A transactional US President Donald Trump gave Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani the words he wanted to hear when he received him at the White House. However, the row between Qatar and the Saudi-led quartet remained essentially unchanged, despite Trump’s attempts at convincing Arab Gulf countries that their focus should be on confronting Iran.
Commenting on the Qatari emir’s proclaimed contribution to the cutting of funding to extremists, Trump reassured Sheikh Tamim: “You’ve now become a very big advocate and we appreciate that.”
The emir did not seem very happy, however, with Trump’s implicit accusation that Qatar had not been helpful in combating extremism in the past. He said his country has been “cooperating with the United States” all along.
Trump’s words sounded implausible even from a president known for sudden mood changes and abrupt policy decisions without consultation with aides and allies. “This is wild,” Andrea Mitchell, NBC’s chief foreign affairs correspondent, wrote on Twitter.
Ten months ago, Trump accused Qatar of funding terrorism “at a very high level.” That statement was a strong endorsement for a Saudi-led quartet locked in a bitter dispute with Qatar over Doha’s ties to Iran and suspected links to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups. The four countries put Qatar under an embargo last June but Doha has refused to back down. The crisis shows no sign of abating.
Possibly affecting Sheikh Tamim’s welcome was that he spent millions of dollars last year on public relations campaigns by several lobbyists, including Brian Ballard, a top Trump fundraiser, the New York Times reported.
Qatar also announced the purchase of large amounts of US military hardware. A day before the Oval Office meeting, the Trump administration said Qatar was buying an advanced US rocket system for $300 million.
The deal appeared to impress Trump. “We have a gentleman, on my right, who buys a lot of equipment from us,” the president said. “A lot of purchases in the United States, and a lot of military [aeroplanes], missiles — lots of different things.”
Noha Aboueldahab, of the Brookings Doha Centre, said via e-mail that the business side of things is likely to have been an important consideration. “For Trump, so long as these financial transactions can still take place, then the resolution of the [Gulf Cooperation Council] GCC crisis doesn’t really matter right now,” she wrote. “His country is still benefiting financially and he doesn’t really care about anything else.”
Not everyone in Washington was impressed by the Qatari moves, however. US Representative Brad Sherman, a Democrat from California, expressed wariness about Doha’s connections to extremist groups.
“We should certainly have meetings, even with people we disagree with,” Sherman told US publication Roll Call. “Qatar certainly has continuing contact with Hamas and we are reviewing whether they are helping to finance Hamas.”
The United States is pressing for the spat to end quickly because it wants its Gulf allies to form a united front facing Iran.
Qatar is home to the biggest US military base in the region with 10,000 US service personnel. Trump demanded a resolution to the crisis in an April 2 telephone conversation with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Reuters reported. Trump’s tone during the call was described by a US official as “forceful,” the news agency reported.
Trump hosted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz last month but failed to make progress in solving the dispute.
The Saudi-led Arab Quartet is sticking to its demands to Doha. Meeting ahead of the Arab summit, the foreign ministers of the quartet held to their demands as “a necessary basis for establishing normal relations with Qatar.”
The problems between Doha and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt have remained unresolved despite Trump’s moves. “He likely continues to feel a strong affinity to the Emirati and Saudi governments but also appreciates the importance of Qatari-American economic and military cooperation,” David Mednicoff, director of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, said in an e-mail message.
Trump “and some in the White House likely regard Saudi Arabia as the key actor in the Arab Gulf,” he said.
Substantial movement on the issue in the immediate future is unlikely. Doha’s strategy of involving international parties in the row with its neighbours has not produced any real changes in the position of Saudi Arabia and its allies. “The solution of Qatar will be within the GCC,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir declared on April 12.
Mednicoff said Saudi Arabia and the UAE are likely to wait for Trump’s revamped national security team to settle in before making new decisions. Trump’s new national security adviser John Bolton took office on April 9 and Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo recently faced a confirmation hearing in the Senate.
A substantial movement to overcome the issue, even with US help, is unlikely.
“I doubt the United States will play a big role in resolving the crisis,” Aboueldahab said, citing a “shaky track record of US ‘mediation’” and the ouster of former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who had tried to negotiate a solution before he was fired by Trump last month. “I think a resolution coming from the region itself is more likely but probably won’t happen any time soon.”
Mednicoff noted that the Saudi and Emirati governments had not shown “much actual interest in resolving the crisis” either. Aboueldahab agreed. “It is clear — at least on the face of it — that the blockading countries are not changing their positions,” she wrote.
An additional hurdle is Trump’s unpredictable stands in the Middle East, including the Gulf region. Experts see his improvisational attitude further fuelled by the lack of coordinated interagency process and the absence of US ambassadors in many Arab Gulf capitals.