July 6, 2017

Existing Agreements and U.S. Leadership Emerge as Keys to Resolving Qatar Standoff

As the crisis regarding Qatar’s relations with four other key Arab countries – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt – enters its second month, the recent meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo appears to offer a new framework to resolve the standoff. The representatives of the four countries imposing severe restrictions on diplomatic, trade, travel, and communication ties with Qatar met in Cairo to consider their next steps. Qatar had rejected a list of 13 demands the countries had presented, however the foreign ministers did not take any practical steps to escalate the confrontation. To the contrary, they refined their expectations in six newly articulated “principles” that could facilitate mediation by Kuwait, the United States, and others, and centered their demands firmly on the implementation of agreements from 2013 and 2014 already accepted by Qatar.

The 13 demands made public on June 23 insisted that Qatar restrict diplomatic ties with Iran, shut down Al Jazeera and other news outlets, close a Turkish military base, stop all support for terrorist organizations and extremists, end contacts with and harboring of opposition figures from other Arab states and cease “interference in sovereign countries’ internal affairs.” But they also contained broader calls for Doha to “align itself with the other Gulf and Arab countries militarily, politically, socially, and economically” and pay them unspecified “reparations and compensation” for the impact of Qatar’s policies.

Qatar rejected this list of demands, although the details of its formal response remain undisclosed. Qatar has been aggressively insisting that any obligations or restrictions imposed on Doha should also be applied equally to other Gulf and Arab countries. The Cairo meeting was intended to give the Arab foreign ministers a chance to respond to Qatar’s position and announce their next moves. But instead of escalating the crisis, the Arab foreign ministers issued a list of six overarching principles. Their joint statement emphasized that these principles are based on the “charters of the United Nations, the League of Arab States, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the conventions against international terrorism,” rooting them firmly in the bedrocks of international and Arab legality and legitimacy.

The six principles also shift the focus from a specific emphasis on Qatar, which has been strongly objecting to being singled out for what it has described as unfair criticism, to commitments that would in theory apply equally to both Doha and its critics. This potentially opens the door to understandings that would allow Qatar to maintain that it has taken new policy steps without having compromised its sovereignty, and its critics to realize their most important demands.

The six principles importantly reframe the basic ideas within the 13 demands by making them broader and more generalized. This could provide flexibility for negotiations or mediation. Indeed, the six principles crucially do not refer back to the 13 demands rejected by Qatar and not fully embraced by the United States, but rather to “the Riyadh Agreement of 2013 and the supplementary agreement and its implementation mechanisms of 2014.” These were already agreed to by Doha, and although they have never been made public, they reportedly include scaling back of support for groups designated as terrorist by Qatar’s neighbors, cutting off contacts with or expelling a variety of extremists, muzzling or restructuring various media outlets, and cutting off all contacts with opposition groups in other Gulf and Arab countries.

There may be some dispute between Qatar and the four Arab countries boycotting it regarding what, precisely, Doha agreed to in 2013 and 2014. But, presumably, the supplementary agreement and implementation mechanisms provide details that the, apparently, relatively succinct Riyadh Agreement does not. Qatar’s critics are thus now essentially calling on Doha to live up to existing agreements it has already accepted rather than submit to a new set of demands Qatar can characterize as infringing on its sovereign prerogatives.

If an opportunity for progress has opened, Washington’s role will undoubtedly be crucial. The issuance of the six principles, as opposed to the 13 demands, may have been partly the result of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments that some of the demands provided a basis for dialogue, although others would be “very difficult” for Qatar to accept. Qatari officials have seized on State Department language by describing the list as not “actionable.” Meanwhile, after President Donald J. Trump seemed to strongly back the campaign to pressure Doha, calling it “a hard but necessary action,” and condemning Qatar for allegedly funding terrorism, he seems to be moving toward more of a push for resolution. In a telephone conversation with Egypt’s president, Trump urged the parties to resolve the confrontation as well as to honor their commitments from the recent Riyadh summit to end terrorism financing and combat extremist ideology.

It is extremely difficult to envision a short-term resolution to the standoff without a strong display of U.S. leadership, and, while the administration appears to be moving toward a clearer policy, questions about Washington’s perspective and desired outcome remain unanswered. The only country with the ability to pressure all the parties in a meaningful way is the United States, which is also the main outside power with a direct stake in a swift and comprehensive resolution to the crisis. While the parties may not be willing to negotiate with, or make concessions to, each other, they are almost certainly all ready to explore new understandings with Washington. One of the most obvious bases for a resolution would be for these contending countries to reach reciprocal arrangements with this crucial third party, including commitments to honor pre-existing agreements with each other, as a face-saving way of backing down from two sets of maximal, and apparently unattainable, opposing stances.

Although their six principles seem to open the door for such understandings, the four Arab countries confronting Qatar are also prepared to keep the pressure on. They have said they will consider their next moves at an upcoming meeting in Bahrain, including possible expanded economic measures, sanctions against second- and third-level trade partners with Qatar, suspending or expelling the country from the Gulf Cooperation Council, and other possible moves. The Cairo statement ominously warns that “It is no longer possible to tolerate the destructive role played by the State of Qatar.” They are also continuing to discuss the prospect for a long-term standoff that slowly but surely intensifies the pain and isolation Qatar will have to endure until it is resolved.

Yet there are clearly significant costs to all sides. The fulsome thanks in the Cairo statement to Trump for his “decisive position” seeking “an immediate end to supporting extremism and terrorism” and, implicitly, for backing the campaign to pressure Doha, is intended to invoke the support of the White House for Qatar’s critics. But it also can, and probably should, be read as an indication that additional U.S. engagement to build on an opening created by the six principles and the invocation of the Riyadh Agreement would be welcome. Though the real potential for further escalation persists, the articulation of the six principles and emphasis on existing commitments by Qatar’s critics opens significant new prospects, especially in the context of a strong push from Washington, for a mutually-acceptable resolution to the standoff.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.