Timothy Lenderking, Perry Cammack, Ali Shihabi, David Des Roches
The following is a transcript of the ninetieth in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held at the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, on October 13, 2017, with Richard J. Schmierer, chairman of the Council's board of directors, moderating, and Thomas R. Mattair, the Council's executive director, serving as discussant. The video can be accessed at www.mepc.org.
TIMOTHY LENDERKING, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Arabian Peninsula Affairs, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, Department of State; Former Deputy Chief of Mission, U.S. Embassy in Riyadh
I'm very pleased to be here on behalf of the State Department and the U.S. government to talk about the Gulf crisis. I want to make a number of points that I think will convey to you the sense of how we, in the U.S. government, look at this particular situation. The first point is that each of the countries involved in the conflict — the four quartet countries and Qatar — are all strong allies of the United States, and partners in a number of different fields. There are strong historical relationships with each of these countries. We partner with them in a variety of ways. U.S. companies have a tremendous presence in all of these countries. We have military bases in some of them. There are university connections. These countries invest quite substantially in the United States, and they're also very important platforms and allies in the counter-ISIL struggle, all in different ways.
The second point is that, over time, we have actually seen the benefits of unity within the GCC. If you go back to the early Gulf War, we found that GCC unity was critical to our ability to harness a coalition to achieve success in that particular military engagement. We have found that the GCC, working together, has produced important benefits, and that the unity of the GCC has also created regional stability in very important ways. If you look over the last few decades, these countries have managed their differences very well. That's not to say that there haven't been differences. There have been precursors to what happened. You can cite a number of examples from 2013 and 2014. But the countries managed to work their way through these differences.
The third point is that each of the countries involved has certain counterterrorism vulnerabilities or shortcomings in terms of overall performance in this critical area. That could be shortcomings in the legal system, capacity issues at different times, conflicting messages about promotion of what we would call violent extremism. But over the last 10 years, in particular, each of these countries has made progress at various levels.
We've worked very closely with each of the countries in this endeavor, as has the Department of Treasury, which is a key partner with the Department of State, particularly on counterterrorism financing, and Treasury attachés in Riyadh and Doha and Abu Dhabi as well. This is also a reflection of where we've wanted, as a U.S. government, to put our resources, and where we've sought strong partnerships. Again, each of the countries has shown substantial improvement over the years.
Once the crisis got underway on June 5, it was very important, from our point of view, that the quartet countries spell out their demands. What is it that they were asking of Qatar to do exactly? And in the initial stages, we heard many different objectives, many different underlying issues. But Secretary Tillerson, in particular, was very keen that the quartet countries put in writing what their demands were. What is it that they were asking of Qatar? And of course, that led to the 13 demands, Qatar's response, and then some other principles that came out of a subsequent meeting in Cairo.
The fifth point I want to make is that, in response to these demands, the United States felt very strongly that a common standard should apply to each of the countries as they look at Qatar. What is being asked of Qatar should also be asked of those countries as well. If you look at the demands, the first one, of course, governs relations with Iran. Later on, in the list of demands, there's talk of noninterference in the countries of the quartet, closing financial loopholes. Our key point here is that each of the countries needs to meet the same standard that is being asked of Qatar.
Subsequently, we also realized very early on that the resolution to this situation is local. It's not going to be us or the outside world or outside countries imposing a solution on the region. It's going to have to come internally. Thus, we have felt very strongly throughout the conflict that the sooner the parties can get together and negotiate, the sooner we would see a resolution. So, when Secretary Tillerson made his first trip to the region in response to the dispute back in July, he chose very specifically to base his visit out of Kuwait. Kuwait had volunteered to be the mediator, and we wanted to support those efforts. That was also specifically designed to show that Kuwait has the leadership, as the mediator, and we mean to support those efforts.
The seventh point I would make, which has been borne out unfortunately, is that the crisis doesn't get better with the passage of time. Starting with the embargo back on June 5, we've seen quite a substantial escalation on the media side, and all sides are participating. It's not one side or the other. There's been a very strong escalation in social media. There's been the suggestion that Qatar would be better served by alternative leadership. We've had to cancel very recently our participation in a military exercise that involved a number of the countries in the region — not all of them, but a multilateral exercise. We did that because we don't want to institutionalize the rift here. So we're looking to use our weight, if we can, to push the countries back together.
There was also an important stance that Senator Corker took, when he issued a letter two months ago saying he would put a hold on arms sales of lethal equipment to the Gulf countries until the crisis was resolved. We've seen an erosion of trust, I think, among leaders. That's particularly troubling to us because many of the leaders who govern these countries are young, and we look forward to their being able to build confidence so they can work together in the future. And we've seen the crisis seep into international fora as well. The Arab League meeting that took place a month ago is a particularly dramatic example of the rift displayed in a public forum.
We also recognize that we have a lot of pressing business with each of the countries and with the Gulf region, and that business must go on despite the dispute. We have important regional equities in Syria, in Yemen, in Libya and with the Palestinian situation. Each of the countries involved in this dispute plays a key role with us, whether we're talking about trying to centralize the influences from outside in terms of who's supporting which side in the Libya conflict; in terms of rallying the Syrian opposition to present a credible alternative to the current leadership; or in the crisis in Yemen, where we've seen repeated and persistent intervention in a very unhelpful way by Iran — supporting the Houthi militia — that just created additional space for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to grow. We need these countries to work with us. And to the extent that they can work together, that only amplifies our ability to project common force in these very, very difficult regional situations.
I'll close with the fact that we will, despite the need to work on these regional conflicts together, continue to put pressure on this situation to be resolved. We don't want to let it go and to continue indefinitely. We do think, as I said, that it gets worse with time and compromises vital U.S. interests in the region. So, again, these are all important countries to the United States, individually. But we look forward to the earliest resolution of the Gulf dispute, and these countries pulling together to join with us in partnering against common threats to the Gulf region.
PERRY CAMMACK, Fellow, Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Former Policy Planning Staff, Secretary of State John Kerry; Former Professional Staff Member, Senate Foreign Relations Committee
A lot of us, myself certainly included, were very surprised on June 5, when we woke up, in the middle of the night, to find there had been this sudden imposition of an embargo, a cutting of relations. Now, Gulf politics, I think, are quite opaque, and the roots of the conflict in many ways — even four or five months into this — are still poorly understood in Washington.
So what I thought I would do is build on Tim's very good presentation to try to unpack what I see are the stated reasons for the conflict, and then some of the underlying issues at stake. Based on that framework, I'll try to offer some brief thoughts on what the United States and the broader international community might do about it.
First, the anti-terror quartet — shorthand for the coalition of four countries: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain — essentially has three fundamental grievances with Qatar: support for terrorism, inappropriate relations with Iran and interference in the sovereign affairs of other countries. I'd like to go through these quickly, one by one.
Terrorism, obviously, is the most serious charge and the most important interest, arguably, of the United States in the Middle East. I think there are two elements to this when looking at Qatar. First, there is no question that Qatar provides formal political support to groups opposed to the United States and groups that many of us would consider terrorist organizations: Ahrar al-Sham in Syria, Hamas in Gaza and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
When I was in government, some of this activity would drive people in the State Department crazy. I imagine that's still true today. But there's a flipside to this as well: sometimes these linkages actually create diplomatic opportunities. An example that I saw firsthand was the Gaza war in 2014 between Israel and Hamas, which ended with many weeks of very intense indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas to try to find a negotiated settlement.
The two parties weren't communicating directly, and Washington is by law prohibited from speaking with Hamas. Cairo wasn't speaking to them. So who was the interlocutor? Doha. We can talk about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of Doha's relations with Hamas, but in this case, at least from my perspective, it's very clear that their involvement actually did facilitate a negotiated outcome.
The second aspect of the terrorism issue is not on the government side; it's the existence of private channels, citizen channels, that are providing funds for jihadi groups, including, obviously, the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. This is obviously a significant problem. Every year, the State Department releases what it calls the country reports on terrorism — the most comprehensive, open-source, public information that the U.S. government puts out on international efforts to counter terrorism. The 2016 version, published just a couple months ago, had this to say, which pretty well encapsulates my understanding of the situation when I was in government as of 2015: "the government of Qatar has made progress on countering the financing of terrorism, but terrorist financiers within the country are still able to exploit Qatar's informal financial system." The bilateral memorandum of understanding on countering terrorist financing, which was signed by the Trump administration with Doha a couple months ago, hopefully will lead to progress.
My impression is that implementation has been slow. But, again, as Tim mentioned, we have to understand the regional context. This is not a problem that only exists in Doha. This is a problem that exists throughout the GCC and well beyond. In fact, in March 2014, the then-undersecretary of treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence stated publicly in a speech that it was Kuwait that was "the epicenter of fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria."
The second grievance is Iran. It's interesting that one of the things highlighted in the initial list of 13 grievances was actually trade. If you look at open-source information put out by the Central Intelligence Agency, 40 percent of Iran's imports come through the United Arab Emirates — mostly through Dubai — amounting to something like $20 billion annually. I did a bit of research into the United Nations trade data, and Qatar's trade with Iran is only about a billion dollars a year, although I suspect this number will rise as a result of the crisis.
Meanwhile, it was Oman, of course — another member of the GCC — that was instrumental in creating the Iran-backed channel that eventually led to the Iran deal, the JCPOA, whatever one thinks about it. In fact, I first met Ambassador Schmierer when we had modest roles in some of those early steps; I was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff. The point is that Qatar, at least on the Iran file, is hardly an outlier. There's no GCC consensus.
The third grievance, of course, is interference in the sovereign affairs in other Arab countries. This is complicated. It's true that Qatar has developed an outsized mouthpiece in the Al Jazeera Network, which does, indeed, broadcast some material from time to time that many of us would find shocking. It's also true that Qatar has inserted itself into many of the region's crises. But I think the notion that Qatar is the only one doing such interference, or that this country of 250,000 citizens constitutes a grave threat to the sovereignty of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, strikes many of us as a little bit silly.
So this indictment consists of three items, and, at least from my perspective, it doesn't quite add up. Something more is driving this than just the ostensible, stated reasons in the list of 13 or the subsequent list of six principles. So what's actually driving this; what's the deeper reason? I think most of us, when we think of regional competition in today's context, think immediately of the Saudi-Iran power competition in the Middle East. But I would argue that there is another regional competition that has been every bit as intense and, in some ways, more important in shaping Arab politics in the six years since the Arab Spring; the Qatari-Emirati regional competition in which Saudi Arabia has gradually moved closer and closer to the Emirati position.
I won't go through all the details. But if you think about the early days of the Arab Spring in 2011, the story is really quite remarkable. In Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Syria and, most importantly, Egypt, the Emiratis and the Qataris were supporting opposite sides of the revolutionary forces. The most extreme case was Libya, in which the two countries were essentially on the opposite sides of a quite brutal civil war, post-revolution. This, I would argue, in many ways fundamentally damaged the possibility of a more peaceful transition in Libya.
In the early days, the Qataris were seen to have the upper hand, with Islamist parties winning a string of victories, particularly in North Africa. But then we had an important inflection point, I would argue, in modern Arab history: the removal of Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood-elected president of Egypt, and his replacement ultimately with General — and then later President — Sisi. This, at least in my mind, was the beginning of a concerted effort by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, with local partners as well, to reverse the regional advance that had been made by the Qataris' Islamist allies earlier.
It's been said a lot in Washington that this conflict is a diversion from really important issues facing the United States in the region: the war against ISIS, first and foremost; efforts to try to constrain Iranian interference in the region; and how to wind down the four civil wars that are simmering across the Middle East. But just to dismiss this conflict as purely personality-based or silly — though at times it has been — is to underestimate how deep this regional-power competition has been. As we consider how the United States might try to mitigate the effects of this, I think we have to understand how deep some of these grievances have been on both sides.
Let me highlight, in conclusion, what I would argue is the short-term play by Washington and other friends of the region, as well as regional powers — and the longer-term dynamics. In the short term, it's time to tell the parties: enough is enough; this is hurting American interests. It's certainly hurting regional interests. It's hurting your own interests. If this spat is going to continue, at least take it behind closed doors.
I'm not very optimistic that there can be a breakthrough, "eureka" moment in which the two sides get together. But I would be hopeful that there are ways to at least dial down the tension, to keep both sides from taking steps that would do irreversible damage. But the longer game, I think, is that what we've seen in this competition, which has gone on for at least five or six years and arguably decades before that, is the same scorched-earth, zero-sum politics so prevalent in all of these conflicts, whether in Egypt, Libya, Syria, or Tunisia.
Ultimately, unless regional leaders can get to the point where political and diplomatic approaches to these regional challenges become more prevalent than military interventions or security solutions, I'm afraid we're going to be spinning our wheels here. I think what we all need to do, whether in Washington or in the region, is to figure out mechanisms whereby leaders can start to have diplomatic discussions, political discussions, to get at the root causes of some of these profound issues facing the Middle East.
ALI SHIHABI, Founder and Executive Director, Arabia Foundation; Author, Arabian War Games and the Saudi Kingdom: Between the Jihadi Hammer and the Iranian Anvil
I think one of the biggest mistakes the quartet made in this whole crisis was its failure to communicate the problem adequately to U.S. elite opinion. The suddenness of the crisis took people in Washington — as witnessed by my two distinguished predecessors on the podium — totally by surprise. That has led to a misreading of the roots of the crisis. One of the reasons was, as Tim correctly put it, that the issues inside the Gulf Cooperation Council have been handled within the family for a long time and have not been advertised. Hence, public opinion abroad and in the region has not been well-briefed on what was happening.
This crisis has a history to it, of Qatar going back to 1995, when the current emir of Qatar overthrew his father. The Gulf leaders at that time took exception to that. They were elderly, and the idea of Junior overthrowing his father was not taken very well. So when the father came back, a year later, and tried to take power back, the countries surrounding Qatar helped him. Unfortunately, they made the same mistake Kennedy did with the Bay of Pigs. They helped a little bit, but not enough to get the job done. They just wounded the emir of Qatar — the father emir today — who took it very personally. So he and the prime minister at that time wanted to get revenge.
Effectively, they proceeded to do that over the next 20 years. The issue with Qatar today, and what has not been communicated, is that the Qataris have been working to undermine the internal security of their neighbors. This is what has raised the issue to the level of anxiety and anger we see today. It has manifested itself in many different ways. People are not very aware in Washington that, when Colonel Qadhafi was overthrown in Libya, his security files were opened up, and recordings of discussions between the colonel, the emir of Qatar and his prime minister were released publicly.
In those discussions, the emir of Qatar tells Qadhafi that "we" are funding the Saudi opposition, and he named names. He also said that "we" are searching out Saudi officers and government officials who travel abroad to subvert them, basically to buy them, and that "we" are working to bring down the Saudi royal family. He promises Qadhafi that the Saudi royal family will not be around 12 years hence. He also tells Qadhafi that "we" are going to divide Saudi Arabia into three countries: the western region, which has Mecca and Medina; the eastern region, which has all the oil; and we're going to leave the Saudi royal family the center — with no oil and no water.
Those recordings in themselves were a culmination of a period of intrigue and subversion that the Qataris had been carrying out. Understandably, Saudi Arabia was outraged. However, King Abdullah at that time, in the nontraditional order of how things were managed among Gulf leaders, accepted Kuwait's quiet, confidential mediation. As a result, the Qataris apologized, the prime minister and the emir came over to Riyadh and came up with excuses. That led to a series of agreements between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain and Qatar that committed all parties not to interfere in the internal security of their neighbors, not to use their media as a platform for parties that wanted to undermine others'— including Al Jazeera. The Qatari government in those agreements admitted their culpability and agreed to close down Jazeera Mubasher, a direct Egyptian channel that the Cairo government was very upset about. They felt it was promoting the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).
This was all a confidential agreement, signed by the leaders of these countries. The Qataris, however, broke it within the next six, seven, 10 months. The Kuwaitis came in again, and another agreement was signed a year later reiterating all the commitments the Qataris had made. So, by 2014, there had been a nearly 20-year track record of behavior by the Qataris towards their neighbors and multiple attempts at mediation. There had been two incidents of their neighbors pulling their embassies or ambassadors out of Qatar. There had been a long history of mediation, crisis, discussion and promises that the Qataris undertook. But their actions did not stop.
There was a feeling of optimism when the father emir retired — which happened just before the signing of those 2013-14 agreements. The assumption was that the father was the man who had borne the grudge from 1995 — he and his prime minister — and with their retiring and the young emir's coming in, that baggage would no longer be there, and that there was an opportunity to rebuild a new relationship.
Unfortunately, after the father emir retired, he seems to have retained the Saudi-Emirati-Bahraini file. While his son has been running other things, the father has continued doing what they were doing as before but attempting to do things in a sort of "clever" way. For example, while they reduced the opportunities for Jazeera to give the opposition within the Emirates and Saudi Arabia a platform, the father emir invested in media companies in Turkey and the United Kingdom that adopted the agenda of the Brotherhood.
So, ultimately, the leaders felt, after all these years they are facing existential threats from Iran and its proxies in the region, as well as from Sunni jihadism. These would be very difficult to fight when a member of the club, a brother state within the GCC, is working to undermine them from within.
This was always very difficult to understand, because Qatar has a vested interest in the security of its neighbors. Qatar is like a wooden house in a neighborhood full of wooden houses. If it sets a fire in Saudi Arabia, it would be inconceivable for Qatar to survive if the security of Saudi Arabia or the UAE or Bahrain were affected. That's why it always surprised the countries around them that the Qataris continue to behave as they did.
In the days of the Obama administration, there was a feeling that this issue would lead to an unending series of meetings and no action would have been taken. The feeling was that we had tried with the Qataris for 20 years, mediated with them, signed multiple agreements with them, but nothing is working. One option would be to go to war, which would have been irresponsible. The other option was to say, we are going to isolate ourselves from you, and you from us. That is not a blockade. Qatar retains its seaports and airports, and it has the resources to connect to the whole world. It's isolating them from their neighborhood, from their geographical depth, from their family, really, because ultimately Qatar is integrally tied to the Arabian Peninsula. Even though they can talk about building a relationship with Turkey or Iran, they have no choice. Geography, history and ethnicity determine that their future is tied to their neighbors. So the feeling was that decisive action had to be taken.
The mistake was not communicating it well. As a result, it took the American policy community by surprise. With 20/20 hindsight, what the quartet should have done, on the day the action was taken, was to release the documents — which it didn't do till a month later — the three agreements signed among the four countries. They should also have said, we signed these agreements in 2013 and 2014; we have waited three years for them to be implemented and they have not been. As a result, we are cutting ourselves off from Qatar today. I think that would have given the clarity and precision to the issue that is still missing today.
With all due respect to Perry Cammack, people who say it's a bit of a silly thing are prevalent among the analyst community; people still haven't gotten their hands around it. When I go around Washington and mention, for example, the recordings from Libya, very few people, even experts in the State Department or elsewhere in government, have actually heard the tapes. This has been a failure in communication on the part of the quartet.
Qatar has to be brought into line. As Tim said, everybody should practice the same behavior; the rules should apply to all. I don't think there's any dispute on the side of the neighbors that the rules should apply to everybody. Nobody should subvert the internal security of a neighbor. Nobody should give funding or support or host members of their opposition who want to bring down the surrounding governments. Nobody should give a platform to organizations — whether direct Saudi or Emirati organizations or organizations like al-Nusra or Hezbollah, which are revolutionary organizations — that want to bring down the ruling order in the region and indirectly are working to subvert the security of these countries.
There's total agreement on that issue, and there is zero trust in the leadership of Qatar, particularly in the presence of the father. As long as the father of the emir continues to exercise power behind the scenes, a deal will not be reached. But if the Qataris commit to the agreements they have signed, and if our friends in America are able to guarantee, cosign and add their prestige to those agreements, I don't see that this problem cannot be solved. But this blockade will continue; it is working. The Qataris have the money to wait it out, but it's expensive, economically, psychologically. Their people, their tribes, are intricately tied to the Arabian Peninsula, and obviously, they are now cut off from their geography. The only civilized approach to take is to try to pressure Qatar to come back into the fold and become a responsible member of the GCC community. That is essential if the Gulf Cooperation Community is to successfully fight jihadi — Sunni jihadi and Shia jihadi — extremism in the region. They have to work the way Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Bahrain work very well together now. Until that happens, I don't see a rapid solution to this problem.
DAVID DES ROCHES, Associate Professor, Near East South Asia Center for Security Studies, National Defense University; Former Director, Arabian Peninsula, Department of Defense.
My remarks do not reflect the policy of any U.S. government body or agency.
There are two metaphors currently dominant in DC defense circles. The first is the Thucydides trap. This phrase, taken from an article by Graham Allison, refers to the threat that a rising power — in this case China — poses to an established power — the United States — and the probability that this dynamic will lead to war. The term comes from Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian Wars, the first and certainly one of the most influential works of strategy in international relations.
When one looks at the current GCC kerfuffle, however, another chapter of Thucydides is more appropriate: it is the formative document of political realism, the Melian Dialogue. Put simply, this refers to the challenges of a great power managing a coalition in which it has a dominant role. While Thucydides is often more respected and cited than read in Washington, there are useful lessons to be drawn for the GCC players in this unproductive and protracted dispute. Melos is a small island off the coast of southern Greece. It was a neutral city-state when the Athenians informed the Melians they would have to join the Athenian alliance against Sparta. The Melians demurred, pointing out that they had not harmed and would not harm the Athenians, nor would they support the Spartans; but they did not wish to fight for Athens. The Athenians responded they could not allow anyone to remain neutral, as it would let Athens's other allies know there was an alternative to subjugation and service. The Melians argued that their cause was right and surely the gods would not permit such an injustice. The Athenians responded in the classic line beloved of practitioners from Ancient Rome to Henry Kissinger: The gods rarely intervene in the affairs of mortals; the strong do as they can, while the weak suffer as they must.
Applying Thucydides to the current GCC situation, we can (with minor tweaking) cast the quartet in the role of Athens; Qatar as Melos; Kuwait and Oman as the possibly wavering allies; and — with customary self-regard — the United States as the gods. Lest I be accused of a surfeit of national pride — another customary American condition — let me point out that all the sides in the GCC dispute have made appeals to Washington to intervene on their behalf in terms not entirely unknown to the Athenians and Spartans. Athens wound up slaughtering the male Melians and enslaving the women and children. Hopefully, our current standoff will be resolved in a more felicitous manner.
The second metaphor I wish to discuss is not as well known. I call it the NATO illusion: the well-founded and persistent Western desire to replicate the role of NATO as a functioning security and political organization in other regions around the world. This model has been applied by the United States and its allies globally. In some areas it has been merely ineffective, as with the Organization of American States; in others, it has been an abject failure, as with the Baghdad Pact and its follow-on organizations.
Outside of NATO, American efforts to build security organizations have run the gamut from mediocre to just plain awful. The Western persistence in homing in on the one unalloyed success — NATO — while disregarding a much wider range of failure represents a triumph of optimism over experience. But there's a strange and resilient power to a shared mental model. Many around the world continue to try to jam alliances into the NATO-shaped cookie cutter, and the GCC is no exception. The NATO metaphor is particularly ill-suited to the GCC. Saudi Arabia is so big relative to its neighbors that the GCC could only resemble NATO if NATO consisted only of the United States, the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, and Greece. The Saudi security role is superior because of the size of Saudi Arabia and decades of consistent, well-planned military investment. The UAE has made rapid advances as well, and has armed forces that are both more modern and more effective than the kingdom's, but the UAE is limited by its size.
The current kerfuffle has diverged from the NATO paradigm in one particularly notable aspect. For some reason, in this current climate, prominent Americans who probably know better have chosen to put forward a new standard for locating American bases: American approval of the host regime. Prominent retired security officials have suggested that the massive American headquarters in Qatar should be relocated as a sign of disapproval of Qatar's conduct. This has never been our standard nor is it in our national interest. It is a breathtaking departure from past practice. U.S. military bases have never been seen as a validation of the host regime. We maintain a base in Cuba. Our bases in Greece under Papandreou, or in the Philippines under Marcos, did not mute American criticism of those regimes. We maintain a critical air base in Turkey while decrying Erdogan's slide into dictatorship. I would note that a lot of us in this room probably can't get a visa to visit Turkey right now.
It is understandable for the UAE to covet CENTCOM's forward headquarters as another pearl in its necklace, alongside the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Cleveland Clinic's Middle East outpost, and the Middle East campus of New York University. But it has never been American practice to regard basing as a blessing or sign of approval. American security interests are served by having a constellation of bases. In 1973, our airlift to Israel was only possible because of bases we held in Portugal, which was then a rather unpleasant colonial dictatorship. Shifting bases according to political whims will also have the practical disadvantage of discouraging host-country construction and infrastructure development on these bases — which is a not insubstantial issue in this climate of American fiscal uncertainty.
Returning to the Melian metaphor, both sides have decided to appeal directly to the gods. Qatar has announced large aircraft purchases from the United States and the United Kingdom, in addition to France. There is no chance that such a small country will ever be able to field enough pilots to man all these aircraft in an effective, sustainable manner. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have sponsored media campaigns and events focusing on Qatar's alleged misdeeds that seek to inspire the wrath of the gods, such as Facebook ads saying Qatar has imported North Korean slave labor to build World Cup stadiums and that bribery stole the soccer World Cup from the U.S. This last charge seems to me particularly ineffective; most red-blooded American men outgrow soccer when they start shaving.
U.S. patience with this ongoing kerfuffle seems to be running out. America has long wanted to see the GCC states partner to develop true military capacity — like NATO. For example, Trump's Riyadh-summit weapons package included a satellite missile-launch detection capacity to be sold to Saudi Arabia. Qatar has asked for, and been approved, to buy a ballistic-missile early-warning-system radar — a very effective Raytheon system deployed in the United States. Most GCC countries field American air-defense missiles. Integrating this capability seems like a harmonization of national interests. From an engineering standpoint, the case for GCC missile-defense integration is unanswerable — through not from a political standpoint.
Yet, the GCC members squabble in the face of a determined Iranian enemy and don't seem to notice their American patron shifting some of these extremely limited assets towards Japan and Korea. GCC members purchase redundant weapons in parallel, regardless of their ability to sustain them. Bahrain's recent request for F-16 fighters is a case in point. There is a surfeit of fighter aircraft in the GCC and a shortage of ground-attack assets. Bahrain would be better off letting its partners fly expensive air cover and developing a fleet of propeller-driven ground-attack aircraft. Bahrain will be challenged to afford the $500,000 price tag attached to every precision-guided missile, but they can afford .50-caliber ammunition.
In Ancient Greece, the gods had the power to strike down miscreants with thunderbolts. America's tools are somewhat less impressive. America's ability to dictate a resolution to this crisis is overstated. As Mr. Lenderking noted, Senator Corker hoped to force a resolution by placing a hold on U.S. weapons sales to the GCC. However, this is informal and loosely applied. When the Saudis announced a deal to buy an advanced Russian air-defense system, Senator Corker lifted his hold on the sale of the THAAD system to Saudi Arabia. The U.S. has suspended some multilateral exercises, but the step was taken more to spare embarrassment than to force a conclusion. Most other steps, such as suspending bilateral defense talks or curtailing GCC-member visits to the United States, actually would harm our interests more than anybody else's.
NATO is NATO and has never been replicated. The sad fate of the Melians, alas, has been experienced by many groups throughout history. All sides in the Gulf Cooperation Council would do well to note they are bordered by a ruthless and rapacious enemy with a population that is large, resilient, educated, poor, and looking across the Gulf with an extremely combustible mix of envy and resentment. Just as the Greeks set aside profound differences to join together and defeat the Persians at Thermopylae, so should some legitimate national concerns about GCC sovereignty be set aside in the interest of pursuing the common defense. History has lessons to teach us, but only if we listen. A weak and divided GCC will be easy prey for Daesh, Iran or any other aggressor. Perhaps the hardest thing for any proud man to do is to set aside pride in the interest of the common good. It is beyond time for the leaders of the GCC to suppress their pride in the interest of advancing the GCC's common defense.
Q & A
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
Ali and others talked about the fact that the U.S. administration was surprised on June 5, and I think we now understand a little more about why. But can Ali and others talk a little more about the history of the differences? Perry also talked about the Saudis, Emiratis and Qataris supporting different sides in the civil wars around the region, and how similar those secret agreements are to the 13 demands finally released for the benefit of a U.S. administration that hadn't seen them.
MR. SHIHABI: I think there's a fundamental misunderstanding that Saudi Arabia would like to turn Qatar into a vassal state and that the issue is the large, arrogant neighbor annoyed by the upstart smaller power. It may be annoyed sometimes by the Qataris — and certainly some of the Qatari behavior in Libya and other places might be annoying — but that is not what drove this. What drove it was the feeling that Qatar was working to undermine the internal security of the country. For example, clerics were arrested in Saudi Arabia a few weeks ago, and the government discovered that the Qatari government had for years been having these clerics on its payroll. Millions of dollars have been spent. These are clerics who have millions of followers, one of them 14 million on Twitter. They are a political force.
This interference in Saudi Arabia's internal security was what incensed the government. Did Qatar want to play a larger role on the world stage? Was that irritating sometimes? Sure. Kuwait did that in the '60s. King Faisal used to say that there were three superpowers in the world: the Soviet Union, the U.S. and Kuwait. The Kuwaitis had the same attitude in the '60s and '70s, wanting to stand out and not be overshadowed by their giant neighbor, Saudi Arabia. Kuwait only came to its senses when Saddam invaded and the Kuwaitis realized it was the strategic depth of Saudi Arabia that saved them. Saudi Arabia was part of the same club of tribal monarchies, and the Saudi royal family stood with the Kuwaiti royal family. Otherwise, Kuwait would have disappeared. This has never been behavior that would have elicited the reaction that you see now. This was a reaction to a direct effort to subvert the security of the neighbors.
The Emiratis and Bahrainis had the same issue, documented, videotaped and recorded on multiple occasions over 20 years. And there had been multiple opportunities and meetings where these grievances were expressed and promises were made by the Qataris to desist. As a result, after the tapes were released from Qadhafi's vaults, the emir of Kuwait brought the emir of Qatar to see King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who told him, I don't trust your word. You promised not to do this again. He said, I don't believe you. Let's put it on paper. This is why the first agreement, in 2013, was actually handwritten. The king of Saudi Arabia told the Qataris, I don't believe your word.
They broke the agreement a year later. There was a more formal summit and a more detailed agreement. There was a more detailed addendum signed by the foreign ministers, and they broke that. So the problem now is that the quartet countries don't believe the word of the Qataris, and they don't trust their signature. So any agreement reached with Qatar would need some sort of U.S. verification, where the United States became a party to it. As a result, the Qataris would give it much more weight.
This is a history of direct interference and a feeling that the Qataris wanted to undermine security and bring the systems of government down. This is mindboggling when you think of it; it can hardly be in Qatar's interest to do something like that. These agreements were only leaked a month after the crisis. Unfortunately, in our part of the world, communication is not an integral part of policymaking. Policy makers make decisions and then, in effect, allow the other party to define the story and then respond. Western politicians have learned that from minute one, you have to communicate. The communication strategy has to be an integral part of any policy step that you take. Lack of communication is what has caused the confusion — up to today in Washington, I think.
Richard J. Schmierer, Chairman, Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council
I was serving as ambassador to Oman during the Arab Spring. All of us at the time were trying to understand that dynamic and see how it played out. I think it was you, Perry, and Ali as well, who alluded to the fact that some of the dynamics of that period have continued to infect the policies of the region. It might be useful for the audience to learn what happened then, if you could draw a timeline to put this in that context.
MR. CAMMACK: It strikes me that one of the most profound things that's happened in the Middle East since 2011 is the collapse of the regional order. Not to say that pre-Arab Spring, the Middle East was a stable place. But, generally, the kinds of interventions into other countries' politics that we're talking about were limited to weaker states on the periphery. There has been lots of intervention by regional states into Palestinian politics, Yemeni politics. Lebanon is a good example of it.
But since 2011 the facades of the former strong states — whether it was Qadhafi's Libya or Mubarak's Egypt or Assad's Syria — all have crumbled. What it's meant is that these interventions that Ali is talking about are happening across the region, across numerous vectors simultaneously. Can an argument be made that Qatar has been at the forefront of that? Absolutely. But they're hardly the only ones. If you look at the history of Yemen or Syria or Libya, these political interventions are happening everywhere simultaneously. So it strikes me that, until the states of the region come to some kind of Westphalian moment, where there's a recognition that this simultaneous intervention everywhere is hurting their own interests and they begin to have some respect for each other's sovereignty, I'm afraid this is going to go on for a lot longer.
One place where I do agree with several of my panelists is that there is a preponderance of power on the side of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, whether demographic, geographic or economic. Whatever one thinks normatively of the situation, over time, the status quo does favor the quartet against Qatar. But in the short term, I would argue that Qatar has actually benefited from this politically. My understanding of the popular reaction is that there has been a rallying-around-the-flag effect in Qatar, which has actually improved the emir's standing rather than diminished it.
MR. SHIHABI: There always is a rallying around the flag at the beginning of a crisis. People cheered as the troops in Europe went off to World War I. But after a while, when they pay a price, the Qatari people are going to ask themselves, what does Qatar gain from alienating its neighbors?
The father emir had views about the future of the Arab world and wanted to help restructure Syria. But those were secondary. His visions about playing this role were secondary to his direct behavior towards his neighbors. This is where communication has been flawed; people don't understand this. So they mix up Qatari behavior in Libya with Qatari funding of the Saudi opposition or giving them a platform or working to undermine the security of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates and Bahrain. There are priorities and issues that cross a red line and others that irritate but don't cross the red line.
DR. MATTAIR: In point of fact, Ali, these secret agreements were released by CNN and then provided by your website.
MR. SHIHABI: Somebody leaked them to CNN. We have copies of them on our website, but they're also on the CNN website. Those agreements should have been public. From minute one, a statement should have said, here are the agreements. Then we would have come to our friends in the State Department and said, America likes to uphold the rule of law. Here's the rule of law. Here are three agreements, signed and certified. Why don't you help us do that? There would have been less confusion. Mr. Lenderking would have been supportive of upholding the rule of law, I think.
DR. MATTAIR: The first grievance is interference in domestic affairs. The second is support for terrorism.
MR. SHIHABI: The quartet thought that the use of that word was a clever way to address this crisis because of the obsession in America and the West about terrorism, but I think that confused things. Of course they're supporting terrorist organizations, but the understanding of terrorism in America is a bit confused. Had the message been more on the right to protect your internal security, and that they are working to undermine it, I think it would have been more clearly understood here.
DR. MATTAIR: But I think Perry indicated that citizen channels in Qatar have been supporting ISIS.
MR. CAMMACK: Yes, but not just in Qatar.
DR. MATTAIR: Let's go into why it is that Qatar has supported the groups it has in Libya and in Syria, for example, and why the Saudis and the UAE consider that to be a threat, and how Qatar has a different vision of the future of the region, how deep that is and how it is going to be possible to reconcile those different visions.
PROF. DES ROCHES: It's become almost a tautology to say that policy problems and security problems are failures of either communications or intelligence. You can put almost everything into that basket. In international relations, when you have a strong leading power and a less dominant neighbor, almost inevitably the smaller power defines itself oppositionally and winds up nipping at its heels a constant irritant. It's just a state of nature that a smaller country will either become completely subordinate — a province — or an irritant. But Qatar is proud to the point of being cocky. When the wave of the Arab Spring was cresting, they were not shy about telling everybody else, "you represent the old, the decaying; your moment is coming to an end and we are the future; we're smaller, we're agile." They thought they were riding the wave, with supporting Morsi and all that, but the status quo has swung back with a vengeance.
MR. SHIHABI: But look at the history of Kuwait. In the '60s and '70s, it was exactly that, an irritant, uncomfortable with being overshadowed by Saudi Arabia. That annoyed and it upset Saudi Arabia. But there was never a break in relations, was never any hostility. And that behavior stopped after the invasion of Kuwait.
The Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia would not have reacted with such extreme anger if Qatar had not crossed the line from being an irritant to being an active agent of subversion. The Qataris were talking about the wave of the future and democracy, when Qatar itself is a total autocracy like everybody else. When they talk about freedom of the press, for example, they allow the Saudi opposition to go on Al Jazeera, but the Qatari opposition never sees the light of day. In fact, a poet in Qatar who had criticized the emir and called for the Arab Spring to come to Qatar was thrown in jail for five years.
There's a very interesting YouTube clip of President Obama. He said, I had the emir of Qatar here today. He's a powerful man, he's been saying democracy, democracy, democracy all over the Arab world, which is great, but Qatar itself isn't a democracy. So there's a bit of nonsense and hypocrisy there. But even that wouldn't have irritated Saudi Arabia. It was crossing the red line of subversion that blew this relationship up.
PROF. DES ROCHES: I don't think we're in that much disagreement, but I would note that there was a communications plan in place to make the case against Qatar, at least in the West. There were articles by key leaders. There was a big conference of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies that tied Qatar in with Hamas, that seemed to tap in with substantial American domestic lobbying.
It seemed that the blockade was imposed before there was really an alternative or a clear option for the Qataris other than surrender. On June 5, most of the commentators were comparing the quartet's demands to the demands that Austria-Hungary made in 1914. The demands were quite frankly unachievable by a state that wishes to remain sovereign. It seemed the aim was regime change, but you don't put that forward unless you have an alternative regime ready to go. We've learned that to our great expense. That Quartet says: "We've had this conference in London; we have a cousin of Hamad." It is puzzling to me this wasn't done before the imposition of the blockade. These communication measures, these recent demands, could have been prepared as well. This leads me to believe there was either gross disorganization or some sort of existential threat — perceived or otherwise — that led to premature action.
MR. SHIHABI: Regime change is something that the Gulf countries take with great caution. It is being talked about now, but if the father emir retires from the picture, I think things can be solved quite quickly with the existing government. The concept of regime change is something that the Gulf countries have been very careful about for a very long time. Unfortunately, in the 13 points that were issued, one of them was closing down Al Jazeera. This gave the Qataris a big public-relations coup. They were able to turn around and say, you want to close down the free press. Every journalist in the world suddenly rallied to their side, when really the issue wasn't closing Qatar Al Jazeera down, it was just making Jazeera treat Saudi Arabia the way it treats Qatar. As Tim was saying, apply the same laws — apply unto your neighbor what you want your neighbor to apply unto you.
DR. MATTAIR: To come back to this question that I think is extremely important for Americans, the Iran issue, the Treasury Department has commented about the performance of various states in terms of curbing the flow of money to extremists and terrorists. Tim said that there's improvement at various levels everywhere. So that concept of various levels of improvement is something that we might discuss. They've been considered to be lagging behind the Saudis, but there is an agreement with Tillerson and a new Qatari law. Ali, I think you said it was being implemented slowly. Can we talk about that and how important it would be to Saudi Arabia and the UAE if there were progress on that and how important would it be to the U.S.?
MR. SHIHABI: The Financial Times broke a story about a month into the crisis that talked about a ransom of a billion dollars being paid by the Qataris to a Shia and Sunni militia in Iraq. This was validated by a third party, the prime minister of Iraq. He came out and said that the Iraqi government had caught Qatari diplomats trying to smuggle $500 million in cash to give to the Hashd al-Shaabi as a ransom. The Qataris said, no, no, this was money that we're going to give as aid to the Iraqi government. If you want to give aid to the Iraqi government, you transfer it from your central bank to the other central bank. You don't carry $500 million in cash, right? Part of the $500 million ended up with Sunni jihadis and part of it ended up with the Iranian-supported Hashd al-Shaabi.
Why on earth Qatar would want to allow this, even if it were a ransom? Even if they've arrested members of your family, no government would allow them to be given a sum of money that could power them for the next 10 years. That sort of irresponsible behavior — even if the Qataris thought that it would give them influence or protection — nobody can make sense of it. But why on earth would you give that sort of money to the Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq, which not only talks about wanting to ethnically cleanse Iraq but about coming into Saudi Arabia? And why would you give the Sunni jihadi organizations in Syria, which want to topple the ruling order in Saudi Arabia, that sort of money? This behavior is incomprehensible.
I found the reaction of American policy makers here a bit surprising. They said, oh well, it's just a ransom, whether it was $5 million or a billion dollars. It's ransom. And I said this is an epoch-changing amount of money that you can deploy in a totally irresponsible manner. This boils down to whether Qatar thinks that they're buying protection by giving these terrorist criminal organizations hundreds of millions of dollars.
When you look at the funding of the terrorist organizations in Syria, yes, they've gotten contributions from individuals in the Gulf. But the core of their money has been smuggling, plunder, which is how revolutionary organizations, when they take territory, fund themselves. The Bolsheviks did it in Russia for the first 10 years, taking the wealth, plundering the banks, 50,000 here, 100,000 there. But a billion dollars, that's something that beggars belief. And until today, there is no explanation for it.
MR. LENDERKING: On that particular issue, there's been a great deal of discussion about that particular ransom payment, but I think we still don't have all the facts on that.
MR. SHIHABI: What facts do you have? Some of them, but not all of them?
MR. LENDERKING: I've seen a lot of information about what the status of this is. It's clear to me that these groups received that money. I won't go into any more detail on that. I will say that there is a gray area here about ransom payments. Yes, money from Qatar to free hostages in various circumstances has gone to what we would call terrorist groups. But journalists, peacekeepers, American citizens, Swedes and Fijians have been released. So one has to look at the pros and cons. I'm not justifying it; I'm just saying that there's some nuance here.
In terms of counterterrorism funding more broadly, Tom, you're right to point out that, drawing on my earlier statement, there's been progress across the board in each of these countries. In fact, probably the most significant progress has been in Saudi Arabia over the last 10 years, where there's really a very strong commitment to close loopholes and enact legislation. So there's been a very close partnership between Saudi Arabia and the United States, particularly with the Department of Treasury, which has a lot of the expertise in this area.
But the others have come along as well, if you look at the various categories of counterterrorism financing, whether it's bulk cash smuggling or commitments to international regimes. The Egmont Group membership, if you look at each of the different categories, the rankings sort of change among the Gulf countries, depending on which category you look at, but overall the trend has been positive.
Secretary Tillerson and we very much wanted to enshrine Qatar's progress, and so we signed this memorandum of understanding in Doha back in July. That pulled together a lot of initiatives we had been working on with Qatar that had been stalled or were slowed down for various reasons, not necessarily Qatar's, but also on our part. It was a great opportunity to really focus on these issues and accelerate, so we adhered to a very rigorous timeline in terms of the things that we wanted to accomplish, and that all is working quite well. This doesn't address all of the concerns of the 13 demands. Our MOU doesn't necessarily tackle some of the broader regional engagements we're funding — Libya and Syria, et cetera — but it's an excellent start.
There's been a lot of commitment shown. We don't necessarily want to do MOUs with every country; that's not necessarily the best vehicle. But we want to use this process, always turning crisis into opportunity to force each of the countries to accelerate their own efforts. Again, progress has been made, but more work needs to be done across the board. That's an area I think that we're looking at down the road.
Again, this dispute doesn't get better with time. I think we're also of the view that until the parties can talk to each other directly, not much progress is going to be made. That's what we're very eager to see. Get the parties into the room together and let them work on this, because, again — and I think Ali also agrees with this — the resolution is going to be local. There's going to be a decision made to work through this. We're trying to support that as best we can. Whether we serve as a guarantor, there's openness to that. We haven't been approached specifically in any formal way, but I think the U.S. is ready to put its support behind an agreement. Many of the elements may be found in the 2013-14 agreements. Clearly, that didn't work. The arbitration mechanisms that were enshrined in the prior Riyadh agreements were not used in this particular instance. In case things happen in the future — which is always possible — there needs to be a commitment to use the mechanisms that are agreed to. So I think the Riyadh agreements that have been made do form a basis, and with additional modifications and a commitment by all sides, I think we can get the relationships back on track, rebuild trust, particularly between the young leaders that are emerging in the region, and work to common benefit.
MR. CAMMACK: I want to comment on this ransom payment issue. One thing that strikes me about this conflict is that it's thoroughly modern in the sense that it's not military conflict, but a social-media conflict. It's a misinformation conflict on both sides. It's hacking. It's misinformation to media, et cetera. So, the Financial Times story is out there. I'm not in government and I don't have a security clearance. I have no idea what the truth is in that case. What I can say, though, is that if my former colleagues in the Department of Treasury or the intelligence agency felt there was good reason to believe a billion dollars had been paid to terrorist organizations, they would be moving heaven and earth to get to the bottom of it. The fact that hasn't happened suggests to me that, as Tim said, there may be more to the story than has yet to be told.
MR. SHIHABI: It's been a surprise that the Americans have not done more. Forget what Saudi Arabia says. Prime Minister Abadi of Iraq went on television and said that he was outraged by the Qataris for bringing $500 million in cash. What has your understanding been of what those bags of cash were meant to do, Undersecretary Lenderking?
MR. LENDERKING: I would just leave the comment that there's a certain murkiness around this, so I don't think this example is a particularly accurate one on the issue we're talking about. Again, ransom payments have been made in the past. It is something that we have been concerned about. As I have said, people have been freed. It's a delicate thing. In any circumstances, I don't think the United States would excuse that money ending up in terrorist hands. There must be better ways to do that. It's an area that we need to work on and that we want to have further discussion with Qatar on, and we will do so.
MR. SHIHABI: Put delicately, like a true diplomat.
DR. MATTAIR: A question from the floor — would someone explain any differences of opinion that the Saudis and the Emiratis, on one hand, and the Qataris, on the other hand, have about the Muslim Brotherhood?
MR. CAMMACK: If you look at just how significantly views on the Muslim Brotherhood have shifted in many of the Gulf states since, with its leaders looking around and seeing a region on fire, it's a sense that we're not going to take chances with revolutionary groups. But it was only a couple years ago that the Brotherhood openly had political parties in Bahrain, in Kuwait, the Sahwa movement in Saudi Arabia. It was not a formal chapter of the Brotherhood in Saudi Arabia, but it clearly had influence there. It really was the UAE prior to 2011 that took a particularly harsh line on political Islam. The Qataris have long been outspoken proponents of it. We talked about the relationship with Hamas, et cetera.
In some ways I think what's happened is that the Emirati view of the MB has been adopted by a couple of the other GCC states. This issue in Washington is often looked at as secularists versus Islamists. I personally don't find that a useful lens for looking at it. On one hand, the Egyptian MB was an authoritarian organization. They came to power democratically, but they behaved in an authoritarian manner. They essentially modeled the Mubarak behavior. I don't say this as someone that has an affinity with Islamist groups in any way.
On the other hand, many of the so-called secularist movements that we're talking about in the region don't share liberal views, either. Many of them are anti-democratic and even anti-Western. In some ways, there are competing visions of where the Middle East should go. Unfortunately, it tends to be a zero-sum game on both sides; there's very little space in this regional competition for a plurality of views. And until regional leaders address that fundamental gap — and we see it in the GCC but in many other contexts as well — I'm afraid we're going to be stuck in these kinds of power-play, zero-sum political competitions.
PROF. DES ROCHES: I'm in agreement; I want to go back a little further, though. I think we underestimate the profound shock to the region of the rapid, out-of-nowhere fall of Mubarak. I heard from various leaders and analysts at the time that they were amazed at how quickly Mubarak went from being America's regional bulwark to being cast out into the outer darkness. People who don't speak a word of English were saying to me, "They threw Mubarak under the bus." I've heard that exact phrase time and time again. It is logical to assume that when these Gulf leaders were traumatized by this, they conducted their after-action reviews and asked, "How did it not happen here?" The Muslim Brotherhood is a very big threat. Courtney Freer at the London School of Economics and a lot of other scholars have looked at this and, from a strictly power-politics point of view, it makes sense to ask what led to the downfall of Mubarak? Qatar, of course, was on the other side every step of the way on this.
DR. MATTAIR: You talked about the size and strength of Saudi Arabia compared to its other GCC member states, but Egypt's size and power have made its strategic depth vital to the Saudis. What would the Muslim Brotherhood's rule have meant with Egypt serving as that kind of strategic depth?
PROF. DES ROCHES: That's right. The role of Egypt in the security considerations of the Arab Gulf states is worthy of further study. But there's always been this rough idea that Gulf states have the money, have the equipment, and if things really get ugly, can draw on the mass of Egyptian manpower. Of course, the utility of that manpower seems to be a little bit suspect.
I would point out that, at least in some of the hacked emails flying around, there's been at least one American think tank member who has supported the concept of merging Egypt with Qatar to solve the perennial economic problems of Egypt — the Qatari wealth would then fund the Egyptian army. That seems to be more of a grand concept than a workable plan.
MR. SHIHABI: There's confusion about the Muslim Brotherhood because in the '60s it was fighting Nasser, who was trying to bring down the ruling order in the Gulf. The Saudi government welcomed them, gave them jobs in universities and schools, and only recognized decades later that they had brought a new sophisticated level of political thinking and transnationalism into the religious establishment there. The Saudi establishment has always wanted to promote the faith, but King Abdulaziz, when he set up the Saudi state, purposely did not take on the title of caliph, even though it was an opportune time for him — the caliphate had fallen, and he had taken control of Mecca and Medina. Many people actually raised that possibility. He wanted to send a message that Saudi Arabia does not aspire to transnational expansion. In fact, there was an internal civil war with what were called the Ikhwan, the very right-wing Wahhabi warriors who wanted to do that.
So when the Muslim Brotherhood came in, in the early '90s, the Saudi government realized that they had infected what became the Sahwa movement, which had helped create a much more politically active clerical class that looked toward a transnational Muslim state. They began to worry about them in the '90s. Obviously, that worry reached an extreme when they took power in Egypt. Suddenly they had the platform of the largest, most important country in the region. That's when alarm bells started to go off. The Muslim Brotherhood is a bit like a cult, and when it took control of a state as important as Egypt, suddenly the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other governments started to look around them with much more concern. Qatar, in its hubris, thought it could somehow control the Brotherhood. That's a fundamental difference of opinion; the Muslim Brotherhood can use Qatar and its platforms, its money, but Qatar will never be able to influence them.
The view was that the Qataris were playing a very dangerous game, not just by supporting, funding and hosting the Muslim Brotherhood, giving them a platform on television. That was one of the reasons in the 2013-14 agreement, closing down Qatar Mubasher, Jazeera Mubasher, a dedicated channel for Egypt, was so important — and which the Qataris ultimately did. They did close down Jazeera Mubasher, but then they set up two new channels or more in Turkey and in London to do the same job. So on one side they committed to the agreement and on the other they subverted it.
DR. MATTAIR: We've talked about two of the three grievances. The third is Qatar's relations with Iran. People in the audience are asking what the nature of that relationship was. Was it more than what you would call the normal hedging of a small power when it is in a coalition with a large one? How much choice did Qatar have when they shared that large natural gas field with Iran? And what was the nature of the relationship that would have been threatening, for example, to Bahrain?
MR. SHIHABI: There's always been an understanding that Qatar has to have a special relationship with Iran because it shares the North Pars Gas Field. I don't think anybody held that against them. I don't think Qatar's relationship with Iran to protect its interests in the gas field were ever held against it. That was never the issue. The issue was when Qatar started supporting Hezbollah or supporting Hashd, much more direct issues. But nobody in the Gulf says that the Qataris should alienate Iran and put their multitrillion-dollar investment in the gas field at risk. That's another misconception.
MR. CAMMACK: I have a slightly different view on this, which is in part what I tried to address in my comments. There were the grievances publicly put forward by the coalition, the grievances that are underlining this. For me, the Iran issue has always been a bit of a red herring. In some ways Ali and I are calling it different things. I'm talking about regional power competition. Ali's talking about direct interference. To me, that's the core of what this is. Iran was a convenient buzzword here in Washington at the time. Whether you look politically in terms of Oman's relations with Iran, or economically in terms of Dubai's relationship with Iran, both of these are much more fundamental relationships with Iran than Qatar has.
PROF. DES ROCHES: I want to concur with that. Both the Iran and the terrorism accusations were designed to appeal to us. However, I agree with Tim's remarks, that the standard will be applied universally. If the kerfuffle is resolved before it does too much damage, the United States will be able to hold its partners to a higher standard on both Iran and terrorism. That's my silver lining.
DR. MATTAIR: Ali, has the domestic interference promoted by the father emir been effective inside Saudi Arabia and the UAE?
MR. SHIHABI: No, it hasn't been effective. Saudi Arabia has very robust internal security. But the Saudi opposition in London, for example, cooperated with an attempt by Qadhafi to assassinate Crown Prince Abdullah. At that time, Qadhafi wanted to settle a personal score with him. The Saudi opposition tried to give them logistical support inside the kingdom.
There's a Saudi opposition. It's an irritant; it doesn't have much traction in the country. But it has been directly funded by the Qataris. That came out in the tape by name, when the emir of Qatar said so and so and so and so are getting paid by us. The government gets concerned when it sees these very popular clerics, who are like rock stars in Saudi Arabia, who are getting millions and millions of dollars. There are documented transfers of money to accounts that these clerics have in Turkey, for example. The Qataris wouldn't transfer money to Saudi Arabia, but many of these clerics have accounts in Qatari-owned banks in Turkey and have acquired expensive real estate there. These are some of the things that have led to arrests.
The internal security is very alert and doesn't want to wait till it goes to the next stage. It says, trying to put on your payroll important clerics in our country who have a wide franchise among the people without our knowing, without our permission, is a hostile act. If you're an American and you get paid by a foreign country, you have to register with the U.S. authorities. None of those chaps registered as agents of Qatar, if you'd like to put it that way.
DR. MATTAIR: How is this dispute impacting regional conflict? What impact does it have in Syria? In Yemen?
MR. CAMMACK: I think in a strictly operational sense it's not operationally impacting the conflict against ISIS. But on the flip side, you had the secretary of state camping out in the Gulf for a full week. My impression from my time in government is that the most valuable asset the U.S. government has is the time of its principals, and the time that Secretary Tillerson and Secretary Mattis are spending on this crisis is time that they're not spending thinking about Iran or ISIS.
With Iran, I think the impact is actually more direct. If the idea was to downgrade the Qatari-Iranian relationship, it's had the opposite effect. It's given Iran inroads into Doha; it's allowed Iran to portray itself as playing a humanitarian role in providing food, et cetera. I think most would agree that's fairly cynical behavior on Iran's part, but it has created an opportunity in the context of the ongoing debate here in Washington about the JCPOA for Iran to portray itself as a productive actor.
DR. MATTAIR: Is there any chance that Qatar is going to take its previous hedging, its establishing relations with Iran, and turn that into a bandwagon with Iran? Are they forming a partnership because they are so concerned about pressure from Saudi Arabia? How close can that relationship become?
MR. CAMMACK: I think there are significant limits to that. The nexus I would watch more is the Turkey-Qatar nexus. There the Turks have a minor military presence. It's interesting that one of the specific demands made in this list of 13 points was that the Qataris close that base. It's clearly an issue that's resonating in the Gulf.
DR. MATTAIR: Was there ever any chance of the Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ) taking any military action? Did the Turkish base have anything to do with putting up a red flag?
MR. SHIHABI: I don't think so. There were stories about that, but I don't think they ever took military action ever seriously. They understand that it would have been a huge complicating factor.
DR. MATTAIR: We've talked about the regional conflicts, and especially how this has enhanced Iran's relationship with Qatar, but what has it meant for Turkey? For Russia? For the United States?
PROF. DES ROCHES: Right now, Russia is a big winner out of this. They see their rival and our prime force-projection coalition, our prime assets, fighting among themselves. They're able to fish in troubled waters and offer their offices as an intermediary. They're able to build on their military power in the Middle East, their nascent military in Syria, with diplomatic power. If I were the Russians, every week I would send an invitation to host talks in Moscow to resolve this. It's zero-cost, zero-risk, high prestige.
Turkey is already in outer darkness with the members of the quartet, and this allows them to solidify themselves with the Qataris. I've heard very senior Qatari officials say that they're amazed; they didn't realize that you can buy everything from Turkey, because they had decades of national self-sufficiency. This opens up at least one small, but very rich, market to Turkey and allows them for the first time to have a real power-projection role, a role as a security provider beyond that. But the size of the Turkish base has been overstated. It's more of a maintenance facility for stuff they've hoped for. It's more akin to Eskan Village than Al Dhafra Air Base, in military terms.
U.S. interests are damaged. Our vision is that there will be joint operations where Qatari infantry advances with Saudi artillery and air-defense artillery covering it, and the UAE providing an air cap. That allows the United States to focus on really intense, high-value targets. What we're seeing is that progress towards that goal is not only not moving forward, it's going backward. It's a disaster for us.
Normally, when you have a tenuous coalition like this, it requires a great and immediate threat to arise that might change it. That could be the introduction of a new, more accurate Iranian ballistic missile or the discovery that, just as the North Koreans were way ahead of their nuclear design, some sort of Iranian thing like that, perhaps, will lead to a resolution of the crisis. But right now, there's not an immediate threat.
DR. MATTAIR: Qatar and even Saudi Arabia are visiting Russia and making deals. What are the limits to Russia's ability to advance in the region? How much opportunity does it have, and how limited are their opportunities?
MR. CAMMACK: From my perspective, it's actually quite limited. But what the Russians in a sense have benefited from is, first, a series of American mistakes over two decades or so. They've also played a limited hand in Syria, ruthlessly and to their at least short-term political benefit. It's given Putin caché. I think it's safe to say that Putin speaks a language of pure power that I think is understandable to leaders in the Middle East, who live in a very threatening, chaotic region.
However, I think a lot of this is our regional partners trying to play us off against Moscow — to the benefit of Russia. People pay attention in Washington when King Salman visits Moscow. And we should; it's important. But on the face of it, there's nothing wrong with that kind of visit. The target audience for some of these exchanges both by Russia and by regional players is Washington. Pay attention, we're here, listen to our concerns.
DR. MATTAIR: For years now they've been uncertain about U.S. security guarantees and political judgment. What do we do to stop them from hedging by going to Russia?
PROF. DES ROCHES: You saw Senator Corker lift his hold on THAAD two days after the S-400 sale was announced. It remains uncertain to me whether the S-400 sale will ever go through. This seems like an old plot, where you go out with one girl to get another girl's attention and make her jealous. I agree that they're trying to leverage us for technology release.
But, at least from a Saudi assessment, when you look at how close the most recent vote was on precision-munition sales to Saudi Arabia — over concern about the war in Yemen — I think it is prudent to say that the United Kingdom will stop defense exports to Saudi Arabia. Canada is probably in the process of doing that. Perhaps Saudi Arabia does need to diversify its supporters. But I don't think the United States is at that point yet with Saudi Arabia, but Dr. Mattair and I are in violent agreement.
DR. MATTAIR: How is this going to be resolved? If Qatar did everything that's been demanded except close down Al Jazeera, would that be enough?
MR. SHIHABI: It doesn't have to close down Jazeera, in my view. It just has to abide by the agreements in terms of how Al Jazeera behaves. My personal opinion is that — and it's very good to hear Tim say that America would be open to it — if America became party to a third variation of the 2013-14 agreements, I think that would solve it.
MR. LENDERKING: I've tried to emphasize we don't want, and could not dictate, the terms of any sort of resolution. So whether it has to do with some of the points that Ali has made as the way forward, I don't see how it happens when the drama is being played out on the big stage as it is now, when the media campaign is as hot as it is. That's why we've asked the parties to simmer down on the media attacks — what people who've been around the Gulf a lot longer than I have described as an unprecedented level of vitriol in the social media attacks. It's personal, it's humiliating. That to me is creating a bad atmosphere; we're going to have to de-escalate that in order to create a calmer environment, sort of a ceasefire, if you will, that allows the parties to get into the room together. We're happy to be on the margins of that or to be available in any way that the parties would like. Our goal is resolution. I think many of the pieces of what this looks like are already there. It needs some modification, some fine-tuning. It doesn't seem to me to be insurmountable, by any means. But I think the sooner we move into that mode where you get the two sides talking to each other, the sooner we can get to a resolution.
DR. MATTAIR: Ali, wouldn't it be better for the GCC to resolve this internally rather than have the U.S. step in? And how efficacious can a Kuwaiti mediation role be?
MR. SHIHABI: We've had that for 25 years, and it hasn't worked. It culminated in agreements that haven't worked. There were verbal agreements. There was mediation. There was a written agreement. There's 20 years of history, and that's why there is no trust left whatsoever. I think you need to have the gods witness the agreement, as David said.
DR. MATTAIR: Would there be any implications for this conflict if Saudi King Salman were to abdicate and Mohammed bin Salman were to ascend?
MR. SHIHABI: No. This whole discussion of abdication is completely off the mark. There's no reason for the king to abdicate. From minute one he has taken a chairman-of-the-board approach. The crown prince and the deputy crown prince in the early days and now the crown prince effectively are running the show day to day. There is no indication that that will happen, nor is it logical for either party. But it's a rumor that's somehow going around. Some think tanks and political consultancies have written extensively about it, and spread, even through financial markets, and traders have been betting on it. But it's not going to happen. And it wouldn't make any difference. Clearly, the king and crown prince obviously are as close as can be in terms of policy.
DR. MATTAIR: At least one person in the audience thinks this can't be resolved; the rifts are way too deep, and it's over for the GCC.
MR. CAMMACK: In some sense, unfortunately, I agree. I think there are two elements to this. There's a kind of public political de-escalation, taking this behind closed doors. That, I think, is possible and over time may be even likely, because fundamentally there is a power disparity between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on one side, and Qatar, on the other. But if the question is, can there actually be a social and personal reconciliation that allows a kind of shared vision of what the GCC can be, then in that case, unfortunately, I tend to agree with the questioner. The wounds have become so deep and the conflict so bitter that that kind of reconciliation is hard to imagine for at least the foreseeable future.
MR. SHIHABI: I think it's easily reconcilable, really. The Arabs reconciled with Nasser of Egypt after '67, and things were much, much worse. Yes, there's vitriol but it would be very easy to accept them back into the fold if they behave. So I don't see it as irreconcilable at all.
DR. MATTAIR: Perry, didn't you say in an article that it has to be resolved through concessions, but not capitulation? Why are you so pessimistic?
MR. CAMMACK: What I meant by that is that the power disparities between the two are such that this most likely ends with some pretty significant concessions by Qatar to its more powerful neighbors. The question to the Saudis and the Emiratis is, do they give the political space for the Qataris to make those concessions in such a way that they can save face and say they got the best deal that they could — understanding that they'll get something, but far less than what was in the original list of 13 demands. Part of the problem with the vitriol on both sides is that it becomes harder and harder to make concessions, particularly if this is couched as an existential struggle for the soul of the GCC. I think what's really key here is to find some exit ramps. I don't have specific ideas about what they might be; that would depend obviously on the contours of the negotiations. Right now, it doesn't feel as if there's space for the kinds of face-saving concessions that would allow things to come back together.
PROF. DES ROCHES: I made the mistake once at a Qatari think tank of saying, "These are the concessions I think would make sense." I got back, "Ah, no, that's a violation of our sovereignty." This led me to conclude that the time's not right.
Let me talk about the nature of the GCC and whether it can recover. The GCC has never been a particularly effective military coalition except in times of great crisis. It was formed at a time of crisis; it becomes strong and it coalesces in times of crisis, and then it tends to come apart. Returning to my metaphor, NATO has had problems between the Greeks and the Turks. The Southern Command in Naples, in the enlisted soldiers' barracks, has had outright gang warfare between Greek and Turkish soldiers who are part of the same coalition. You can have coalition partners at odds with each other, provided the rest of the coalition and the impetus for it are clear. Then you focus on things like procedures, processes, techniques and exercises. Even then — even in NATO — there is still not a standard agreement on surface-to-air rescue because the Greeks and the Turks are concerned that it will allow one country to overfly the other's islands. By this logic, ironically, I think the savior of the GCC will probably be Iran.
DR. MATTAIR: Ali, you said before the meeting started that Qatar must see the survival of the Saudis as of essential strategic value to their survival.
MR. SHIHABI: Saudi Arabia has validated the tribal monarchy structure; nationalists didn't succeed in overthrowing the Saudi monarchy in the '60s, nor did Islamists in the '90s. If they had, the small Gulf states wouldn't have survived 24 hours. I think the Kuwaitis understood that in 1990 in a very personal way; and that's what has changed their approach to Saudi Arabia. Ultimately, Qatar's interest is in beefing up the internal security of Saudi Arabia, not in weakening it. A writer recently described Qatar as a child sitting on a keg of dynamite playing with matches, and I found that very appropriate. They seem not to understand that their internal security is totally tied to the security of their neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, and it's in their interest to do what is being asked of them. It's not a question of sovereignty; your sovereignty does not allow you to damage the security of other people. A human being doesn't have the personal freedom to harm somebody else. Sovereignty is always limited, as is personal freedom, by the fact that you cannot harm another person. People have never fully understood what goes on in the mind of the father emir of Qatar and what has driven him to do what he has done.
DR. MATTAIR: How has Oman managed to stay out of this? Rich, you were the ambassador there.
AMB. SCHMIERER: Oman happens to have a particularly wise leader who has been very successful in developing a foreign policy that is friend to all, enemy to none. Even in cases where Oman has been a bit of an outlier in the GCC, it's always been done in a diplomatically appropriate way, in a way of appropriate deference. Oman, even though it does have a relationship with Iran and has other views on some of the issues in the GCC, I think it has, through the wisdom of Sultan Qaboos and the other leaders there, managed to maintain very positive relationships, even under circumstances where there is disagreement. I think it's fundamentally different from the way Ali has described the perception of Qatar by these countries.
MR. SHIHABI: I would agree with that. And to show you the degree of elasticity in the behavior of the GCC towards it neighbors, there have been issues with Oman in the Yemen war, and issues of smuggling across the Omani border from Iran. Those things are being resolved bilaterally and quietly with Oman. Things have never risen to the level that they have with Qatar. That tells you something about the attitude of Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries to differences within the family.
DR. MATTAIR: If Washington were to decertify the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, does that have the potential to make containment of Iran's influence in the Arab world harder? That's just one thing to consider as you're wrapping up, your final thoughts.
MR. LENDERKING: We'll know more when the president speaks about the decision on Iran, but this is an administration that has taken a very tough line. We're asked within the State Department and other agencies to game that out in very practical and tangible ways. I referred to Iranian interference throughout the Arabian Peninsula, but of course it is also active in Lebanon and in Syria. I've talked about the Yemen conflict as a particular theater in which, because of the degree of chaos inside Yemen that al-Qaeda has been able to capitalize on, it's a relatively easy investment for Iran to continue to destabilize. I think there's zero tolerance for this kind of malign activity in the Gulf. The question is, how do we physically prevent it? I think those are the options that are leading the president's Iran strategy.
With regard to the Gulf crisis, I think that the panel has agreed that the Iran issue is not necessarily the central piece. We haven't objected at any point recently with the fact that some of the Gulf countries have relations with Iran and others don't. That to us is not a litmus test. It's what these countries do with that relationship, what they tolerate or don't tolerate. I think there will be an increasing need to coordinate with each of the Gulf countries on its engagement with Iran. We'll be looking to close the loopholes, just as we are with North Korea, where you see a number of the Gulf countries really battening down the hatches on some of the connections that they may have. They may be relics of a previous era, but we've certainly ratcheted up the pressure and coordination with these countries to minimize their contact with North Korea. I think the same will be true with Iran. That we'll be looking for that type of very strong action points to why the GCC together works much better than as a disparate group. It works better as a coalition. These may be times of crisis that we are heading into, as Dave has said. This is a good opportunity for the GCC to work through this dispute, resolve these kinds of differences, and provide the kind of bulwark against Iranian aggression that all of us, including the GCC countries, believe is important.
MR. SHIHABI: Clearly, we are entering into a period of increased tension with Iran. The view of the kingdom and its neighbors is that Iran poses an existential threat to the ruling order. The only way to stand up to that threat is to become self-sufficient in being able to deter Iranian aggression. To do that, an integral component will be bringing everybody within the GCC into conformity with a joint policy to stand up to Iran. I think over time that's going to happen, and the crisis may be coming now with decertification of the nuclear deal. This will only help to drive the risk home to everybody, including the Qataris, and allow consolidation to take place.
MR. CAMMACK: At Carnegie we have a pretty strong East Asia program as well as nonproliferation program, and no one I know who has to think about what to do about North Korea wouldn't take something like the JCPOA and say, that kind of deal would make our North Korea problem orders of magnitude easier. Clearly, Iran's a problem. I think we're all in agreement on that. Clearly, Iran has benefited marginally from the GCC crisis. But I think a decision to pull out of the JCPOA would have a profound impact, in terms of making it harder for the United States to counter Iran in the region — in part because it then suddenly would be perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a problem. The more we can keep Russia and China on side on Iran, and the more we can reinforce our partnership with our European friends, the better off we're going to be. I fully agree that we need to be creative about ways to be more energetic in countering Iranian aggression, but if that's a problem in the context of the JCPOA, it would become almost infinitely harder to manage in the absence of such a deal.
PROF. DES ROCHES: My criticism of the JCPOA has always been that the only tool the United States had was a hammer. When you look at everything Iran was doing — nukes, missiles, ethnic cleansing in Syria, violation of human rights domestically and abroad — we agreed to lay aside our hammer, the only tool we had, for a nuclear deal. What that did was to grant license for the destruction of Aleppo and proliferation of missiles and all the other problems we've seen.
But on decertification, I take a contrarian view. A lot of people say this will be the end of the world, the end of JCPOA. No. Decertification/certification is a U.S. government parlor game. It's helpful to go back to its origins. Certification was invented by a Democratic Congress to embarrass Ronald Reagan in the aftermath of the murder by Salvadoran security forces of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the Maryknoll Sisters. The Democratic Congress, basically attempting to embarrass the president, forced him to say, "Yes, El Salvador is making progress on human rights" — in order to continue military aid to El Salvador.
If the president decertifies the JCPOA, unless Iran picks it up and runs with it, it doesn't mean anything outside of the U.S. government can be ignored; it's a nothing burger. I suspect that the president's motive is that he doesn't want to be on record as saying JCPOA works, because he campaigned against it. Second, he's pursuing a passive-aggressive strategy in which, if the Iran deal fails, it won't be because of him; he knows that if he renounces the deal, he'll have a hard time getting the European allies to go along with him. But if the Iranians renounce the deal, the Europeans must support sanctions. So, I think what Trump wants to do is raise the threshold of embarrassment on the Iranian side so that they have to walk away. Then he can turn to the Europeans and say it's time to snap back sanctions. But decertification itself doesn't have to be a crisis.
AMB. SCHMIERER: I would just add a final thank you to our panel — and to you, Tom. I think we have looked into this issue in a very productive way, and I hope it helps the community here and, through the dissemination of today's event, those in other places to better understand it and move forward to a resolution. Thank you again to all the panelists for joining us.