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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Doha must negotiate its way back into the fold or face years of isolation

The quartet are comfortable for the current crisis to drag on, because Qatar is unwilling to truly compromise

An artwork of Qatar’s ruler Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani in Doha. Naseem Zeitoon / Reuters
An artwork of Qatar’s ruler Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani in Doha. Naseem Zeitoon / Reuters

The Qatar crisis is entering a new phase that might cause it to outlive the current American administration. Kuwaiti mediation has failed. Shuttle diplomacy by Rex Tillerson, the American secretary of state, also has made no headway. There is a growing realisation on all sides that the four countries led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE are prepared to allow the situation to brew for months, if not beyond.

This realisation extends to countries not directly involved in the Gulf dispute. The United Kingdom and France, for example, are deeply worried about the business and diplomatic ramifications of a protracted and unpredictable dispute. Various institutions within the United States are also concerned about the unprecedented fallout among close allies, although Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, ruled out the idea of forcing companies to choose between doing business with Qatar and its opponents, in a talk at Chatham House, the London think tank.

First-hand accounts suggest that Gulf officials opposed to Qatar are resentful of Mr Tillerson’s recent diplomacy, despite public support for the anti-terror memorandum of understanding that the Americans signed with the Qataris last week. One source raised the possibility that the decision to sign the MOU was an attempt to spite the quartet over its lack of flexibility.

The MOU, in their view, could be an attempt to signal that the US and Qatar could resolve issues related to terror funding bilaterally, thus weakening the Saudi position by removing a fundamental and strong demand off the list. In Qatar, the MOU was a concession made to the US, not to its neighbours. The Washington Post’s leak about an alleged Emirati hacking of Qatari news sites is also seen as a jab at the Saudi side by certain American officials unhappy with the Riyadh bloc’s unwavering position.

Many, at least in the region, and particularly within the pro-Qatari camp, were hoping that a stalemate between the two parties would push the US to throw its weight behind finding a solution. This possibility was considered by the anti-Qatar quartet as they made the decision to impose measures against Doha. So, both sides believed the US could have a role to play.

But that prospect now seems remote. The Saudi camp is determined to let the situation simmer. While the US state department seems to favour a quick opening, the White House remains on the quartet's side. Even if that changes, the US has no switch to flip to force four of its close allies to make a U-turn without the Qatari behavioural change they seek. In 2014, for example, Doha agreed to the demands of Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Manama, but it still took seven months before their ambassadors returned to Qatar.

All sides appear to understand this crucial point. But outside policy circles in the Gulf and Washington, voices continue to speak in terms of immediate results. An Al Jazeera anchor, for example, declared that Qatar has emerged victorious and that the Saudi camp failed to bring Doha to its knees. Some pundits also still cite the inability of the four countries to follow up with harsher measures as a sign of Qatari strength.

The limited ability or desire to escalate at this point is not the correct measure of effectiveness. It is simply too early to tell, and that is the point. The four countries believe that Qatar is not ready to make the shift they desire. Because of that understanding, they believe the crisis has to take long enough for Qatar to be convinced that they are serious about it.

Critics of this policy say it will backfire. The policy, they argue, could drive Qatar to the Iranian camp and will be politically and economically costly for the quartet. From the Saudi and Emirati viewpoint, Qatar was never in their geopolitical camp even if it was not an ally of Iran. In Syria, Libya and Egypt, Doha dedicated much of its time, money and energy to regional rivalry, more than anything else.

Additionally, they do not believe that US-aligned Doha could strike a viable alliance with Iran in direct opposition to Saudi Arabia. Suspending Qatar from the Gulf Cooperation Council is still a future possibility, but it is already a de facto reality.

Finally, the four countries are comfortable with allowing the current crisis to drag on as long as Doha is unwilling to truly compromise. They believe that Qatar has to negotiate its way back into the fold. In the meantime, the cost on them is minimal. Indeed, they believe that continued pressure on Doha will allow them to achieve progress in countries like Libya, militarily as well as politically. As one observer from the Gulf recently said, but for the current dispute, Qatar would have poured resources to prevent the fall of Benghazi to the anti-Islamist commander, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

Policymakers in the US must understand the calculations of the two sides if they are to break the current stalemate. The crisis is poised to last for many months, if not years. Public discussions of the crisis might obscure what is really going on in the minds of the quartet’s leaders, who are clearly determined to see real change in Doha no matter how inconvenient it might be to their American and European allies.

Hassan Hassan is a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy