Thursday, 5th March 2020

Qatar scores diplomatic points but remains isolated from its peers

They may not see eye to eye on many issues but, in their different ways, all Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) members have made themselves useful to Donald Trump, as the US president seeks to tick off his regional policy points ahead of a bid for re-election in November. Trump’s “Deal of the Century” to wrap up to the Israel-Palestine conflict requires key Arab allies, led by Saudi Arabia, to play an expensive leading role; they have paid lip service to the plan despite public reluctance to support arrangements that cannot play well on the street (GSN 1,097/1). Bahrain went so far as to host presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner’s 2019 summit on the plan’s economic aspects (GSN 1,082/5). Meanwhile the UAE and Saudi Arabia are among those that have built up covert security relations with key Trump ally, Benyamin Netanyahu’s Israel. Qatar and its GCC-3 opponents have spent billions of dollars on US defence deals that Trump can then boast help to create American jobs; they have also invested millions in lobbying Congress and other US power centres. Doing less to keep K Street’s coffers bulging, the more neutral Oman and Kuwait have proved at times to be useful intermediaries, as secretary of state Mike Pompeo acknowledged when he met new Sultan Haitham Bin Tariq Al-Said in Muscat.

Now Qatar has leveraged its longstanding position as a player in the Afghan conflict to help deliver Trump a peace deal with the Taliban. This should allow a drawdown of about one-third of the 12,000 US military personnel still in Afghanistan. That withdrawal should be completed by summer, allowing Trump to claim fulfilment of another 2016 campaign promise, to end the war in Afghanistan and bring home American troops. Whether the war is actually over is, of course, a very different question.

Eighteen years after they were driven from power, it is far from clear the Taliban can work out a sustainable peace agreement with its bitter enemies in the Kabul government. The country’s ‘minorities’ – including women, teachers, Shia and other religious groups – have good reason to fear a Taliban return. Some 8,000 US troops and a similar number of other Nato forces are expected to stay; they could find themselves in an acutely difficult situation as Trump’s second term, or a Democratic presidency, begins. Indeed, the killing of government troops by Taliban forces on 3 March highlighted just how far from peace the Doha deal leaves Afghanistan.

The deal’s symbolism for Trump’s base is undeniable, as is the immediate kudos it brings for Qatar’s diplomatic skills and the benefits of keeping open channels of communication with pariahs. (The Taliban have had an office in Doha since 2010, as have other groups whose presence Qatar’s critics have come to claim make the emirate a state sponsor of terrorism, the key casus belli in the GCC-3’s June 2017 boycott.) Doha scored diplomatic points, as its US-based lobbyists have been insisting for some time. These include former Democrat representative for Virginia Jim Moran, who when working for McDermott Will & Emery last year made a presentation on ‘Afghanistan: Does the Road to Peace Run Through the Gulf?’ Washington lobbying specialist Al-Monitor recently noted that Moran now lobbies for Qatar via Nelson Mullins.

However, Qatar received no really big win from the Taliban talks. It was all smiles as foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani sat with Pompeo on 29 February. But officials from the GCC-3 states and Egypt stayed away – suggesting their boycott of Qatar will approach its third anniversary without any real breakthrough. Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman told The Associated Press (AP) news agency that the presence of Saudi, Bahraini and Emirati officials could have been an opportunity to signal unity among the “GCC brothers and neighbours”. He told AP on 1 March: “We invited them for the ceremony, but unfortunately they didn’t show up.”

Oman was the only GCC member to send a minister – a gesture that was recognised when Pompeo made a point of greeting minister responsible for foreign affairs Yusuf Bin Alawi Bin Abdullah at the signing. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE all welcomed the peace agreement’s signing but their statements made no mention of Qatar’s role in securing the deal.

Washington seems to have shifted from Trump’s initial strong support for the GCC-3 during the first months of the boycott (GSN 1,038/1). Since then, the US has consistently tried to push the two sides to compromise and re-establish a unified front against Iran, even though Doha has moved close to Tehran during the boycott. According to a US readout of their 28 February meeting, Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani and Pompeo discussed “the importance of a united GCC in standing against the Iranian regime’s destabilising activity.”

In recent days and weeks tensions have again ratcheted up in Libya and Syria, which have come to be seen as proxy conflicts between Qatar’s key strategic supporter Turkey and its great rival the UAE. Those battles seem sure to continue, pitting Turkey against Russia and the UAE, among others. Saudi Arabia too is starting to feature larger in dispatches from Libya – reportedly financing the intervention of Russia’s feared Wagner Group of mercenary fighters on Haftar’s side, as well as an influx of Sudanese militia, who have been involved in other Saudi-backed adventures (GSN 1,084/1). With battle lines forever shifting, but the broad shape of conflicts now established, Qatar will need more than Pompeo’s thanks to overcome its regional discomfort.

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