TSG IntelBrief: The Persistent Crisis in the Gulf
July 17, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• The political crisis between members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) continues to worsen, with allegations that UAE hacking conducted in May was designed to initiate the affair.
• New reports that attribute the hacking to the UAE are the latest in a crisis that has been building for years.
• On July 10, Qatar and the U.S. signed an agreement aimed at countering terrorism financing.
• The conflicted U.S. approach to the Gulf crisis has not brought any resolution to the issues that have rocked the GCC.
According to a July 16 report by the Washington Post, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) initiated the ongoing crisis in the Gulf—in which the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, among others, have severed ties with Qatar—by hacking Qatari government sites. The UAE, according to the report, posted false statements attributed to the Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, as part of an orchestrated campaign to embarrass Qatar and force a wide array of concessions. The incident in late May was used by the UAE and Saudi Arabia as the alleged tipping point in a crisis that has been years in the making.
With the hacking as a pretext, the crisis exploded, ultimately leading to the severing of diplomatic ties and a de facto blockade of Qatar by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. There has been no reduction in tensions in the 43 days since the crisis began. Various deadlines imposed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE have passed, and a list of very public demands by the group was essentially ignored by Qatar. The crisis has settled into a public relations battle of sorts, with all sides angling to portray the other as aggressive and unreasonable.
The GCC has been ground central for social media battles and smear campaigns for several years. The region’s rulers and power brokers, all highly sensitive to public image, are routinely the victims of hashtag warfare in which false statements are bounced across Twitter and Facebook by armies of bots. In this way, the Gulf social media influence campaigns actually preceded the current ‘diplomacy by automated Twitter’ that is proving so disastrous for the U.S. and others. Prior to the latest crisis, such campaigns were a persistent annoyance, but not a serious national security or economic challenge.
The United States is effectively caught in the middle. A mid-July visit by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was his first attempt at ‘shuttle diplomacy’ and a sign of how serious his department views the situation. The U.S. has close ties with all parties involved. These ties extend far beyond economic and trade relations; the U.S. has deep military and intelligence ties with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, and Egypt. For two reasons, the U.S. cannot easily come down on one side or the other. Strategically, the U.S. needs to maintain positive relations with all of the countries involved; and the issue is so superficial, yet deeply personal, for the GCC countries that taking sides would likely yield a net loss for U.S. interests.
During his visit to the region, Tillerson signed an agreement with Qatar on countering terrorist financing, one of the issues that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been most vocal about in their list of complaints with Qatar. The signing of the agreement is in stark contrast with the rhetoric coming from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, yet it is unlikely to help change minds or policy. The UAE-Saudi bloc immediately dismissed the signing as irrelevant to their concerns, and said the sanctions would remain in place. The UAE also dismissed the Washington Post report on its hacking of Qatari government sites as ‘false.’
The disconnect between the White House and the U.S. State Department over the crisis in the Gulf is making an already difficult diplomatic resolution much harder. President Trump has been relatively quiet on the matter, after helping inflame the issue at the outset with statements and tweets that parroted the Saudi/UAE line and undercut the State Department’s efforts. During a July 13 interview, President Trump portrayed the crisis as one of Qatar ‘being on the outs’ with the GCC and the U.S. In keeping with his transactional approach to diplomacy, the President also downplayed both the concerns about the U.S. keeping its enormous military base in Qatar and the difficulties in finding alternatives, saying the U.S. would be fine and that it ‘would have 10 countries willing to build us another one, believe me. And they’ll pay for it.’
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