On Friday, 2 February, Qatari Defence Minister Khalid bin Mohammad al-Attiyah was in Washington D.C. for a strategic defence dialogue with U.S. Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis. While in Washington, Attiyah gave an interview with The Washington Post, in which he alleged that at the beginning of the standoff between Qatar and the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in June, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had intentions to invade Qatar. This has represented yet another unhelpful development in the now nine-month diplomatic crisis between Qatar and the GCC. To understand how Qatar has navigated the crisis, it is important to look at how the crisis began and what exactly it is about.
In the early morning hours of 5 June, 2017, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt announced in rapid succession that they were severing diplomatic relations with Qatar. Qatar responded later that morning, saying that there was ‘no legitimate justification’ for the four Arab nations to cut ties with it. Soon after, the internationally recognised government in Yemen, followed by the Maldives and one of the three rival governments in Libya all broke ties with Qatar. The Arab nations then declared a trade embargo on Qatar, which included closing airspace to Qatari planes and banning Qatari sea vessels. This move was a reflection of long-running Saudi and Emirati claims of Qatari support to terrorist groups, in addition to perceived too-friendly relations with Iran. Saudi Arabia has also not been keen on the Qataris’ use of soft power (media, primarily Al-Jazeera) to provoke unrest in GCC states.
Despite multiple attempts at meditating the conflict by Kuwait, the United States, and several European states, the crisis drags on. This begs to question if there are any lessons that can be gleaned from the diplomatic stalemate and if they can tell the world anything about where the crisis might go from here. The main lesson of the crisis exposes a bitter reality within the GCC; the GCC member countries are following different socio-political and economic paths that are not coordinated in any fashion. They have contradictory national interests and have no mediating structure to resolve such differences. This has serious consequences for regional security in the Persian Gulf. Qatar plays an important role for the United States’ regional security strategy and hosts two strategically important American military bases. The second lesson of the crisis is that the outcome of it will shape the future of the security environment in the Persian Gulf. The GCC has long been an important regional architecture for supporting American security interests in the region and the crisis could significantly hamper stability in the region. The third major lesson of the crisis has exposed the limits of GCC pressure on Qatar. Despite calls for greater global support from the Saudis and the Emiratis, it seems unlikely that global organisations, such as the UN, will support the blockade. Additionally, countries like the UAE and Oman are dependent on Qatari natural gas exports; Qatar continues to pump two billion cubic feet of gas per day to the UAE, despite the blockade. The GCC has, seemingly, even lost the support of the Americans, with President Donald Trump praising the Qataris this January for combating ‘terrorism and extremism,’ despite his original tweets on the crisis in June that seemed to convey support for the GCC blockade.
This is an important point, ever since the crisis began the United States has been forced to strike a delicate balancing act between its allies in the Middle East. However, since the beginning of the crisis Qatar has embarked on a massive public relations campaign with the Trump Administration. Qatar has flooded Washington with lobbying money, hiring numerous consultant firms to strengthen its ties with the U.S. government. A new think tank, the Gulf International Forum, was launched on 1 February, with funding streams that lead back to the Qatari government. This is not a new phenomenon in Washington, with the Saudi linked Arabia Foundation founded in 2017 and the Emirati linked Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington launched in 2015. According to the Foreign Agents Registration Act, Qatar has spent $5 million on PR related to the crisis and retained seven U.S. lobbying firms since June 2017. Saudi Arabia has not abated in its influence campaign in Washington either; between 2015 and 2017 it expanded its number of foreign agents from 25 to 145 and spent $18 million on lobbying efforts. However, based on the recent bilateral U.S.-Qatar Strategic Dialogue at the end of January it appears that Qatar is winning the PR game.
‘U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shakes hands with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani before their bilateral meeting at the U.S. Department of State in Washington D.C., on July 26, 2017.’
Attiyah’s visit to Washington was not a good day for the Arab states supporting the blockade. After Trump’s original criticism of Qatar, the Qatari government recognised the importance of maintaining strong ties with the United States. It has expanded its military cooperation with the United States, spent $12 billion on buying 36 F-15 QA fighter jets, and has agreed to a longstanding demand from U.S. airlines to disclose the financial information for its state-run airline, Qatar Airways. Another major development is the announcement from Attiyah that Qatar plans to expand the Al Udeid airbase, the headquarters of the U.S. Air Force Central Command and the largest overseas U.S. airbase. Attiyah announced that 200 more housing units are planned to be built to allow soldiers to bring their families with them, saying, ‘It will very soon become a family-oriented place for our American friends there.’ Mattis and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also praised strong diplomatic and military relations between Qatar and the United States, while expressing regret over the current state of the crisis.
While the four Arab states boycotting Qatar renewed calls in January for Doha to adhere to their original 13 demands presented in June, Qatar has shown no signs of complying. Qatar has continued to deny that it has supported terrorism and unrest in the Middle East and emboldened by a recent UN human rights report that stated the blockade has had a negative impact on the people of the region, has continued to seek independent mediation to end the crisis. To this end, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, while in Washington on 1 February said that Qatar is willing to participate in the upcoming U.S.-GCC summit next spring. Whether or not this will lead to any real change in the conflict remains to be seen. Qatar, for its part, has made it clear what it thinks will solve the crisis: a phone call from Trump telling the four Arab countries supporting the blockade to knock it off. It is hard to say if this will happen, but the important takeaway from this conflict is that Qatar has been remarkably successful in courting influence in Washington despite intense Saudi and Emirati pressure.