US-Qatar strategic dialogue and the Gulf crisis

 06 Feb 2018 - 11:58

The first US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue marked a watershed moment in the Washington-Doha alliance and an important point in the eight-month-old Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis. The strategic dialogue served to reaffirm Washington’s support for Qatar amid the Gulf dispute and both countries’ interests in elevating bilateral relations to new heights. Consequently, Qatar will resist the blockading countries’ pressure more confidently.

The key question is how will Riyadh and Abu Dhabi respond to the US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue? As the Crown Princes of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi—Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ)—are keen to capitalise on Donald Trump’s presidency as an opportunity to improve the Kingdom and the Emirates’ relations with the US administration, these two blockading countries will likely avoid much direct criticism of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ embrace of Doha. Regardless, the strategic dialogue will serve to further diminish Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s optimism from last year that having Trump in the Oval Office would enable the so-called Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ) to convince the US to redefine its relationship with Qatar and support the blockade.

The historical relationship between Qatar and the United States, which was established nearly half a century ago, has evolved over the decades at various points such as the Liberation of the State of Kuwait in 1991, the US/UK-led invasion of Iraq in 2002, and the transfer of the US Central Command’s (USCENTCOM) regional headquarters from Saudi Arabia to the Al Udeid base in Qatar.

One of the important moments that was crucial to the growth of Doha-Washington relations came in 1996 when the US stood by the Qatari government against the Saudi-sponsored coup attempt.

Since the Qatar crisis broke out last year, Doha has engaged in a highly diplomatic approach to the dispute by strengthening ties with global actors—China, Russia, India, etc.—while also strengthening Doha’s relationship with regional ones—Kuwait, Iran, Oman, and Turkey, etc.—to economically and politically counterbalance the ATQ’s blockade.

Yet perhaps the most important dimension of Doha’s foreign policy strategy over the past eight months has been Qatar’s diplomatic engagement with the Trump administration. Reliant on the US as a security guarantor, Qatar has gone to great pains to convince Washington that the Arabian emirate is a loyal and reliable counter-terrorism ally and that Al Udeid is the most strategically sound location for USCENTCOM’s regional headquarters. To be sure, Doha is not only looking to keep the American military presence at al-Udeid, but also to expand the base and begin hosting the US Navy too. Although Qatar aims to diversify its web of security allies, Doha continues to value its alliance with Washington immensely.

On January 30, 2018, Qatar and the United States signed three memorandums of understanding. The first was to establish a new dialogue, a common document for security cooperation, and a memorandum of understanding to combat the trafficking ofhuman beings. The partnership between Doha and Washington has expanded to include solidarity in the face of any external aggression directed against Qatar with the two countries agreeing to work together to protect the Arabian country’s security.

The US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue has served to assuage concerns in Doha about the US considering a relocation of USCENTCOM’s regional headquarters from Qatar to another GCC state, most likely Saudi Arabia or the UAE. With the US remaining firmly committed to maintaining USCENTCOM’s regional headquarters on Qatari soil, coupled with Turkey’s stepped up military presence in the emirate and Qatar’s recently showcased possession of Chinese-made ballistic missiles, the ATQ countries—now more than ever—likely see any potential plans for military action against Qatar as too risky and dangerous.

Despite the ability of the US and other actors involved in the Qatar crisis to prevent the diplomatic row from escalating into a violent conflict, the stalemate may well continue far into the future. As much as the US would like the ATQ to negotiate a settlement with Qatar, lift the blockade, and restore official relations with Doha, Washington’s ability to convince MbS and MbZ to make such moves is highly questionable at best. Without Doha meeting the 13 demands (and/or the six principles) laid out last year as conditions for resolving the Gulf dispute, it is doubtful that either the leadership in Riyadh or Abu Dhabi could find a face-saving way to welcome Qatar back to their fold even with stepped up pressure from the Trump administration to do so.

Ultimately, the US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue has illustrated how the close and institutionalised Washington-Doha alliance has not only weathered the GCC crisis but also strengthened throughout the past eight months. Although America’s commitment to Qatar’s security will not spell the end of Washington’s alliance with the blockading countries, US support for Doha will likely create resentment toward the White House in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

Whereas the Saudis and Emiratis were irked by the Obama administration’s diplomatic overtures to Iran, seen in some parts of the Gulf region as evidence of Washington’s abandonment of its GCC allies, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi will become increasingly upset with the US administration’s refusal to view the alleged ‘Qatari threat’ through the ATQ’s lenses.
Unquestionably, the US leadership’s calls on the Saudis and Emiratis to tone down anti-Qatar “propaganda” in their country’s press outlets will fuel a perception in the Kingdom and the Emirates that Trump’s administration is a far less reliable ally in the Middle East than officials in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi had previously expected.

Dr. Khalid Al Jaber is the Director of Gulf International Forum and Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics.