White House meeting with emir of Qatar holds potential for deal, or two

White House meeting with emir of Qatar holds potential for deal, or two
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On April 10, President TrumpDonald John TrumpO'Rourke: Trump driving global, U.S. economy into recession Manchin: Trump has 'golden opportunity' on gun reforms Objections to Trump's new immigration rule wildly exaggerated MORE is due to meet Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in the White House. Overshadowing the talks will be the tension on Israel’s border with Gaza, where Qatar has funded Palestinian reconstruction, and the pettiness of the Gulf Cooperation Council split — the Saudis are proposing to dig a canal that effectively will make the Qatari peninsula an island. But these events could shift Middle East diplomacy out of its rut. A deal, perhaps even two, just may be possible — Israel’s relations with the Arab world, a more united front against Iran.

When the Oval Office meeting was planned two months ago, it was to solve the the rift that erupted last May between Qatar and the self-labeled Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ) of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt. That diplomacy appears to have ground to a halt because of the reluctance of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to engage. Now, officially, the meeting will be to discuss “ways to strengthen ties between the United States and Qatar and to advance our common security and economic priorities.”

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The talks could include Arab recognition of Israel, given the “I believe ... the Israelis have a right to their own land” comment by Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, known as MbS, in his interview with The Atlantic last week. This was matched on April 4 by former Qatari prime minister and foreign minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, who tweeted (in Arabic) the same sentiment but included the Palestinians — as had MbS, though that detail was dropped in the media frenzy.

 

There are so many angles to the Qatar story that it almost defies simple description. A one-sentence version could be: Pesky gas-rich Gulf state with a mere 300,000 citizens upsets traditional power-balance, further infuriating its neighbors by successfully punching above its weight. Hence the al-Jazeera satellite television network, sanctuary/support for regional opposition groups (labeled by its neighbors as terrorist), diplomatic mediation/interference in Africa and beyond, and the hosting of international sporting events, most notably the 2022 soccer World Cup.

There are ironies, too. Qatar’s largest gas field is shared with Iran, necessitating a careful relationship. Bolstering its negotiating power with Tehran, Qatar also hosts the largest American air expeditionary force in the Middle East at the al-Udeid air base. And Qatar was the first Arab Gulf state to develop relations with Israel, for which it was roundly condemned by its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council members.

For the Emiratis, recognized as leaders of the ATQ, the way forward is to punish Doha for its support of Hamas by the U.S. shifting its fleets of B-52 bombers, fighters, aerial tankers and reconnaissance aircraft from al-Udeid to the UAE’s al-Dhafra air base outside Abu Dhabi. Hardly surprisingly, there is support for this in Israel where the military regard Qatar as “an ATM” for Hamas. But although President Trump initially was supportive of the ATQ blockade against Doha, the White House seems to have changed its position.

The summit with Emir Tamim was to be the third of three meetings between President Trump and the Gulf rivals to sort out a distraction from what should be the main focus of concern for the United States and its Gulf allies: Iran. Last month, President Trump discussed the Qatar rift/crisis with MbS. This was to be followed by a meeting with Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, known as MbZ, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the effective leader of the UAE, but MbZ apparently wanted to come last.  

The Saudis, meanwhile, are taking a back seat. Saudi aircraft have not been involved in the claims by Qatar, the UAE and Bahrain about potentially dangerous airspace infringements. The Saudi military quietly returned a liaison officer to work with American and Qatari forces at al-Udeid. And one account of MbS’s stance in his Oval Office meeting was that Riyadh would send fresh ideas to Kuwait, which is trying to mediate the crisis. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has invited Qatar to attend the Arab League summit meeting in Riyadh on April 15.

Bahrain, which has spoken of reviving a claim to part of the Qatari mainland, remains hardline. Its foreign minister said on April 3: “There is no way of reconciliation.” But Egypt appears distracted by its domestic concerns and has yet to force out the several thousand young Qataris studying there.

Of Qatar’s perspective, there are some useful signs. During a visit last month, a well-placed Qatari said to me: “We should never have actually closed down the Israeli office,” which existed from 1992 to 2011. On Gaza, he said: “Does Israel really want us to stop sending money? Who else is going to provide reconstruction funds?” On Hamas: “All our money goes via the Israeli central bank.”  

A story yet to be reported is whether Saudi Arabia and the UAE were going to try another coup attempt when the crisis started last May. The profile by Dexter Filkins of MbS in the April 9 edition of the New Yorker contains the tantalizing line: “American officials became so worried about the possibility of a military clash that they sent a drone to monitor the border.” A well-placed foreign diplomat in Doha told me that Saudi Arabia and the UAE had expected the crisis to be over “in 36 to 48 hours,” a comment he wasn’t prepared to elaborate on.

Institutional Washington, the professionals in the bureaucracy, blame the UAE for starting the crisis by hacking the Qatar news agency and broadcasting fake news, which depicted Qatar as sympathetic to Iran. When I asked one U.S. official to give me the league table of terrorist finance countries in the Gulf, I expected him to list Kuwait as the most problematic, with Qatar a close second. Instead, he declined, saying there are issues with all Gulf countries.

The new unknowns to American decision-making are the arrival of John Bolton as national security adviser and Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoLatest pro-democracy rally draws tens of thousands in Hong Kong 63 killed in blast at Afghan wedding as Taliban, US negotiate troop withdrawal Trump meets with national security team on Afghanistan peace plan MORE’s transfer to the State Department from the CIA. Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOnly Donald Trump has a policy for Afghanistan New Pentagon report blames Trump troop withdrawal for ISIS surge in Iraq and Syria Mattis returns to board of General Dynamics MORE seemed bonded to Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonScaramucci breaks up with Trump in now-familiar pattern Senate braces for brawl over Trump's spy chief Press: Acosta, latest to walk the plank MORE on the need for an even-handed diplomatic approach. With Tillerson’s departure, the conventional wisdom is that the president will demand Qatari concessions.

But Qatar may propose more purchases of American weapons systems as well as base facilities for the U.S. Fifth Fleet at Hamad Port, south of Doha, plus some more funds for Gaza. My betting is that if the president can sense some sort of deal that seems to progress diplomacy, he will go for it.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which focuses on U.S. foreign policy concerns in the Middle East.