulf states, encouraging them to make major purchases of weapons and military equipment. In fact, this increased emphasis on deterrence has led to the Middle East accounting for almost half of all US arms exports, with rich Gulf states the top customers.
Second, the ongoing crisis has caused Gulf states to start competing with each other to earn Washington’s support, and most Gulf states believe that the shortest route to Trump’s heart is via support for Israel. As a result, these states have fallen over themselves in their rush to establish and normalise relations with the Zionist state and its support groups in the US – even as Trump slapped them in the face with his decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem – allowing the president to meet another domestic commitment.
Third, with accusations of supporting “terrorism” at the heart of the crisis, Gulf states have started to compete with each other to look cleaner than clean on “terrorism”. Gulf ministries, institutions and even NGOs have opened up their books to American eyes to an unprecedented extent. Meanwhile, the US and Saudi Arabia in March 2018 co-led a meeting of the little-known Terrorist Financing Targeting Center in Kuwait. This was the first time that senior Gulf state delegations met face to face to produce a common statement to counter “terrorist” financing.
An opportunity for resolution
That meeting went unnoticed because Gulf states were busy with an unprecedented PR battle that has ratcheted the crisis up several notches. On the one hand, Al Jazeera alleged that Khalifa bin Hamad, king of Bahrain, and Mohammad bin Zayed, crown prince of the UAE, were instrumental in the 1996 attempted coup in Qatar, while on the other hand, Al Arabiya claimed that Sheikh Hamad, former emir of Qatar and target of the attempted coup, played a role in the sudden death of his uncle, Sheikh Suhaim Al Thani in 1985.
This fever pitch of slander has, ironically, brought the conflict to ripeness. Acting as a scalpel, the events of the last couple of weeks have cut open a cyst that has been growing for over two decades. To turn these recriminations into an opportunity for resolution, Qatar must take three strategic steps:
First, Qatari leaders and media outlets should continue to exercise restraint in criticising Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, while avoiding forthright attacks on King Salman. Traditionally, the king of Saudi Arabia has resolved disputes in the Gulf, and the royal throne will likely be called upon to play a key role in any political settlement to end the blockade.
Second, while much attention has been placed on Mohamed bin Zayed, the alleged architect of the Gulf Crisis, moves should be made to reach out to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai. His measured, rational and pragmatic approach could be invaluable to mediation efforts. Also, Dubai has reason to want the crisis resolved quickly, as the current rift with Qatar could cause disruptions to the Dolphin Gas Project, which supplies much of its energy. Moreover, any major geopolitical shock to Iran could have major spillover effects on Dubai.
Third, Qatar should acknowledge that a stalemate suits the Trump administration and use the influence it has over the two issues of immediate concern to the president – Iran and the safety of US personnel in Afghanistan – to encourage the American leadership to take action to resolve the Gulf crisis. With hostile views towards Iran and its nuclear deal gaining ground in Washington, Qatar should leverage its links to Iran to engender negotiations, if only to allow Trump to feel that he has had his say about the deal. This issue is connected to the peace talks between the Taliban and the US, in which Qatar already plays a supporting role. Progress towards a peaceful settlement would reduce American military expenditure, and the risk American soldiers face in Afghanistan, reinforcing Trump’s domestic agenda and the prospects for more serious US engagement in efforts to resolve the Gulf crisis.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.