Bloomberg, September 11, 2017 - President Donald Trump’s renewed push to resolve a three-month showdown between Qatar and a Saudi-led coalition was spurred by a conviction that the impasse has distracted U.S. Gulf allies from his attempt to challenge Iran.
Trump told Kuwaiti officials visiting the White House last week that Gulf Arab monarchies can’t effectively counter growing Iranian regional influence if they’re busy fighting each other, according to a Gulf official with knowledge of the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The president then engaged in a flurry of phone calls with Gulf leaders that ultimately led to the first direct contact between Qatar’s ruler and Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince since the crisis erupted in early June, the official said. So far, at least in public, Trump’s efforts appear only to have exposed the wide rift between the two sides, as they released conflicting versions of the conversation.
The “real challenge” for the U.S. and its Gulf Cooperation Council allies is Iran, Trump told the Kuwaiti delegation, according to the official. The president told his visitors he would “put an end to the dispute very soon,” the official said. The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt accuse Qatar of backing terrorist groups and cozying up to Iran, the Middle East’s Shiite power and chief Saudi foe. Doha has repeatedly rejected the charges, seeing instead an attack on its sovereignty. The alliance severed diplomatic and economic links, demanding the small, wealthy nation which hosts the regional headquarters for U.S. Central Command change course.
The standoff broke out shortly after Trump visited Saudi Arabia in May, where he had called for concerted action by Gulf nations to combat terrorism and accused Iran of fueling instability. Kuwait has attempted to mediate the dispute, but with little success. In the meantime, isolated Qatar has, if anything, been drawn closer to the Islamic Republic, restoring diplomatic ties snapped in solidarity with Saudi Arabia over a 2016 assault on its mission in Tehran and importing Iranian food.
Under Trump, the U.S. has expanded sanctions on Iran over its missile tests, while questioning what the U.S. gets out of the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal ahead of a quarterly review next month. The accord capped Iran’s atomic program in return for sanctions relief and retains the support of five other signatories, including Russia, China, and the U.K.
Trump publicly backed the boycott of Qatar at the outset, before delegating
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to support Kuwaiti mediation to end a crisis pitting U.S. allies against each other in a struggle for influence in the oil-rich region. Analysts have said that the early mixed messages from the U.S. helped prolong the crisis.
The president backed his ability to forge a deal at a Sept. 7 news conference with the emir of Kuwait, Shiekh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah. “I do believe we will solve it,” Trump said. “If we don’t solve it, I will be a mediator right here in the White House” and “we will have something very quickly.”
Yet the weekend fracas over the call between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Qatari ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani suggests there’s a long way to go.
The spat appeared to center on Qatar’s announcement that the chat was coordinated by the U.S. A statement carried by state-run Saudi Press Agency said Sheikh Tamim had initiated the call and “expressed his desire” to hold direct talks to resolve the crisis. The kingdom later said no further discussions would be held until Qatar issued a clarification.
Nobody knows what really went wrong, the Gulf official said, nor what will happen next.