Newly-sworn Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoState Department watchdog probing whether Trump aides took gifts meant for foreign officials Biden shows little progress with Abraham Accords on first anniversary Biden slips further back to failed China policies MORE took less than 48 hours to indicate that, contrary to expectations, his view of one of his top headaches, the nearly year-long Gulf dispute, was the same as his little-mourned predecessor, Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by AT&T - Supreme Court lets Texas abortion law stand Trump-era ban on travel to North Korea extended Want to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump MORE.
The New York Times and other media reported from Pompeo’s aircraft, en route from a NATO meeting in Brussels to the Middle East, that the dispute — between Qatar on one side, and four Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on the other — must end. The simple message, delivered by the proverbial “senior State Department official who was not authorized to be named,” was, “Enough is enough.”
Meanwhile, back home, the Washington Post was reporting on Qatar’s latest alleged sin — the payment of “at least $275 million” to secure the release of nine members of its royal family and 16 other Qatari nationals, kidnapped during a hunting trip in southern Iraq and eventually freed in April last year. The recipients included Hezbollah, al-Qaeda proxies and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
It’s a story already reported in depth by the Financial Times and the New York Times, but the new angle was supporting evidence from intercepted phone calls, texts and emails “provided by a foreign government” on the condition that its identity must not be revealed. One hesitates to be churlish about the slogan “Democracy dies in darkness,” but for those needing a little daylight the clue is, “Think the UAE.”
Hacking of the Qatar News Agency by the UAE last May, originally reported by the Washington Post no less, is what set off the Gulf rift known as the “blockade” by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and its coalition allies, Bahrain and Egypt. (There is a considerable backstory, as well.)
Pompeo’s decision to take the Tillerson perspective on the Gulf crisis was probably a consequence of the simple judgment that there is a more important issue to focus on — namely, Iran. Notionally, the dispute is about a litany of Qatari failings on terrorist finance, interference on the internal affairs of its neighbors and the provocative broadcasting style of the Al Jazeera television station, based in Qatar.
Last June, the anti-Qatar coalition drew up a list of 13 demands that Doha had to accept to settle the dispute. The seriousness of the demands has been questioned — for example, Qatar has to break off diplomatic relations with Iran, although the UAE still has such formal links. The list was further undermined by a widespread belief in informed circles that it was the result of the UAE foreign ministry asking a local think tank to quickly pull together some talking points.
Oh, to have been a fly on the wall during Pompeo’s dinner with MbS. And to have been close to him when he read the Washington Post story. But the most fascinating angles would seem to be the actions and motivations of the effective leader of the UAE, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, aka MbZ.
Last year the MbS/MbZ duo seemingly convinced President TrumpDonald TrumpMcAuliffe takes tougher stance on Democrats in Washington Democrats troll Trump over Virginia governor's race Tom Glavine, Ric Flair, Doug Flutie to join Trump for Herschel Walker event MORE of the rightness of their view and the culpability of Qatar and its young leader, Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. But the president has shifted his position since then, declaring he wants the issue settled and inviting MbS, Tamim and MbZ separately for talks.
MbZ, probably foolishly, has taken a hardline on Qatar and avoided coming to Washington. Hence Pompeo’s visit to the region, the words of the anonymous senior official, and Abu Dhabi not being on the itinerary. As if to emphasize this last point, Pompeo is visiting King Abdullah of Jordan, a good ally of the United States but judged by some Gulf ruling elites as being not up to the task.
It’s hard to find the right noun to encapsulate the Gulf dispute, but I have heard “puerility.” If so, it is difficult to gauge the length of time and circumstances that will see it resolved so that the focus of attention can be on the greater danger, Iran.
In the meantime, it is a reminder that signals intelligence, or “SIGINT,” is no longer the preserve of major powers. It can be accomplished by smaller nations — if necessary, using commercial contractors. (A contact on the UAE side of the Gulf rift says hacking of his email was attempted by a company based in Mumbai.) These days, gentlemen do read each other’s mail, contrary to the 1929 preference of Henry Stimson, one of Pompeo’s predecessors. (Either that, or gentlemen no longer exist.)
The other adage to remember is, “People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.” Watch out for the next surprise in what arguably is only a foreign policy distraction.
Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.