TSG IntelBrief: Trouble in the Gulf Continues
June 21, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• On June 21, Saudi King Salman stripped Mohammed bin Nayef from the line of succession, promoting his son Mohammed bin Salman to the position of crown prince.
• The move came after an unusually harsh public statement by the U.S. government on June 20 about the Saudi-led crisis with Qatar.
• The rare public rebuke from the State Department sent a strong message for the Gulf Cooperation Council to end the crisis quickly and peacefully.
• The June 20 State Department message provided a stark demonstration of the disconnect between President Trump’s statements compared to the statements and actions of other components of the U.S. government.
The long-simmering crisis within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that came to a head on June 5 was cast by the Saudi-led coalition as a result of Qatar’s alleged ties to terrorism. The speed at which the tensions boiled over into a crisis was remarkable; Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Bahrain, and other countries cut all diplomatic ties with Doha. Saudi Arabia and the UAE imposed a de facto blockade on Qatari ships and planes, and suspended all shipments of food and goods into Qatar across its only land border, which it shares with Saudi Arabia. In the days after the crisis unfolded, U.S. President Donald Trump made statements indicating his support for the Saudi stance, stating from the Rose Garden on June 10 that Qatar was a state sponsor of terrorism.
Yet, while President Trump’s statements appeared to completely back Riyadh over Doha, the rest of the U.S. government continued its long-standing close and effective relationship with Qatar. Just days before tweeting his support for the crisis, President Trump had announced the possibility of a large military arms deal with Doha. Five days after Trump’s Rose Garden statements, the Pentagon announced it had finalized a deal worth $12.8 billion to sell 36 F-15 fighter jets to Qatar. Last week, two U.S. Navy ships arrived in Qatar to take part in joint military exercises with the country the president recently labeled as a state sponsor of terrorism. The longer the crisis continues, however, the greater the risk for disruption to the substantial economic, cultural, and educational ties between the U.S. and Qatar.
From the beginning, it was clear that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi may have overplayed what they believed would be a winning hand. Implementing a blockade of Qatar at the beginning of Ramadan—and specifically suspending shipments of food and medicine—was not only provocative, but also seen as cruel and unnecessary. The move ultimately proved counterproductive; Iran and Turkey—neither of which Riyadh wants to see more involved in the region—announced their intentions to support Qatar with food and supplies for as long as needed, and proceeded to do so. The boycott hurt countries that import goods into Qatar, such as Jordan, as well as Saudi firms. For its part, Doha did not respond in kind to the diplomatic and economic sanctions, a position that aligned with the wishes of the U.S. State Department, which has urged restraint despite the statements from the White House. Doha continued natural gas exports to the UAE, and did not expel Saudi or UAE nationals from Qatar.
On June 20, the State Department issued a statement that was perhaps the strongest criticism of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in recent memory. In response to Saudi statements about having proof of Qatar’s terror financing—an issue that historically has been a real concern for all GCC countries—State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the U.S. was tired of waiting for the proof: “Now that it’s been more than two weeks since the embargo started, we are mystified that the Gulf states have not released to the public, nor to the Qataris, the details about the claims that they are making toward Qatar.”
She went on to add that the “more that time goes by, the more doubt is raised about the actions taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. At this point, we are left with one simple question: Were the actions really about their concerns about Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism, or were they about the long-simmering grievances between and among the GCC countries?” The very public and direct statement is all the more remarkable given how sensitive Saudi Arabia and the UAE are to criticism. As the crisis backfired, both countries clamped down on opposition to the moves against Qatar, imposing prison time for individuals voicing support for Qatar on social media. It is unclear how Riyadh and Abu Dhabi will respond to the State Department comments. The June 21 removal of Mohammed bin Nayef from the line of succession by Saudi King Salman represents a significant upheaval in the Saudi government. The tensions between bin Nayef and King Salman’s son—the new crown prince—Mohammed bin Salman have been simmering for some time, but the timing of the shake up—coming immediately after the U.S. rebuke—was notable.
Regardless of how the GCC crisis ends, there appears to be a complete disconnect between the statements of President Trump and the statements and actions of other parts of the executive branch. President Trump’s statements, including his tweets—which the White House has said were considered official statements—carry tremendous weight, especially in the Gulf where power is held by individuals. The contradictory messages coming from the highest levels of the U.S. government complicate efforts to negotiate an end to the crisis, which is no small matter in the region and beyond. The recent joint military exercises and arms deal with Qatar, as well as the consistent concern from the State Department about the crisis, have essentially treated President Trump’s tweets and public statements as irrelevant to actual policy—a truly concerning state of affairs for the United States.
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