Washington facing tough options amid Saudi-Qatari stalemate

Martin Jay
Martin Jay is an award winning British journalist now based in Beirut who works on a freelance basis for a number of respected British newspapers as well as previously Al Jazeera and Deutsche Welle TV. Before Lebanon, he has worked in Africa and Europe for CNN, Euronews, CNBC, BBC, Sunday Times and Reuters. Follow him on Twitter @MartinRJay
Washington facing tough options amid Saudi-Qatari stalemate
Far from being resolved, the future trajectory of the Saudi-Qatari crisis seems to be entirely in the hands of the Americans. But it’s the Saudis and the GCC which stand to be the losers – unless Turkey can come to the rescue. Here’s how.

The Qatar crisis is beginning to look more and more like a cheesy, American sitcom by the day, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson now plays the role of Dad who comes home from work and discovers that the kids are squabbling over toys or who ate the last ice lolly.

The viral video of the Saudi delegation’s physical fracas with the Qataris doesn’t bode well for Tillerson, however, whose recent comment about Qatar’s response [read rejection] to the 13-point list of Saudi demands being ‘reasonable’ speaks volumes as the Brady Bunch has to come to terms with a new reality: we are looking at a climb down now from the Saudis and it is very much now the US which has firmly taken control of the negotiations, which realistically will continue for months. And then fizzle out.

It’s partly cultural. In this part of the world it always pays to move at a snail’s pace and kid everyone around you that you – and only you – are the one that counts. But also, when you negotiate in the Middle East to, say, buy a car for 5,000 dollars, it’s generally considered smart to offer to start by offering about 300. The Saudis know that the list of demands were entirely preposterous and designed to cause a vacuum, which they thought would leave them in a stronger position later on. The Qataris measured their response and stood firm and played the longer game.

Yet it’s backfired. Not only are the Saudis making the Qataris look cool (everyone loves an underdog) but there are other concerns, beyond merely Iran looking triumphant. The Saudis now really do need to look for a way out of this farcical standoff which, in the long run, can only harm them and the GCC. If a long-term blockade is all Riyadh has to threaten tiny Qatar – which is doing remarkably well to stay calm and deal with it – then both the Saudis and the GCC begin to look somewhat ludicrous around the world.

Indeed, the very foreign investors the Saudis seek might see the Qatar blockade as a foolish, capricious move by an inexperienced, narcissistic administration that is prone to making imprudent policy decisions. As Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s own 2030 program to modernize his country starts to look like nothing more than a plan which never moved off the page, the last thing this new leader needs is to look ineffective back home.

No one told Trump

Just this week, Rex Tillerson managed to get an agreement about funding terrorism signed by Qatar, but the Saudis have barely acknowledged it as a step in the right direction. This at least proves one important thing: that their chief gripe about Qatar supporting terror organizations like Muslim Brotherhood was not a serious one (as I’ve always argued). And that Tillerson now needs to look at Qatar under a microscope and find a new, radical plan to prevent it from escalating, as having 10,000 US soldiers on the peninsular is a tad awkward to say the least.

The real problem is that no one told Trump about the soldiers. Trump seems so uninformed about the Middle East that it is clear now that – once again – his own off-the-cuff policy responses are not aimed well and are usually at odds with the Pentagon, which presumably can find Qatar on the map. When Trump delivered his speech at the Riyadh summit, he was blithely pumping up the Saudis ego to the point where they almost believed they had a divine right to hit Qatar. The Qatar calamity is Trump’s fault, in fact, which is one of the reasons why Tillerson has stepped in.

So it is now officially a US problem and it will be down to the Secretary of State to come up with a new, re-worked blueprint that could satisfy all the players and make everyone look like winners.

Rex Tillerson should look for a compromise that would make Riyadh look like it didn’t back down, which, in fact, is what has already happened. Just a few weeks ago, even the most seasoned commentators were talking about a military confrontation of some sort from the new Saudi Crown prince, but that clearly isn’t going to happen.

Of all the demands on the list of 13 demands which was just recently rejected by Qatar, Tillerson might be able to use just one demand now as a deal breaker. The logic is that now that all 13 demands have been rejected, they all now individually have grown tenfold in importance. Just one out of thirteen could now win the day if it were to be taken from the pack and played again. A trump card, if you like.

And it is Turkey.

Turkey getting so quickly involved in the Qatar row was to be expected. President Erdogan didn’t want to be isolated as the only 'Arab' country in the entire region which backs the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, he placed himself at the center of the debacle and rushed to the aid of Qatar by speeding through an agreement to beef up Turkey’s military presence there. 

Turkey recently rejected calls to stop the base expanding in numbers. But Erdogan missed the point. It’s not down to him whether the base expands, but down to Qatar’s emir. The base, a first one of its kind for Turkey, serves so many objectives of Erdogan.

The two countries always had excellent relations, but Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani must be asking himself what does Qatar really get from it besides 600 Turkish soldiers (expected to arrive) training his own troops. If Tillerson were to slow this deal down and even reverse it, so as to keep the 88 original Turkish soldiers there as a token, it could be a deal breaker for the Saudis. The Qataris could still get their training but in Turkey. And it makes sense for the US after the Turkish leader showed signs of going rogue following his failure to get anything from Trump in his May visit to the White House.

The Qatar crisis could be over in a matter of days if Tillerson plays the Turkey card, which could guarantee that the Saudi threat does not materialize. 

Martin Jay is based in Beirut and can be followed at @MartinRJay

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.