The Middle East Policy Council convened its 90th Capitol Hill Conference on Friday, October 13th. More than four months after the Arab “quartet” of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt took measures to isolate Qatar, “The GCC Rift: Regional and Global Implications” assessed the underlying reasons for this fracture and pathways for resolving it. The panelists differed on the root causes of the conflict, and the utility of the United States as a broker of any resolution.
Richard J. Schmierer (former U.S. Ambassador to Oman; Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) moderated the event and Thomas R. Mattair (Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council) was the discussant. The panelists included Timothy Lenderking (Deputy Assistant Secretary for Arabian Peninsula Affairs, U.S. Department of State); Perry Cammack (Fellow, Carnegie Endowment); Ali Shihabi (Founder & Executive Director, Arabia Foundation); and David Des Roches (Associate Professor, National Defense University).
Mr. Lenderking emphasized the historic ability of GCC states to manage their differences as well as the benefits of unity for member states and allies like the United States, particularly during security crises like the first Gulf War. Despite Secretary Tillerson’s clear commitment to finding a resolution, Mr. Lenderking indicated that ultimately the key parties to the conflict should resolve it with the U.S. playing a supportive but indirect role. That said, he conveyed the U.S. position that a “common standard” should be applied to the quartet countries and Qatar such that demands agreed to by Qatar are reciprocated by other GCC states. He also indicated that Washington will continue to exert pressure for an expedient resolution, warning that allowing it to fester for an extended period of time would risk “institutionalizing the rift” and eroding shared interests.
Mr. Cammack reiterated that the quartet has three main grievances with Qatar: support for terror, relations with Iran and interference in the domestic affairs of other states. While he acknowledged there are legitimate concerns in these three areas, he defined the core of the conflict as a post-Arab Spring competition between Qatar and the UAE, with Saudi Arabia moving increasingly close to the Emirati position. This is because in nearly every Arab Spring uprising, the Qataris and Emiratis supported opposing sides, with Libya being the most extreme example. As the Muslim Brotherhood gained clout during this period – often with support from Qatar – the Saudis and Emiratis started to feel increasingly threatened, something that culminated in the removal of Mohammed Morsi from power in Egypt. Mr. Cammack views this event as a pivotal moment in Arab political history, and one that will cast a shadow on relations with Qatar for the foreseeable future.
Mr. Shihabi asserted that the quartet failed to clearly communicate the underlying reasons for the crisis and this led to a misreading of the conflict, particularly in the United States. He explained how familial clashes between the Saudis and Qataris going back to the mid-1990s set the stage for growing distrust in the decades that followed. Despite various efforts to build mutual trust, Mr. Shihabi suggested that the Qataris have been actively trying to subvert the Saudi royal family, something backed up by recordings seized in Libya after the fall of Qadhafi. In his view, the quartet would have been better served by explaining the history of efforts to build mutual trust and the perceived Qatari failure to honor these agreements as context for the partial embargo. This would have shown the extent to which Qatar has interfered in the internal security of its neighbors, often through outlets like Al Jazeera that have given voice to the Saudi opposition, without doing the same in Qatar. Despite these clear differences, he thinks that the countries will ultimately come together and that the U.S. can be useful by adding its prestige to any final agreement.
Mr. Des Roches offered a military perspective to the discussion, highlighting some of the security-related considerations that impact the U.S. approach to the dispute. In general terms, he cautioned against trying to view the GCC through the lens of NATO, as the mismatch in size between Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states means that the Saudis will always play an outsized role. He views GCC cohesion as a positive, in that it could lead to more efficient allocation of military hardware based on budgets and competency. He cautioned against changing U.S. policy around the selection of military bases and making this contingent on approving of the host government, as this limits U.S. flexibility to act. He also believes that the U.S. ability to force a resolution is limited but believes one will be reached, especially as GCC unity is so vital to counterterrorism efforts and containing Iran.
The full video from the event is available on the Middle East Policy Council website. A full transcript from the event will be posted in a few days at www.mepc.org and published in the next issue of the journal Middle East Policy. For members of the media interested in contacting these speakers or other members of the Middle East Policy Council’s leadership, please email [email protected].
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.
RICHARD J. SCHMIERER, Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council; Former Ambassador, Sultanate of Oman
So, once again, good morning, everyone. I’m pleased to see we have a very good crowd for what I know will be a very good discussion. Can you hear me? It is on, maybe I just need to speak closer. Let me introduce myself. I’m Richard Schmierer. I’m the chairman of the board of the Middle East Policy Council. I’m certainly very pleased to welcome you here on behalf of the Council to what is our 90th quarterly Capitol Hill Conference. Today’s topic: “The GCC Rift: Regional and Global Implications.”
However, I would like to begin today by taking a moment to share the sad news of the recent passing of the president of the Middle East Policy Council, Ambassador Fork Fraker. Ford’s connection with the Middle East spanned more than 45 years, both in diplomacy and in banking, including the past four years as the president of the Council. He was a staunch friend of the region, widely admired, and respected for his commitment to strengthening relations between the U.S. and the Middle East. I would like to acknowledge and thank the many friends of Ambassador Fraker and the Council who conveyed their condolences to us on the occasion of Ford’s passing.
Now, before I turn to the content of today’s program, I would like to say a few words about the Middle East Policy Council. We were established in 1981. And our purpose – our mission is to promote dialogue and education concerning the U.S. and the countries of the Middle East. We have three flagship programs – our quarterly Capitol Hill conferences, such as today’s event; our quarterly journal, Middle East Policy, which enjoys a strong reputation among those with an interest in Middle Eastern affairs and can be found in more than 11,000 libraries worldwide; and our educational research and outreach program, Teach Mideast, which provides educational resources on the Middle East, geared mainly towards secondary school students and teachers. So I would encourage you to visit our website, www.mepc.org, and our Teach Mideast program website, www.teachmideast.org to learn more about these programs.
Now, to today’s event. Today’s program is being livestreamed on our website. And so I’m pleased to also welcome all of those who have joined us today online. The conference proceedings will be posted in video and transcript form on our website, as will a recap of the discussion. And edited transcript of the program will be published in the next issue of our journal, Middle East Policy.
The focus of today’s program will be to examine the nature of the current tension involving Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and Qatar. I believe I can speak on behalf of all of us in the Washington policy and NGO communities when I say that we consider ourselves to be friends of all of the countries of the Middle East, including all of the countries involved in the current dispute. Our intention in convening today’s session is to seek a better understanding of the issues involved, towards the aim of contributing to an amicable and quick resolution of the issue.
To that end, we have brought together today four experts, each of whom brings a unique background and perspective on the region. We will begin the discussion with Mr. Tim Lenderking, deputy assistant secretary or Arabian Gulf affairs in the Near East Bureau of the Department of State. Tim is a career foreign service officer whose most recent overseas posting was deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Riyadh. And his other diplomatic assignments have included Iraq, where he served recently two tours, Kuwait, Morocco, Syria, and Bangladesh.
Tim will be followed by Mr. Perry Cammack of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Perry is a fellow in the Middle Eastern Program at Carnegie, where he focuses on long-term regional trends and their implications for American foreign policy. Prior to joining Carnegie in August 2015, Perry worked on issues related to the Middle East as part of the policy planning staff of Secretary of State John Kerry, and as a senior professional staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Perry will be followed by Mr. Ali Shihabi, the founder and executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Arabia Foundation, an independent think tank founded this year focused on the geopolitics and socioeconomics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the state of the Gulf. Following a successful career in banking, Ali has authored two books centered on the Middle East, “Arabian War Games,” and “The Saudi Kingdom: Between the Jihadi Hammer and the Iranian Anvil.” Ali also serves on the board of trustees of the International Crisis Group.
The final panelist will be Mr. David Des Roches, associate professor and senior military fellow at the Near East South Asia Center for Security Studies at the National Defense University. Previously, David served at the Pentagon as the director for defense policy concerning the states of the Gulf and Yemen. Other Pentagon assignments have included senior country director for Pakistan and NATO operations director. He has also served on the U.S. special operations command staff.
Each panelist will deliver brief opening remarks. There will be a discussion session following the presentation by our panelists. The discussion will be moderated by my colleague, Dr. Tom Mattair, executive director of the Middle East Policy Council. Note that we have placed index cards on all of the seats. Please use these to write down any questions which you have as the speakers are speaking, and then hold up the card. Our staff will collect these during the presentations and give them to Dr. Mattair so he can consolidate the questions for the discussion session.
With that, let me turn over the podium to Mr. Lenderking. Tim.
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
Well, good morning, everybody. Thank you very much, Rich, Tom, for the invitation. 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 here I think will convey to you, I hope, 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. They’re 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 different ways. We have U.S. companies having 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 platforms, very important platforms, and allies in the counter-ISIL struggle, all in different ways.
Second point is that over time, we have felt and 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 they – that the unity of the GCC has also created regional stability in very important ways. So – and a corollary to that, is that over – if you look at over the last few decades, these countries have managed their differences very well. And it’s not to say that there haven’t been differences. There have been outbreaks of – or 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 I would make is that each of the countries involved has certain, what we would call, counterterrorism vulnerabilities, or shortcomings in terms of overall performance in this critical area. And that could be – you know, it could be shortcomings in the legal system, capacity issues, at different times conflicting messages about promotion of what we would call violent extremism. But I think a critical thing is also over the last 10 years in particular, each of these countries has made progress in various – at various levels.
We’ve worked very closely with each of the countries in this – in this endeavor. I think if you look at the placement of where the Department of Treasury, which is a key ally for – a key partner with us, Department of State in terms of particularly around the counterterrorism finance side. Treasury attachés in Riyadh and Doha and other – and Abu Dhabi as well. This is also a reflection of the fact 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 5th, it was very important, from our point of view, that the quartet countries spell out their demands. What is that they were asking of Qatar to do exactly? And in the initial stages, we heard many different – 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 meeting in Cairo that took place subsequently.
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. In other words, what is being asked of Qatar should also be asked of those countries as well. If you look at those 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 need to meet the same standard that is being asked of Qatar.
Subsequently to that, I think we also realized very early on that the resolution to this situation is local. It’s not going to be us or the outside – outside world, outside countries – putting a solution on the region. It’s going to have to come internally. And 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. And thus, 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 very specifically designed to show that Kuwait has the leadership, as the mediator, and we are meant to support those efforts. It is an internal issue and we are meant to support a resolution that is local.
Seventh point I would make, which has carried through and, I think, been born out, unfortunately, over time, is that the crisis doesn’t get better with the passage of time. And so starting with the embargo back on June 5th, you know, we’ve seen since that time quite a substantial escalation on the media side and, you know, 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 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 letter, stance that Senator Corker took, I think, when he issued a letter two months ago saying that he would put a hold on arms sales of lethal equipment until – 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 that govern these countries are young and we look forward to their being able to build confidence so that they can work together in the future. And then, of course, we’ve seen the crisis sort of seep into international fora as well. The Arab League meeting that took place a month ago is a particularly dramatic example of the rift sort of displayed in a public forum.
We also recognize that we have to do – 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 conflict or the dispute. We have important regional equities in Syria, in Yemen, in Libya, with the Palestinian situation. Each of the countries involved in this dispute plays a key role with us. So whether we’re talking about trying to centralize the influences from outside in the Libya conflict in terms of who’s supporting which side, in terms of rallying the Syrian opposition to present a credible alternative to the leadership in Syria, the crisis in Yemen where we’ve seen repeated and consistent and persistent intervention in a very unhelpful way by Iran, supporting the Houthi militia, just created additional space for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula to grow. We need these countries working 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.
Then I’ll just close with the fact that we will, despite the need to work on these regional conflicts together, we will 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. It compromises vital U.S. interests in the region. So, again, 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 us with in partnering against common threats to the Gulf region. Thank you.
PERRY CAMMACK, Fellow, Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Former Policy Planning Staff, Secretary John Kerry; Former Professional Staff Member, Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Thanks for the kind invitation. I actually – as Ambassador Schmierer said, I worked for a number of years on the Hill and used to come to a lot of MEPC events. So it’s actually quite fun to be on the other side – a personal pleasure to be on the other side, speaking to folks and sharing some of my thoughts on this.
I think a lot of us, myself certainly included, were very surprised on June 5th when we kind of woke up that in the middle of the night there had been this kind of sudden imposition of embargo, a cutting of relations. Now, Gulf politics, I think, are quite opaque. And I do think the roots of the conflict in many ways are still – even four or five months into this – still poorly understood in Washington.
So what I thought I would do is kind of – building, really, on Tim’s very good presentation – kind of try to unpack what I see as first the stated reasons for the conflict, and then what I see as kind of some of the deeper underlying issues at stake. And then, based on that framework, to try to offer just some very brief thoughts on what I think that the United States and, frankly, the broader international community might do about it.
So, first, the anti-terror quartet – and most of you know that that’s really a shorthand for this coalition of four countries: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain – essentially have an indictment of – it really boils down to three fundamental grievances with Qatar. First, support for terrorism. Second, inappropriate relations with Iran. Third, interference in the sovereign affairs of other countries. I’ll try to go through this quickly because Tim related some of this. But I’d like to go through these quickly one by one.
So, first, terrorism, obviously, is the most serious charge. It’s the most important, frankly, interest, arguably, of the United States in the Middle East. And 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 organization. And I mean by that, Ahrar al-Sham in Syria, Hamas in Gaza, the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Now, when I was in government, some of this activity would drive people in the State Department crazy. I imagine sometimes – (laughs) – I imagine that’s still true today. But I think it’s also important to understand there’s a flipside to this as well, that sometimes these linkages actually create diplomatic opportunities. And an example of that that I saw kind of firsthand was the Gaza war in 2014 between Israel and Hamas which, as many of you will recall, ended with many weeks of very intense indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas to try to find a negotiated settlement.
Now, Washington – the two parties weren’t communicating directly. Washington doesn’t have – is by law, I believe, prohibited from speaking with Hamas. Cairo wasn’t speaking. So who was the interlocutor? The interlocutor in this case was 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. We can talk about that more in the Q&A if folks want.
The second aspect of the terrorism issue is not on the government side, but it’s the existence of private channels – these are citizen channels – that are providing funds for jihadi groups, including, obviously, the Islamic State and al-Qaida. Now, this is a problem. This is obviously a significant problem. Every year State Department releases what it calls the counter – country reports on terrorism, which really is the most comprehensive, open-source, public information that the U.S. government puts out on kind of international efforts to counter terrorism.
The 2016 version, published just a couple months ago, had this to say – which I think pretty well encapsulates my understanding of the situation when I was in government as of 2015. So, again, from a couple months ago: 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. Now, 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 do have to understand the regional context. And namely that this is not a problem that only exists in Doha. This is a problem that exists throughout the GCC and, frankly, well beyond. In fact, in March 2014, the then-undersecretary of treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence stated publicly in a speech that he made that it was Kuwait that was, quote, the epicenter of fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria.
Second grievance is Iran. And it’s interesting that one of the things that was 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, obviously – amounting to something like $20 billion annually. I did a little bit of research into the U.N. trade data, and at least according to the publicly available data, 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 were – had modest roles in kind of some of those early steps when I was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Staff. But the point I’m trying to make here is that Qatar, at least on the Iran file, is – well, I think is hardly an outlier. There’s no GCC consensus, but I think Qatar’s hardly an outlier.
Third grievance, of course, is interference of sovereign affairs in other Arab countries. This is a complicated one. It’s true that Qatar has developed a huge and outsized mouthpiece in the Al Jazeera Network, which does, indeed, broadcast some material that many of us would find shocking from time to time. It’s also true that Qatar has inserted itself into many of the region’s crises, about which I’ll talk a little bit in a minute. But I think the notion that Qatar – and I think Tim referenced this – is the only one doing such interference or, frankly, that this country of 250,000 citizens constitutes a grave threat to the sovereignty of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, I think strikes many of us as a little bit silly.
So we’ve got this kind of indictment of three items. Frankly, at least from my perspective, it doesn’t quite add up. So it does seem that something more is going on here. Something more is driving this than just the ostensible, stated reason in the list of 13 or the – or the subsequent list of six principles. So what’s actually driving this, or what’s the deeper reason? Well, I’ll give you my answer to it. I think most of us, when we think of regional competition in today’s context, I think immediately think 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, frankly, more important in shaping Arab politics in the six years since the Arab Spring. And that is a Qatari-Emirati regional competition in which Saudi Arabia has gradually moved closer and closer to the Emirati position.
I won’t go through the details. We could talk about this in the Q&A if folks want. But if you think about the early days of the Arab Spring in 2011, the story is really quite remarkable. In Tunisia, in Morocco, in Libya, in Syria, most importantly in Egypt – in every one of those cases the Emiratis and the Qataris were supporting opposite sides of the revolutionary forces. The most extreme case, of course, is Libya, in which the two countries were essentially on the opposite sides of a quite brutal civil war. This is post-revolution. Which, I would argue, in many ways, fundamentally damaged the possibility of a more peaceful transition in Libya.
Now, in the early days the Qataris were seen to have the upper hands, with Islamist parties, kind of winning string of victories, particularly in North Africa. But then we had an important inflection point really, I would argue, in modern Arab history, which was 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, Saudi Arabia, with local partners as well, to reverse the regional advanced that had been made by Qataris, Islamist allies earlier.
Now, 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, kind of efforts to try to figure out how to engage – how to constrain Iranian interference in the region, how to figure out ways to wind down the four civil wars that are really simmering across the Middle East. But I think it’s also important that just to dismiss this conflict as kind of purely personality based or silly or farcical – though at times it has been – I think miss – or underestimates really how deep this regional power competition has been. And I think as we consider how the U.S. might try to mitigate the effects of this, I think we have to understand how deep some of these grievances have been, frankly, on both sides.
In the interest of time, I’ll kind of skip some other stuff, but let me just highlight in conclusion what I would argue is sort of the short-term play by Washington, by other friends of the region, as well as regional powers and the longer-term dynamics. I mean, in the short term I think it’s time, really, to tell the parties: Enough is enough. This is hurting American interests. It’s hurting certainly regional interests, ultimately. It’s hurting your own interests. Enough is enough. If this conflict is going to continue, if the spat is going to continue, at least take it behind closed doors.
Now, I’m not very optimistic there can be a kind of break-through, eureka moment in which these – the two sides get together. But I would be hopeful that there are ways to at least simmer down the tension to convince both sides from taking steps that would do fundamental lasting damage, irreversible damage. But the longer game, I think, is that fundamentally what we’re seeing here – or what we’ve seen here in this competition that, again, has gone on for at least five, six years – arguable decades before that – is the same scorched earth, zero-sum politics that has been so prevalent in all of these conflicts – whether it’s in Egypt, or Libya, or in Syria, Tunisian maybe a possible example.
But ultimately, until I would say leaders in the Gulf, as well as leaders everywhere – unfortunately, we’re seeing elements of this kind of scorched-earth politics inflecting even the U.S. – but unless, I would say, regional leaders can get to the point where political and diplomatic approaches to these regional challenges become more appealing or more prevalent than military interventions or security solutions, I’m afraid we’re going to be kind of going around the – spinning our wheels here. So, ultimately, I think what we all need to do, whether it’s in Washington or in the region, is to kind of figure out mechanisms whereby leaders can start to have diplomatic discussions, political discussions, getting at the root causes of some of these profound issues facing the Middle East. Thank you very much.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
If any of you have questions, would you hold up your cards and they’ll be collected.
ALI SHIHABI, Founder and Executive Director, Arabia Foundation; Author, Arabian War Games and The Saudi Kingdom: Between the Jihadi Hammer and the Iranian Anvil
Good morning. I’d like to thank the Middle East Policy Council for their very kind invitation.
I think one of the biggest mistakes that 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, the surprise of it, took people in Washington – as witnessed by my two distinguished predecessors on the podium – totally by surprise. And I think as a result, that has led to a misreading of the roots of the crisis. And one of the reasons was, as Tim correctly put, that the issues between the Gulf Cooperation Council have been handled within the family for a long time, have not been advertised. And hence, public opinion abroad or in the region has not been well-briefed on what was happening.
This crisis has a – has a history to it. And the history actually goes back to 1995, when the emir – the father emir of the current emir overthrew his father, slightly complicated between father and son. But he overthrew his father, and the Gulf leaders at that time around Qatar took exception to that. They were elderly leaders and the idea of, you know, Junior overthrowing his father was not taken very well. So when the father came back a year later and tried to grab power back, the countries surrounding Qatar helped the father. Unfortunately, they did a bit like what Kennedy did in the Bay of Pigs. They helped a little bit, not enough to get the job done, so they just wounded, in a way, the Emir of Qatar, the father emir today, who took it very personally. And he, and the prime minister at that time, felt that they were going to get revenge.
And 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. And that is what has raised the issue to the level of anxiety and anger that we see today. Now, that manifested itself in many different ways. Something that people are not very much aware in Washington is that when Colonel Gadhafi was overthrown in Libya, his security files – the vaults, if you want, of the Qataris – of the Libyan secret service were opened up. And recordings of discussions between Colonel Gadhafi, the emir of Qatar, and his prime minister were released publicly.
And in those discussions, the emir of Qatar tells Gadhafi – he tells him that we are funding the Saudi opposition. And he named them by name. We are also searching out Saudi officers and government officials who travel abroad to subvert them, basically to buy them. And we are working to bring down the Saudi royal family. And he promises Gadhafi that the Saudi royal family will not be around 12 years hence. He also has a plan where he tells Gadhafi that we’re going to divide Saudi Arabia into three countries. We’re going to separate the western region, which has Mecca and Medina. We’re going to separate 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.
So those recordings in themselves were a culmination of a period of intrigue and subversion that the Qataris had been carrying out. And, understandably, Saudi Arabia was outraged. However, King Abdullah at that time, in the not traditional order of how things were managed between Gulf leaders, accepted Kuwaiti mediation, quiet mediation, confidential mediation. And as a result, the Qataris apologized, the prime minister came over Riyadh, emir came over to Riyadh and they – you know, they came up with an excuse. And that led to a series of agreements between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar that committed each party – as Tim mentioned, actually, they committed all parties not to interfere in the internal security of their neighbors, not to use their media as an arm to give a platform to parties that wanted to undermine the security of their neighbors – including Al-Jazeera, by the way – and the Qatari government in those agreements admitted that fact and actually admitted to and agreed in the agreements that they would close down Jazeera Mubasher, which was a direct Egyptian channel that the Egyptian government was very upset about because it felt it was promoting the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Now, this was all a confidential agreement. It was signed by the leaders of those countries. And without getting into too much detail, that agreement was signed. The Qataris broke it within the next six, seven, 10 months. The Kuwaitis came in again, and another agreement was signed a year later which again reiterated all the commitments that the Qataris have made. And this was all done in – by 2014. So by 2014 there had been a nearly 20-year track record of behavior on behalf of the Qataris towards their neighbors. There had been multiple attempts at mediation. There had been two incidents of their neighbors pulling their embassies or ambassadors away from Qatar. So there had been a long history of mediation, of crisis, of discussion, of promises that the Qataris undertook. And then that – those actions did not stop.
Now, there was a feeling when the father emir retired, which happened just before the signing of those 2013-2014 agreements, and which gave the quartet a feeling of optimism because the understanding was that the father was the man who had borne the grudge from 1995, he and his prime minister, and by them retiring and by the young emir coming, that baggage would be – would no longer be there, and there was an opportunity to rebuild the new relationship.
Unfortunately, what happened, in turns out, is that after the father emir retired, he seems to have retained the Saudi-Emirati-Bahraini file. So while his son has been, you know, running other things, the father has continued with that – and continued doing what they were doing before, attempting to do it in a sort of “clever way,” quote/unquote. For example, while they – while they reduced the direct – the opportunities for Jazeera to give the opposition within the Emirates and within Saudi Arabia a platform, the father emir went out and invested in media companies in Turkey and in the U.K., which adopted the agenda of the Brotherhood.
So ultimately, people – the leaders felt after all these years that they are facing existential threats. They’re facing existential threats from Iran and from her proxies in the region, and they’re facing existential threats from Sunni jihadism. And that would be very difficult to fight when a member of the club, a brother state within the Gulf GCC, is working to undermine them from within.
Now, that was always very difficult for them to understand, because ultimately Qatar has a vested interest in the security of its neighbors. You know, 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 that Qatar would survive if the security of Saudi Arabia or the UAE, or Bahrain for that matter, was affected. So that’s why people – it could never make – it always surprised the countries around them that the Qataris continue to behave like this.
So then I think when – you know, in the days of the Obama administration there was a feeling that the Obama administration would have relegated this issue to an unending series of meetings and debates and now no action would have been taken, and the feeling was that we have tried with the Qataris for 20 years, we have mediated with them, we’ve signed multiple agreements with them. Nothing is working. Now, one option would be to go to war, which would have been the irresponsible option. The other option was to say, look, we are going to isolate ourself from you. We’re going to isolate you from us. That is not a blockade, because Qatar retains its seaports and it retains its airports, and it has the resources to connect to the whole world. So – but it’s isolating them from their neighborhood, isolating them from their geographical depth, from their family, really, because ultimately Qatar is integrally tied to the Arabian Peninsula. So even though they can talk about building a relationship with Turkey or with Iran, they have no choice. I mean, geography and history and ethnicity determine that their future is tied to their neighbors. So the feeling was that that decisive action has to be taken.
The mistake was it was not communicated well. And as a result, it hit and – the American policy community by surprise. And frankly, with 20/20 hindsight, what the quartet should have done was on the day that the action was taken, it should have released the documents, which it didn’t release till a month later, the three agreements that were signed between the four countries. And it should have said we signed these agreements in 2013 and 2014. We have waited three years for them to be implemented. They have not been implemented. As a result, we are cutting ourself off from Qatar today. I think that would have given a clarity and a precision to the issue that is still missing today.
So, you know, with all due respect to Perry, when people come and say, you know, it’s a bit of a silly thing, his attitude actually is prevalent among the analyst community, because people still haven’t gotten their hand around it. And when I go around Washington and I mention, for example, the recordings that came out, very few people, even experts, even, you know, people in the State Department or in government have actually heard those tapes. So it’s been a big failure in communication on the part of the quartet.
But really, the conclusion is that Qatar has to be brought into line. It has to stop this behavior. Absolutely, as Tim said, everybody should practice the same behavior. The rules should apply to all, and 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 their neighbor. Nobody should give funding, support, nationality or host members of their opposition who want to bring down their surrounding governments. Nobody should give a platform to organizations, whether they are direct Saudi Emirati organizations or organizations like al-Nusra or Hezbollah, which are revolutionary organizations which wants to – which want to bring down the ruling order in the region, and hence, indirectly also are working to subvert the security of these countries.
So I think there’s a lack – there’s a total agreement on that issue. The question is, there is zero trust in the leadership of Qatar, particularly in the – in the presence of the father. I think the feeling is that 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 that they signed, and if our friends in America are able to guarantee, cosign, add their prestige to those agreements, I really don’t see that this problem cannot be solved. But bearing that, this blockade will continue because, frankly, it will work, and it is working. The Qataris can afford – they can have the money to wait, but it’s expensive. And it’s economically expensive for them, but at the end of the day also it’s psychologically expensive for them, because their people, their tribes are intricately tied to the Arabian Peninsula. And obviously, they are now cut off from their geography, so it is the only civilized approach to take in trying to pressure Qatar to come back into the fold and become a responsible member of the Gulf Cooperation Community. That is essential if the Gulf Cooperation Community is going 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. And 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
I’m obligated by federal law and perhaps good taste to state that my remarks do not reflect the policy of any U.S. government body or agency.
There are two metaphors currently dominant in D.C. 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 draws from Thucydides’ 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, the Melian Dialogue 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 who are in this unproductive and protracted dispute. Melos was and is a small island off the coast of southern Greece. It was a neutral city-state when the Athenians approached it and informed the Melians that they would have to join the Athenian alliance against Sparta. The Melians demurred and pointed out that they had not 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’ 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: that 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 condition, 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 – which is another customary American condition – let me point out that all the sides in the GCC dispute have made appeals to the United States to intervene on their behalf in terms not entirely unknown to the Athenians and Spartans.
Now, Athens wound up slaughtering the male Melians and enslaving the women and the children. Hopefully, our current standoff will be resolved in a more felicitous manner.
The second metaphor which I wish to discuss is not as well known. I call it the NATO illusion. Simply put, this refers to 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 and partners globally. In some areas it has been merely ineffective, as with the Organization of American States, and 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 peculiar 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 of every size and shape 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 of the United States, The Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, and Greece. The Saudi security role is superior because of the size of Saudi Arabia and because of 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 they are limited by the size of the Emirates.
The current kerfuffle has diverged from the NATO paradigm in one particularly notable aspect. For some reason, in this current climate, prominent Americans who should – and probably do – know better, have chosen to put forward a new standard for locating American bases, and that is 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 and nor is it in our national interest. It is also 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 Papandreous (sic; Papandreou), or in the Philippines under Marcos, did not mute American criticism of those regimes. We maintain a critical airbase in Turkey even while decrying Erdogan’s slide into dictatorship. And 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 extremely 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 U.S. 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 which 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 sold the soccer World Cup from the USA. This last charge seems to me to be particularly ineffective, as most red-blooded American men outgrow soccer when they start shaving.
American 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 – the NATO metaphor. For example, the Trump Riyadh summit weapons package included a satellite missile launch detection capacity to be sold to Saudi Arabia. Qatar has asked and been approved to buy a ballistic missile early warning system radar, very effective Raytheon systems that we deploy in the United States. Most GCC countries field American air defense missiles. Integrating this capability seems like a national harmonization of interests. From an engineering standpoint, the case for GCC missile defense integration is unanswerable – from an engineering, not 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 Gulf Cooperation Council and a shortage of ground attack assets. Bahrain would be better suited to let its partners fly expensive air cover and to develop a fleet of propeller-driven ground attack aircraft. Bahrain will be challenged to afford the $500,000 price tag that every precision-guided missile has, 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 was – 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 U.S. THAAD system to Saudi Arabia. The U.S. has suspended some multilateral exercises, as was known, but the step was taken more to spare embarrassment than to form – 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 of the Gulf Cooperation Council would do well to note they are bordered by a ruthless and rapacious enemy which has a population that is large, resilient, educated, poor, and looks across the Gulf with an extremely combustible mix of envy and resentment. Just as the Greeks set aside profound differences to combine and defeat the Persians at Thermopile, so should some legitimate national concerns of 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.
DR. MATTAIR: I see one question or two. OK, can you raise your hand if you have some?
Before I start, I’d like to echo something Rich said because I traveled with Ambassador Ford Fraker about a dozen times in the region, and I could see how respected and trusted he was there. So it’s a loss for us, and I think people should know that he was an important person in that part of the world and here.
Now as far as the q-and-a session, I really don’t have too many cards from the floor. If you do have questions as we go on, please let us know about them.
So Ali and others were talking about the fact that U.S. administration was surprised on June 5th, and I think we now understand a little more about why since these agreements were – secret agreements were not released. But can you – can Ali and others talk a little bit about – a little more about the background and the reasons for the GCC coming together in 2013, the history of the differences? Perry also was talking about supporting, you know, the Saudis and the Emiratis and the Qataris supporting different sides in the civil wars around the region, and how similar those secret agreements are to the 13 demands that the ATQ finally released for the benefit of a U.S. administration which hadn’t seen those agreements. So a little more history, please.
MR. SHIHABI: I mean, I think that there’s a fundamental misunderstanding also that Saudi Arabia would like to turn Qatar into, you know, a vassal state and that the issue is the arrogant, larger neighbor annoyed by the upstart younger or smaller power. It may be annoyed sometimes by the Qataris, and certainly even some of the Qatari behavior in Libya and places like that 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 – a feeling, for example, clerics have been arrested in Saudi Arabia a few weeks ago, where the government has discovered that the Qatari government has for years been having these clerics on its payroll. Millions of dollars have been spent. And these are, you know, clerics that have millions of followers. One of them has 14 million followers on Twitter. So they are, in a way, a political force.
So this interference, this meddling in the internal security was what incensed the Saudi government. Yes, did Qatar want to be bigger – play a big large on the world – a big role on the world stage? Was that irritating sometimes? Sure. But that never would – I mean, Saudi Arabia lived through Kuwait. Kuwait did that in the ’60s. King Faisal used to say that there were three superpowers in the world – you know, the Soviet Union, the U.S., and Kuwait, because the Kuwaitis had the same attitude in the ’60s and ’70s of wanting to stand out and not be overshadowed by their giant neighbor Saudi Arabia. Kuwait only, in a way, came to its senses when Saddam invaded Kuwait and the Kuwaitis realized that it was the strategic depth of Saudi Arabia that saved them. It was the fact that 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. So that has – that has never been a behavior that would have elicited the reaction that you saw now. The reaction was a direct effort to subvert the security of the neighbors.
The Emirates had the same issue. The Bahrainis had the same issue. And this had been documented, videotaped, recorded, you know, at multiple occasions over 20 years. So the agreements – and the Qataris, there had been multiple opportunities and meetings where these grievances were expressed and where promises were made by the Qataris to desist. As a result, after the tapes were released from Gadhafi’s vaults, the emir of Kuwait brought the emir of Qatar to see King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and then King Abdullah told him I don’t trust your word – because he said I promise not to do this, I promise we will not do this again. He said I don’t believe you. Let’s put it on paper – which is why the first agreement in 2013 was actually handwritten. It was handwritten because the king of Saudi Arabia told the Qataris I don’t believe your word.
They broke that a year later. There was a more formal summit, so there was a more detailed agreement. There was a more detailed addendum signed by the foreign ministers, and they still broke that. So the problem now is that the quartet countries, they don’t believe the Qataris – the word of the Qataris and they don’t trust the signature of the Qataris. So any agreement that would have to be reached with Qatar would need some sort of a U.S. I think verification, where the U.S. became a party to it, and as a result the Qataris would take – you know, give that much more weight.
So that is the history, really. It’s a history of direct interference and a feeling that they wanted to undermine the security and bring the systems down, really. Bring the systems of government down, which is mindboggling when you think of it, because it can hardly be in Qatar’s interest for the Qataris to do something like that. Now, the failure to communicate the fact 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, so policymakers make decisions and then – and effectively they allow the other party to define the story and then they respond while American policy – you know, American politicians, Western politicians, from minute one they have learned that you have to communicate and you have – the communication strategy has to be an integral part of any policy step that you take. That lack of communication is what has caused the confusion – until today, really, in Washington, I think.
DR. MATTAIR: Yes, Rich.
AMB. SCHMIERER: I think one of the key points that was raised – and I was going to ask Perry if he might be able to help us with this – I was serving as an ambassador during the Arab Spring, in Oman. And I think all of us at the time – and I know you were very much engaged – were trying to understand that dynamic and then see how it played out going forward. And I think – I think it was you, Perry, who kind of alluded to – and I think, Ali, you as well – that some of the dynamics from that period have now continued to kind of infect the policies in the region. So I think it might be useful for the audience to kind of see what happened then and then sort of draw a timeline from then to now, to put this kind of in that context.
MR. CAMMACK: Sure, I can try to take a quick stab at that. I mean, it strikes me that one of the most profound things that’s happened in the Middle East since 2011 is essentially there’s a collapse of the regional order. And I mean, not to say that pre-Arab Spring the Middle East was a stable place. Obviously, you saw kind of wars, conflict, et cetera, et cetera, but generally the kind of interventions into other countries’ politics that we’re talking about were limited to weaker states on the periphery. So there’s lots of historical intervention by regional states into Palestinian politics, obviously in Yemeni politics. And Lebanon is a good example of it.
But I think what has happened since 2011 is the former strong states, if you will, whether the states that had this kind of façade, iron façade, whether it was Gadhafi’s Libya or Mubarak’s Egypt or Assad’s Syria, all of these facades have crumbled, and what it’s meant is that these intervention(s) that Ali is talking about, yes, they’re happening, but they’re happening across the region, across numerous vectors simultaneously. So can an argument be made that Qatar has been at the forefront of that? I think that’s absolutely the case. But they’re hardly the only ones. If you look at the history of Yemen or of Syria or of Libya, these political interventions are happening everywhere simultaneously which – and so it strikes me that until the states of the region kind of come to some kind of Westphalian moment – that may or may not be a good analogy or not – but where there’s a recognition that this simultaneous intervention everywhere is actually hurting states’ own interests until they begin to kind of have some respect for each other’s sovereignty, I’m afraid this is going to go on for a lot longer.
Now, one place I think where I do agree with several of my panelists is that there is a disproportionate – there’s a kind of preponderance of power on the side of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in – whether it’s demographic, geographic, economic. So whatever one thinks kind of normatively of the situation, I think over time the status quo does favor the quartet against Qatar. But in the short term I would argue that Qatar has actually kind of benefited from this politically in the sense of there were questions about – to me – my understanding of the popular reaction is that there has been a rallying of the flag kind of effect in Qatar, which is actually improved his standing rather than diminished it.
MR. SHIHABI: I mean, there always is a rallying of the flag in the beginning of a crisis. But I think as you see, you know, when people cheered as the troops went off to war in Europe at the First World War, when you rally around the flag, but after a while, when you pay a price, the Qatari people are going to ask themselves is that necessary. What does Qatar gain from alienating its neighbors, you know?
And, you know, there was an element – I mean, the father emir had views about the future of the Arab world, and he wanted to help restructure Syria. But those were secondary. I mean, the – his attempts or his visions about playing a sort of – a role in shaping the future of the Arab world really were secondary to the direct behavior towards his neighbors, and that is where the communication has been flawed, because people don’t understand that. So they mix up Qatari behavior in Libya with Qatari funding of Saudi opposition or giving them a platform or working to undermine the direct security of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates and Bahrain. And I think this is where the whole mess comes in, because people are – there are priorities and there are issues that cross the red line and there are issues that irritate but don’t cross the redline.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, point of fact, Ali, these secret agreements were released by CNN and then –
MR. SHIHABI: Yes.
DR. MATTAIR: – and then provided by your website.
MR. SHIHABI: No, they were released by CNN. I mean, they were – somebody leaked them to CNN.
DR. MATTAIR: So they are available. They can be read.
MR. SHIHABI: Yeah, we have copies of them on our website, but, I mean, they’re on the CNN website.
DR. MATTAIR: Right, right.
MR. SHIHABI: Yes.
DR. MATTAIR: So they can be read.
But back to these –
MR. SHIHABI: But I mean, well, my point was that those agreements should have been integral. From minute one, the statement should have said here’s the agreements.
DR. MATTAIR: Yes.
MR. SHIHABI: And 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 by – you know, and certified, and why don’t you help us do that, you see? There would have been less confusion, I think. And then Mr. Lenderking would have been much supportive of upholding the rule of law, I think.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, the first grievance is interference in domestic affairs. The second is support for terrorism.
MR. SHIHABI: Yeah, I –
DR. MATTAIR: Let’s say more – let’s say more about –
MR. SHIHABI: Can I just make a point on that? Because that – the issue of terrorism, unfortunately the usage of that word, the quartet thought that that was a clever way to address this crisis because of all the obsession in America and the West about terrorism, but I think that confused it, see? Because, yes, of course they’re supporting terrorist organizations, but the – particularly the understanding of terrorism in America is a bit confused, so that had the message been more on the direct – you have the right to protect your internal security as any country, and had the message been more directed at that, they are working to undermine our internal security, I think that 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: Sure, yeah, but not just in Qatar.
DR. MATTAIR: OK.
Let’s go in a little bit to 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: Yeah, so a couple of points. First off, it’s always – it’s become almost a tautology to say that policy problems and security problems are failures of either communications and intelligence. You can pretty much put everything into that basket. But it’s clear that Qatar – in international relations, where you have a strong leading power and then a less dominant power that’s neighbored to it, almost inevitably that power – the smaller power defines itself oppositionly and winds up nipping at its heels and is sort of a constant irritant. And if you don’t believe that, come to one of my family reunions where half of the family is American and half is Canadian. Canadians define themselves almost exclusively as being not Americans. And so it’s just a natural state of nature that a smaller country would kind of – it either becomes almost completely subordinate, a province, or it becomes an irritant. It’s black ball theories of IR.
But Qatar is proud, and to the point of being cocky. And when the Arab Spring – when the wave of the Arab Spring was cresting, they were not shy about telling everybody else you represent the old, the decaying, you moment is coming to an end and we are the future: we’re smaller, we’re agile. It’s like that moment in “Fried Green Tomatoes” where the girls are – take Kathy Bates’ parking space and say, honey, we’re younger and faster, and then Kathy Bates crashes into her car and says, honey, I’m older and I’ve got more insurance. We’re kind of seeing that same moment there, where the formerly young, agile, gifted, fast thing that thought they were riding the wave with supporting Morsi and all that, the status quo has swung back with a vengeance.
MR. SHIHABI: But, David, again, I may repeat myself, but look at the model of Kuwait. If you look at the history of Kuwait in the ’60s and ’70s, it was exactly that. It was a little power that was an irritant, that was uncomfortable with being overshadowed by Saudi Arabia. That irritated Saudi Arabia. It annoyed, it upset Saudi Arabia. But there was never a cut of relations. There was never any hostility. And that behavior stopped after the invasion of Kuwait.
So my point is that the Gulf countries – and Saudi Arabia would not have reacted with the extreme anger that they’ve reacted now if that had not crossed the line from being an irritant to being an active agent of subversion. And, you know, whether – what they were doing – now the Qataris – also another, if you want an irritant, I mean, the Qataris were talking about the wave of future and democracy, when Qatar itself is a total, you know, autocracy like everybody else. So when they talk about freedom of press for Al-Jazeera, for example, well, they allow the Saudi opposition to go on Jazeera, but the Qatari opposition, it would never – you know, 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.
So this nonsense – there’s a very interesting YouTube clip for President Obama. He said I had the emir of Qatar today, and he’s a powerful man and, you know, 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 that shouldn’t be confused. And had they said that, even that wouldn’t have irritated. It was crossing the redline of subversion that blew this relationship up.
PROF. DES ROCHES: I don’t think we’re in that much of a disagreement, but one of the things I would note, I think that there was a communications plan in place to make the case against Qatar, at least in the West. The – 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 (thinking ?).
What was unusual was it seemed that the blockade was imposed before there was really an alternative and a clear option for the Qataris other than surrender. On June 5th, most of the commentators were comparing the quartet’s demands to the demands that Austria-Hungary made on Serbia, that seemed to be the most relevant – in 1914. That seemed to be the most relevant thing. And the demands were quite frankly unachievable by a state that wishes to remain sovereign. So it seemed that the aim was regime change, but you don’t put forward regime change unless you have an alternative regime ready to go. We’ve learned that to our great expense. We’ve had this conference in London. We’ve had a cousin of Hamad. It is puzzling to me that you didn’t have that done before the imposition of the blockade. And the measures that you said, the communication measures, the recent demands, that could have been done as well. So it leads me to believe that there was either gross disorganization or some sort of existential threat – perceived or otherwise – that led to premature action.
MR. SHIHABI: Look, I think regime change is something that the Gulf countries take with great caution. So it is being talked about now, but underlying it, I think if the father – and this is my personal opinion – but if the father emir retires actually from the picture, I think things can be solved quite quickly with the existing government.
So, you know, the concept of regime change is something that the Gulf countries have been very careful about not playing for a very long time. So I still think that, you know, there are tactical things. For example, unfortunately, in the 13 points that were made, one of the points was closing down Al-Jazeera, which gave the Qataris a big public relations coup because they were able to turn around and say you want to close down the free press and every journalist in the world suddenly started to – you know, went to their side, when really the issue wasn’t closing Qatar Al-Jazeera down, it was just letting Jazeera treat Saudi Arabia the way it treats Qatar, you see? So exactly what Tim was saying: Apply the same laws – apply unto your neighbor what you want your neighbor to apply to you.
DR. MATTAIR: All right. Well, did you want to say something, Ali? OK.
Well, to come back to this question that I think is extremely important for Americans and, like, the Iran issue as well, the Department of the Treasury has commented about the performance of various states in terms of curbing the flow of money to extremists and terrorists. And Tim said that there’s improvement at various levels everywhere. So that concept of various levels of improvement is something that we might discuss. Qatar has been –
MR. SHIHABI: I mean, if you want to –
DR. MATTAIR: – they’ve been considered to be lagging behind the Saudis, but there is an agreement with Tillerson and there is a new Qatari law. Ali, I think you said it was being implemented slowly. But can we talk about that and how important that 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: I mean, let me just give an example of an issue like that. The Financial Times broke a story about a month into the crisis which talked about a ransom of a billion dollars being paid by the Qataris to a Shia and Sunni militia in Iraq. Now, the – and this was validated by a third party, which was the prime minister of Iraq, because he came out and said that the Iraqi government had caught Kuwaiti – Qatari diplomats trying to smuggle $500 million in cash to give to the Hashd al-Shaabi as a ransom. The Qataris came out and said, no, no, this was money that we’re going to give as aid to the Iraqi government. If you – I mean, if you want to give aid to the Iraqi government, you transfer from your central bank to your central bank. You don’t carry $500 million in cash, right? So that sort of behavior and money – that – those billion dollars, part of it ended up with Sunni jihadis and part of it ended up with Iranian supported Hashd al-Shaabi.
Now why on earth Qatar would want to, you know, allow, even if it was a ransom – I mean, you don’t let the mafia, even if they’ve arrested members of your family, no government would allow that sort of money that could power them for the next 10 years to be given. That sort of irresponsible behavior, whether the Qataris thought that that would give them influence, whether they thought it would give them protection, money, nobody can make sense of that. But why on earth would you give the Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq, which not only talks about you want to ethnically cleanse Iraq but talks about wanting to come into Saudi Arabia – and why would you give, you know, the Sunni jihadi organizations in Syria, which again want to topple the ruling order in Saudi Arabia, that sort of money? That is the sort of behavior that was incomprehensible.
And to come and say that we just – you know, and I found the reaction of American policymakers here a bit surprising because they said, oh, well, it’s just a ransom, whether it was $5 million, whether it’s a billion dollars. It’s a ransom. And I said this – you know, this is an epoch-changing amount of money that you can deploy in a totally irresponsible manner. So if you think – again, this boils down to does Qatar think that they’re buying protection by giving these effectively terrorist criminal organizations hundreds of millions of dollars of money?
And this is the sort of behavior that also incensed – so it’s not really the 50,000, because, you know, 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, you know, smuggling, has been plunder, which is what revolutionary organizations when they take territory – fund themselves with – the Bolsheviks did that in Russia for the first 10 years – taking the wealth, plundering the banks. So, you know, 50,000 here, 100,000 here. But a billion dollars, you know, that’s something that, you know, beggars belief really. And till today, there is no explanation for it.
DR. MATTAIR: Please.
MR. LENDERKING: On that particular issue, I don’t think we have all the facts yet, to be quite honest. There’s been a great deal of discussion about that particular ransom payment. Again, I don’t think we have all the – 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: (Chuckles.) Well, I’m seeing – I’ve seen a lot of information, I think, about what the status of this is. Not 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 sort of a gray area here about ransom payments, because, 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, Fijians have been released. So, you know, one has to look at the pros and cons. And I’m not justifying it. I’m just saying that there’s some nuance here.
In terms of – you know, of counterterrorism funding more broadly, I think, Tom, you’re right to point out that, drawing on my earlier statement, there’s been progress across the board in each of the countries. In fact, probably the most significant progress has been Saudi Arabia over the last 10 years, where there’s really a very strong commitment to close loopholes, enact legislation, and so there’s been a very, very close partnership between Saudi Arabia and the U.S., particularly with the Department of Treasury, which has a lot of the expertise in this area.
But the others have come along as well. I mean, and if you sort of 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 between the Gulf countries, depending on which category you look at it, but overall the trend has been positive.
Secretary Tillerson and we very much wanted to enshrine Qatar’s progress, and thus we signed this memorandum of understanding in Doha back in July, and that sort of pulled together a lot of initiatives that 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. So it was a great opportunity to really focus on these issues and accelerate, and so we put a very rigorous timeline in terms of the things that we wanted to accomplish, and that all is working quite well, I would say. This doesn’t address all of the concerns of the, you know, 13 demands. Our MOU doesn’t necessarily tackle some of the broader regional engagements we’re funding, those two, Libya and Syria, et cetera, but it’s an excellent start.
And I think it’s – there’s been a lot of commitment shown. Now, 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, you know, turning crisis into opportunity to focus each of the countries to accelerate their own efforts. Again, progress has been made, but more work needs to be done across the board. So that’s an area I think that we’re looking at down the road.
Again, the point I made, this dispute doesn’t get better with time. So – and I don’t – I think we’re also of the view that until the parties can talk to themselves directly, not much progress is going to be made. So that’s what we’re very eager to see. Get the parties in the room together and let them work on this, because, again, my point being the – and I think Ali also agrees with this – that the resolution is going to be local. It’s the – there’s going to be a decision made to work through this. And we’re – you know, we’re trying to support that as best we can. And so whether we serve as a guarantor, I think there’s openness to that. We haven’t been approached specifically to do that in any formal way, but I think, you know, the U.S. is ready to lend its support behind an agreement. Many of the elements may be found in the 2013-2014 agreements. OK, clearly that didn’t work. The arbitration mechanism that were enshrined in the Riyadh agreements before were not used in this particular instance. There needs to be 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 some – you know, the Riyadh agreements that have been made do form a basis, and with additional modifications and a commitment by all the sides, I think we can get to that point where we can get the relationships back on track, rebuild the trust, particularly between the young leaders that are emerging in the region and work to common benefit.
MR. CAMMACK: Yes, I want to comment on this ransom payment issue very quickly. I mean, one thing that strikes me about this conflict is that it’s thoroughly modern in the sense that it’s – you know, it’s not military conflict, it’s really a social media conflict. It’s a misinformation conflict on all sides, on both sides. It’s hacking. It’s misinformation to media, et cetera. So, you know, the Financial Times story is out there. You know, I’m not in government. 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 that a billion dollars had been paid to terrorist organizations, that they would be moving heaven and earth to get to the bottom of it. And the fact that that reaction hasn’t happened suggests to me that, as Tim said, there may be more to the story that has yet to be told.
MR. SHIHABI: I mean, it’s been a surprise why the Americans have not done more, I mean. And forget what Saudi Arabia says. Prime Minister Abadi of Iraq went out 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’m not going to take it, unfortunately. I think – I would just leave my comment that there’s a certain murkiness around this, and so I don’t think this example is a particularly accurate one on the issue we’re talking about. Again, ransom payments have been paid over the past. It is something that we have been concerned about. There also – as I have said, people have been freed. It’s a delicate thing. I don’t excuse the fact that – in any circumstance I don’t think the U.S. would excuse that money ends up in terrorist hands. There must be better ways to do that. But – and I think it’s an area that we need to work on and that we want to have further discussion with Qatar on, and that we will do so.
MR. SHIHABI: Put delicately, like a true diplomat.
DR. MATTAIR: So I am trying to incorporate questions from the floor, bring them together when I ask one. Most questions from the floor are about resolution, how to resolve it. But before we get there, some of the questions are very specific about the three grievances. And one of them is to explain any differences of opinion that the Saudis and the Emiratis on one hand have, and the Qataris have on the other hand about the Muslim Brotherhood.
MR. SHIHABI: Are you asking me?
DR. MATTAIR: Anyone, everyone.
MR. CAMMACK: I don’t know. I can take a first crack on it and then Ali can agree or disagree.
DR. MATTAIR: Sure.
MR. CAMMACK: To me, what is quite interesting is that if you look kind of in the pre-2011 period just how significantly views on the Muslim Brotherhood have shifted in many of the Gulf states since 2011 – and I think, you know, its leaders looking around and seeing revolutions. It’s seeing a regime – a region on fire, and it’s a sense that, you know, we’re not going to take chances with revolutionary groups. But I mean, you know, it was only a couple years ago that the Brotherhood had – 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, shall we say. The Qataris have long been kind of outspoken proponents of it. We talked about the relationship with Hamas, et cetera, et cetera.
But in some ways I think what’s happened is that the Emirati view on the MB has been adopted by many of the other – or at least a couple of the other GCC states. This issue, I think, in Washington – I mean, it’s often looked as a kind of issue of secularists versus Islamists. And I personally find that not a useful lens to look at it. You know, on one hand if you look at the Egyptian MB, I mean, this was an authoritarian organization. They came to power democratically, but they behaved in an authoritarian manner just as the Mubarak – they essentially modeled the Mubarak behavior. So I don’t say this as someone that has an affinity to Islamist groups in any way.
On the other hand, many of the so-called secularist movements that we’re talking about in the region, many of them don’t share either liberal views. Many of them are anti-democratic. Many of them are kind of even anti-Western. So for me, again, I go back to where I started, that in some ways there is a competition about a kind of vision of where the Middle East should go. Unfortunately, I think it tends to be a zero-sum game on both sides, that there’s very little space in this regional competition for kind of a plurality of views. And until regional leaders address that fundamental gap – and we see it in the GCC but we see it in many other contexts as well – I’m afraid that we’re going to be stuck in these kind of power-play, zero-sum political competitions.
DR. MATTAIR: David.
PROF. DES ROCHES: I think I’m in agreement. I want to go back a little further, though. I think we underestimate the profound shock to the region that the rapid, out-of-nowhere fall of Mubarak. And I think that it – you know, 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 somebody being cast out in the outer darkness. And people who don’t speak a word of English talking to me – you know, they said – you know, they said, you know – (speaks in Arabic) – threw Mubarak under the bus. I’ve heard that exact phrase: Threw Mubarak under the bus – from people time and time again. And I think that it is logical to assume that these people who are traumatized by this event looked at – you know, conducted their after-action review, said how did it not happen here. And the Muslim Brotherhood is a very, very big threat in that. So, you know, Courtney Freer at LSE and a lot of other scholars have looked at it, but I think from a strictly power politics thing, it makes sense, if you’re one of these regimes, to say, right, what led to the downfall of Mubarak, and then to try to isolate those things. And Qatar of course was on the other side every step of the way on this. So I think that’s a more power politics explanation.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, you talked about the size and the strength of Saudi Arabia compared to its other GCC member states, but the size and the power of Egypt has made Egypt of vital strategic depth to the Saudis. So what would Muslim Brotherhood of – rule over Egypt have meant for the – for Egypt serving as that kind of strategic depth?
PROF. DES ROCHES: Yeah, yeah, that’s right. Well, the role of Egypt in the security considerations of the Arab Gulf states is worthy of further study. But I know that there’s always been this rough idea that, you know, we have the money, we have the equipment, and if things really get ugly we can draw on this mass Egyptian manpower. And of course, the utility of that manpower seems to be a little bit suspect.
I would point out that there’s been at least in some of the, you know, hacked emails flying around, there’s been at least one – and I have to take exception with an earlier panelist – at least one American NGO member has supported the concept of merging Egypt with Qatar in that way to solve the perennial economic problems of Egypt, basically that the Qatari wealth will then fund the Egyptian army. So that seems to be an idea, but it’s more of a grand concept than a workable plan.
MR. SHIHABI: I think, you know, the – why there’s confusion about the Muslim Brotherhood is because in the ’60s the Muslim Brotherhood was fighting Nasser, and Nasser was trying to bring down the ruling order in the Gulf. So the Saudi government welcomed them, and I gave them jobs in universities and schools, and only recognized decades later that they had brought a level of political thinking into conservative – you know, if you want the religious establishment there, into the conservative religious establishment, the level of political thinking and sophistication that – and transnationalism in a political sense – the Saudi establishment has always been wanting to promote the faith, but King Abdulaziz, when he set up the Saudi state, he purposefully did not take on the title of caliph, even though that was an opportune time for him because the caliphate had fallen down, and he had taken control of Mecca and Medina. And many people actually raised that possibility. And he wanted to send a message that Saudi Arabia does not aspire to transnational expansion. And in fact, there was an internal civil war with what were called the Ikhwan, which were the sort of very right-wing Wahhabi warriors that wanted to take that.
So when the Muslim Brotherhood came in, by the time of the early ’90s they – the Saudi government realized that they had infected what became called the Sahwa movement in Saudi Arabia, which was they had helped create a politically much more active clerical class that looked to sort of a transnational Muslim state. So I think they began to be worried about them in the ’90s. Obviously, that worry – now my view, that worry reached an extreme when they took power in Egypt, because suddenly they had a platform of the largest, most important country in the region. And that’s when, if you want, alarm bells started to go off and everybody started to look in their backyard and see who was – because the Muslim Brotherhood is a bit of 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 with much more concern around them. Qatar in its hubris thought that it could somehow influence or control the Muslim Brotherhood, and I think that’s a fundamental difference of opinion because the Muslim Brotherhood can use Qatar and can use its platforms, it can use its money, but it will never – Qatar will never be able to influence them.
So I think the view was that the Qataris were playing a very dangerous game for themselves, also, not just for – by supporting, funding and giving the Muslim Brotherhood – hosting them and giving them a platform on television. And that was one of the reasons why in the 2013-2014 agreement, closing down Qatar Mubasher, Jazeera Mubasher, which was a dedicated channel for Egypt was so important, and which the Qataris ultimately did. But what they did was they closed down Jazeera Mubasher, but then they went and fund – set up two new channels or more in Turkey and in London to do the same job. And that is what, you know – so on one side they committed to the agreement, on the other side they subverted it.
DR. MATTAIR: We’ve talked about two of the three grievances. The third is Iran, Qatar’s relations with Iran. People in the audience are asking what was the nature of that relationship. Was it more than what you would call a normal hedging that a small power makes when it is in a coalition with a large power?
MR. SHIHABI: Can I address, actually, that Iran issue? Because it’s a very good point.
DR. MATTAIR: Yes, but – we know – but people are asking how much choice did Qatar have when they share that large natural gas field with Iran.
MR. SHIHABI: Sure.
DR. MATTAIR: And what was the nature of the relationship that would have been threatening, for example, to Bahrain?
MR. SHIHABI: No, look, there’s always been understanding that Qatar has to have a special relationship with Iran because it shares the Pars – North Pars Gas Field. So I don’t think anybody held that against them. And I don’t think that Qatar’s diplomatic relationships and discussions or, if you want, civilized 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 funding – supporting Hezbollah or supporting Hashd – much more direct issues. But nobody in the Gulf says that the Qataris should alienate Iran and put their – you know, their multitrillion dollar investment in the gas field at risk. And again, that’s another misconception.
DR. MATTAIR: Perry.
MR. CAMMACK: I have a kind of slightly different view on this, and this is in part what I try to address in my comments. I mean, there were the grievances kind of publicly put forward by the coalition and I think they’re the grievances that are actually underlining this. And for me, the Iran issue has always been a bit of a red herring. I think it really – I mean, in some ways Ali and I are calling it different things. I’m talking about kind of regional power competition. Ali’s talking about kind of direct interference. To me, that’s the core of what this is. Iran was kind of a convenient buzzword here in Washington at the time. But just on the surface of it, if you look at – you know, whether you look politically in terms of Oman’s relations with Iran, if you look at economically in terms of Dubai relationship with Iran, both of these are kind of much more fundamental relations with Iran than Qatar has.
PROF. DES ROCHES: I’m sorry, I want to concur with that. I think that both the Iran and the terrorism accusations were designed more to appeal to us. However, I agree with Tim’s remarks, which is, fine, enunciate that standard. That standard will be applied universally. So hopefully if the situation – if the kerfuffle is resolved before it does too much damage, it will be higher standards that the United States will be able to hold its partners to on both Iran and terrorism. That’s my silver lining.
,strong>DR. MATTAIR: All right. A few more specific questions for Ali: Has the interference in the internal security of Saudi Arabia and the UAE by the father emir have been effective?
MR. SHIHABI: Sorry?
DR. MATTAIR: Has the domestic interference promoted by the father emir been effective inside Saudi Arabia and the UAE?
MR. SHIHABI: No, I mean, it hasn’t been effective in the sense that the security of Saudi Arabia has a very robust internal security. But, you know, the Saudi opposition in London, for example, cooperated with an attempt by Gadhafi to assassinate Crown Prince Abdullah at that time. Gadhafi wanted to settle a personal score with him. The Saudi opposition participated in that event, trying to give them logistical support inside the kingdom.
You know, there’s a Saudi opposition. It’s an irritant. It doesn’t have much traction in the country. But they have been directly funded by the Qataris, and 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. Now, the government gets very concerned when it sees these very popular clerics, who really are like rock stars in Saudi Arabia, who are getting millions and millions of dollars, and they have documented transfers of money to accounts that the clerics have in Turkey, for example, and so that they wouldn’t – the Qataris wouldn’t transfer money to Saudi Arabia, but many of these clerics have accounts in Turkey, in Qatari-owned banks in Turkey, and have acquired expensive real estate in Turkey. These are some of the things that have led to these arrests.
So the – you know, the – I mean the internal security is very alert and doesn’t want to wait till it goes to the next stage and says that you trying to, you know, put on your payroll important clerics in our country that have a wide franchise among the people is a hostile act, without us knowing, without our permission. And you are trying to exhibit like – you know, trying to buy Americans by a foreign country. If you’re an American and you get paid by a foreign country, you have to register with the U.S. authorities. So none of those chaps registered as agents of Qatar, if you’d like to put it that way.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, there are quite a few questions asking how the nature of this dispute is impacting regional conflict. What impact does it have in Syria? What impact does it have in Yemen?
MR. CAMMACK: I can take a first quick cut at this. I mean, I think in a strictly operational sense – and David would be better suited to talk to this than I am – my sense is it’s not operationally impacting the conflict against ISIS. But on the flip side, you had the secretary of state basically camping out in the Gulf for a full week. My impression from my time in government is that basically the most valuable asset the U.S. government has is the time of its principals, and the time that Secretary Tillerson, Secretary Mattis are spending on this crisis is time that they’re not spending thinking about Iran, it’s time they’re not spending thinking about ISIS.
Now with Iran I think the impact is actually more direct in the sense of if the idea was to downgrade the Qatari-Iranian relationship – in fact, it’s had the opposite impact in that it’s given Iran inroads into Doha, it’s allowed Iran to portray itself as kind of playing humanitarian role in providing food, et cetera, et cetera. You know, I think most would agree that that’s a fairly cynical behavior on Iran’s part, but it has created an opportunity in the context of the ongoing debate here in Washington about JCPOA for Iran to portray itself as a productive actor.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, is there any chance that Qatar is going to take its previous hedging, its establishing relations with Iran, and turn it into an actual bandwagon with Iran which is forming a partnership because they are so concerned about pressure from Saudi Arabia anyway? How close can that relationship become?
MR. CAMMACK: I personally think there are pretty significant limits to that. The nexus I think I would watch more is the Turkey-Qatar nexus. And there, I mean, the Turks have a minor – very minor military presence. Actually, it’s interesting that one of the specific demands made in this list of 13 was that the Qataris close that base. So it’s clearly an issue that’s resonating in the Gulf.
DR. MATTAIR: Was there ever any chance of the ATQ taking any military action? Did the Turkish base have anything to do with ever putting up a red flag?
MR. SHIHABI: Was there ever a chance of the quartet taking – I don’t think so. I mean, there was stories about that, but I really don’t think that they really took military action ever seriously. And they understand that that would have been a huge complicating factor.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, we talked about – just talked about – we’re going to get to a resolution, I promise, soon, but we’ve talked a little bit about the regional conflicts, and especially how this has enhanced Iran’s relationship with Qatar, but what has it meant for Turkey? What has it meant for Russia? And what has it meant for the United States?
PROF. DES ROCHES: I think that right now Turkey and Russia are – Russia is a big winner out of this because they’re able to see their rival, you know, our prime force projection coalition, our prime assets are fighting amongst themselves. They’re able to fish in troubled waters and offer their offices as an intermediary. So they’re able to build on their military power in the Middle East, nascent military in Syria, with diplomatic power by offering themselves as negotiators offering their good offices. And honestly, if I were the Russians, I would – every week I would send an invitation, you know, hey, you know, we’ll host talks in Moscow to resolve this. You know, it’s zero-cost, zero-risk, high prestige. So that’s good.
Turkey is pretty much already in the outer darkness with the members of the quartet, so it allows them to solidify themselves with the Qataris. And I’ve heard very senior Qatari officials say that, you know, they’re amazed – they were – they didn’t realize that you can buy everything from Turkey, because they had decades of national self-sufficiency. So it opens up at least one small but very rich market to Turkey, and I think it allows them to for the first time have a real power projection role, a role as a security provider beyond that. But the size of the Turkish base has been overstated. I think it’s more of a maintenance facility for stuff they’ve hoped or hope to hope, limited training. It’s more akin to Eskan Village than Al Dhafra Air Base, in military terms.
The third question was Iran or –
DR. MATTAIR: Yeah, well, we’re talking about Iran but you can say more about it.
PROF. DES ROCHES: Yeah, I’ll tell you – well, the thing about – or, I’m sorry, the United States. The United States’ interests are damaged. Look, we want to see this – our vision is that there will be joint operations where Saudi infantry advances – actually, Qatari infantry advances with Saudi artillery and air defense artillery covering it, and the UAE providing an air cap. And that allows the United States to focus on really intense high-value targets. And what we’re seeing is that progress towards that goal is not only not moving forward, it’s going backward, backward, backward. So it’s a disaster for us.
What might change it, normally when you have a tenuous coalition like this, it requires a great and immediate threat to arise, and maybe that will change it. And that could be the introduction of a new, more accurate Iranian ballistic missile or a discovery that just as the North Koreans were way ahead of their nuclear design, you know, maybe if there’s some sort of Iranian thing like that, perhaps that will lead to the crisis being resolved. But right now, there’s not that immediate threat.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, Qatar and even Saudi Arabia are visiting Russia and making deals with Russia. What are the limits to Russia’s ability to advance in the region? How much opportunity did it have and how limited are their opportunities?
MR. CAMMACK: From my perspective, it’s actually quite, quite limited. And – but what the Russians in a sense have benefited from is, one, a series of U.S. American mistakes over, you know, 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 kind of Putin cache. I think it’s safe to say that Putin kind of talks, speaks in a language of pure power that I think is understandable to leaders in the Middle East who are in a very threatening, chaotic region.
However, having said all that, I think a lot of this is our regional partners kind of trying to play us off of Moscow – to the benefit of Russia, where, you know, people pay attention in Washington when King Salman visits Moscow. And we should and it’s important and there’s – on the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with that kind of visit. But I think some of these visits – you know, these exchanges both by Russia and by regional players are – really the target audience for those is Washington. In a sense, pay attention, we’re here, listen to our concerns.
DR. MATTAIR: And, you know, for years now they’ve been uncertain about U.S. forward and security guarantees and political judgement. So what do we do to stop them from hedging like this by going to Russia?
PROF. DES ROCHES: I saw – you saw Senator Corker lift his hold on THAAD two days after the S-400 sale was announced. It remains uncertain to me that the S-400 sale will ever go through. This does seem like, you know, some old Micky Rooney Judy Garland movie where, you know, you go out with one girl to get the other girl’s attention and make her jealous. I agree that they’re trying to leverage us for technology release.
But, you know, I think that at least particularly from a Saudi assessment, when you look at how close the most recent vote was on precision munition sales to Saudi Arabia – and this is divorced from the GCC crisis; it concern over the war on Yemen – I think that is prudent to say, hey, you know, the United Kingdom probably will stop defense exports. Canada is probably in the process of doing that. Perhaps we do need to legitimately diversify our supporters. But I don’t think the United States is at that point yet with Saudi Arabia. But, yeah, I mean, we’re in violent agreement.
DR. MATTAIR: All right. Now how is this going to be resolved? If Qatar did everything that’s been demanded except close down Al-Jazeera, would that be enough, Ali?
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. As I said, I think – my personal opinion is that – and it’s very good to hear Tim say that America would be open to that – is that if America became a party to a third variation of the 2013-2014 agreements, I think that would solve it.
MR. LENDERKING: We – you know, and I think I’ve tried to emphasize we don’t want to – you know, we don’t and could not dictate the terms of any sort of resolution. So, you know, whether it has to do with some of the points that Ali has made as the way forward, again, 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, you know, the parties to simmer down on the media attacks. I mean, I think what people who’ve been around the Gulf a lot longer than I have have described sort of an unprecedented level of vitriol in the social media attacks. It’s personal, it’s humiliating. That to me just is creating a bad atmosphere, that we’re going to have to deescalate that in order to create a calmer environment, sort of ceasefire, if you will, that allows the parties to get in the room together. We’re happy to be on the margins of that or to be available in any way that we want, 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 again, 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: There were two questions from the audience. One is a direct response to you, Ali. You know, wouldn’t it be better for the GCC to resolve this internally rather than have the U.S.?
MR. SHIHABI: No, I mean, they’ve tried –
DR. MATTAIR: And how significant or efficacious can a Kuwaiti mediation role be?
MR. SHIHABI: Well, we’ve had that for 25 years and it hasn’t worked, and it culminated in the agreements and they haven’t worked. So there were verbal agreements. There was mediation. There was a written agreement. There’s 20 years of history, really, and that’s why there is no trust left whatsoever. I think you need to have, you know, the gods witness the agreement, as David said.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, here’s a question. 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, I think this whole discussion of abdication is actually completely off mark. There’s no reason for the king to abdicate. From minute one he has taken sort of a chairman of the board approach. And, you know, 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, and it – there is no indication that that will happen, nor is that logical for either party. But it’s a rumor that’s somehow come out, and some think tanks and political consultancies have written extensively about it, and it’s gone – it’s spread, like, virally through even financial markets, and traders have been betting on it. But it’s not going to happen. And it won’t make any difference. I mean, 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 it can’t be resolved, the rifts are way too deep, it’s over for the GCC.
MR. CAMMACK: In some sense, unfortunately, I agree. I mean, I think there’s two elements to this. I think there’s a kind of public political reconciliation – or de-escalation, rather, which is enough to kind of essentially what we’ve talked about: kind of take this behind closed doors. That I think is possible and I think over time maybe even likely, because fundamentally there is a power disparity between Saudi Arabia, UAE on one side, Qatar on the other. But if the question is can there actually be a social, personal reconciliation which allows a kind of shared vision of what the GCC can be, then in that case, unfortunately, I tend to agree with the question. That kind of – that the wounds have become so deep, the conflict has become so bitter that that kind of reconciliation I think is hard to see for at least the foreseeable future.
MR. SHIHABI: I think it’s easily reconcilable, really. I mean, the Arabs reconciled with Nasser of Egypt after ’67, and things were much, much worse. I think certainly, yes, there’s vitriol and there’s – but, you know, it’s very, very easy to accept them back into the fold if they behave. So I don’t see it as irreconcilable at all, really.
DR. MATTAIR: Perry, didn’t you – didn’t you say in an article that it has to be resolved through concessions, but not through capitulation? And so what can – I mean, why are you so pessimistic if you think there are concessions –
MR. CAMMACK: Well, yeah, and I think what I meant by that is, again, just the power of disparities between the two are that if you just kind of play out, you know, kind of game-theory modeling of how this ends, I think it does – it most likely does end with some probably pretty significant concessions made by Qatar to its more powerful neighbors. The question is – in a sense, the question is 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 that we got the best deal that we could – and understanding that they’ll get something but they’ll get far, far, far less than what was this original list of 13 demands. And I’m not – you know, it remains to be seen. I think part of the problem with the vitriol on both sides is it – you know, on both sides folks are ratcheted up and it becomes harder and harder to make concessions, particularly if this is kind of couched as existential struggle for the soul of the GCC. It becomes very hard to kind of climb down the ladder, so to speak. So I think what’s really key here is kind of some exit ramps, a way to create space for the – you know, I don’t want to – you know, I don’t have specific ideas about what those concessions might be because that would depend obviously on the contours of the negotiation. But right now, it doesn’t feel to me that there’s space for these kind of face-saving concessions that would allow things to kind of come back together.
PROF. DES ROCHES: Well, like, I made the mistake once with a Qatari think tank of saying, well, these are the concessions I think would make sense, and I got the, ah, no, that’s a violation of our sovereignty. You know, it led me to conclude, OK, the time’s not right. But I agree on that.
Let me talk about the nature of the GCC, can it recover. Look, the GCC has never been a particularly effective military coalition except in times of great crisis. It was formed in times of crisis and it becomes strong, it coalesces in times of crisis, and then it tends to fall out.
Returning to my NATO metaphor, NATO has had problems between the Greeks and the Turks. You know, the NATO Southern Command in Naples, where the enlisted soldiers’ barracks, they have had, like, outright gang warfare between Greek soldiers and Turkish soldiers who are parts of the same coalition. So you can have a coalition that has partners that are at odds with each other, provided the rest of the coalition and the impetus for the coalition is clear, and provided that you focus on things like building procedures and processes and techniques and exercises. And even then, even in NATO, there for example 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. So it can be done. But ironically, I think the savior of the GCC will probably be Iran.
DR. MATTAIR: Ali, you said before the meeting started Qatar must see survival of the Saudis as essential strategic – of essential strategic value to their survival.
MR. SHIHABI: Yeah, I mean, it is. As I said, you know, Saudi Arabia has validated the tribal monarchy structure and had not succeeded in overthrowing the Saudi monarchy in the ’60s, or Islamists in the ’90s, and the small Gulf states wouldn’t have survived 24 hours. And I think the Kuwaitis understood that in 1990 in a very, you know, personal way, and that’s what has changed their attitude and their approach to Saudi Arabia.
Ultimately, Qatar’s interest is in beefing up the internal security of Saudi Arabia, not in weakening it. And that’s why there’s this – a writer described Qatar as a child sitting on a keg of dynamite playing with matches, and I found that very appropriate because I think that they don’t – they seem not to understand that their internal security is totally tied to the security of their neighbors, and particularly Saudi Arabia, and it’s in their interest to do what is being asked of them. It’s not a question of sovereignty. And then when you talk about sovereignty, your sovereignty does not allow you to affect the security of other people. When we talk about personal freedom, a human being doesn’t have the personal freedom to harm somebody else. So sovereignty is always limited, as is personal freedom limited, by the fact that you cannot harm another person. So it is confusing. I mean, people don’t fully understand and have never fully understood particularly the father in his – you know, what goes on his mind and what has driven him to do what he has done.
DR. MATTAIR: How has Oman managed to stay out of this?
MR. SHIHABI: Are you asking me?
DR. MATTAIR: I’m asking anybody. Rich was the ambassador there.
MR. SCHMIERER: Oman happens to have a particularly wise leader who has been a very, very successful in having a foreign policy which is friend to all, enemy to none. And so even when there have been 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, et cetera. So in other words, Oman, even though it does have many – you mentioned the relationship with Iran, it also does – it 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. So I think it’s fundamentally different than the way Ali has described, the perception of Qatar by these countries.
MR. SHIHABI: No, I would agree with that. And I think to show you the degree of elasticity, if you want, in the behavior of the GCC towards it neighbors, there have been issues with Oman in the Yemen war, and there’s been issues of smuggling across the Omani border from Iran. And those things are being resolved bilaterally and quietly with Oman. So Oman has – you know, there have been serious issues, but things have never gotten to the level that they got with Qatar. And I think that tells you something about the attitude of Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries to differences within the family.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, can I have final thoughts from each of you? And just – I’ll throw one more element into this. If we decertified the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, does that have the potential to make containment of Iran’s influence in the Arab world harder? Any – I’d like final comments from everyone. But that’s just one thing to consider as you’re wrapping up.
MR. LENDERKING: OK, thank you. Thank you very much, Tom.
I think, you know, we’ll know more when the president speaks about the decisions on Iran, but clearly, you know, this is an administration that has a very tough line on Iran. We’re asked within the State Department and other agencies to game that out in very, very practical and tangible ways. What does that mean? Again, I referred to Iranian interference in – really throughout the Arabian Peninsula, but of course in Lebanon and in Syria. It’s very destabilizing. I’ve talked about the Yemen conflict is a particular theater in which because of a degree of chaos inside Lebanon that al-Qaida been able to capitalize on, it’s a relatively easy investment for Iran to continue to destabilize. And I think there’s really zero tolerance for this kind of malign activity in the Gulf. The question is, how do we actually, you know, physically prevent it, and I think those are the options that the president is leading the Iran strategy on.
But with regard to the Gulf crisis, I think the – I think that the panel has agreed that the Iran issue is not necessarily the central piece here. And we haven’t objected at any point in – recently with the fact that some of the Gulf countries have relations with Iran and others don’t. So that to us is not a litmus test. It’s what these countries do with that relationship, what they tolerate or don’t tolerate. And I think there will be – Tom, to get to your point, I think there will be increasing need to coordinate with each of the Gulf countries on its engagement with Iran. And 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 with North Korea that may be relics of a previous era but where we’ve certainly ratcheted up the pressure, coordination with these countries to minimize the contact with North Korea. And 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 as a disparate group. It works better as a coalition. These are maybe times of crisis that we may be heading into, as Dave refers to. This is a good opportunity for the GCC to work through this dispute, resolve these kind of differences, and provide the kind of bulwark to Iranian aggression that I think we all – all of us, including the GCC countries, believe is important.
MR. SHIHABI: No, clearly we are entering into a period of increased tension with Iran. The view in the kingdom and in – with its neighbors is that Iran poses an existential threat to the ruling order. And really the only way to stand up to that threat is by becoming self-sufficient in being able to deter Iranian aggression. And to do that, an integral component will be bringing everybody within the GCC into conformity with a joint policy to stand up to Iran. And I think over time that’s going to happen and the crisis, it may be coming up now with the decertification, will only help to drive the risk home to everybody, including the Qataris, and allow that consolidation to take place.
MR. CAMMACK: So at Carnegie we have a pretty strong East Asia program as well as nonproliferation program, and I can say that no one I know that has to think about the north – what to do about North Korea wouldn’t take something like the JCPOA and say, you know what, that would make our North Korea problem orders of magnitude easier. So clearly Iran’s a problem. I mean, 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 making – in terms of making it harder for the U.S. to counter Iran in the region – in part because then suddenly we’re perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a problem. And so the more we can keep Russia and China on side on Iran, the more we can kind of keep the partnership with the – with our European friends, you know, 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 it seems to me if that’s a problem in the context of the JCPOA, it becomes almost infinitely harder to do it in the absence of one.
PROF. DES ROCHES: Well, when the United States – my criticism of the JCPOA has always been the only tool the United States had was a hammer. And 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, which was the only tool we had, for nuclear stuff, and what that did was granted license for the destruction of Aleppo and proliferation of missiles and all the other problems we’ve seen. So that’s always been my criticism.
But on decertification, I take a contrarian view. A lot of people say this will be the end of the world, it will be the end of JCPOA. No, no, no. Decertification, certification in an inter-U.S. government parlor game. And it’s helpful to go back to the origins of certification. Certification was invented by a Democratic Congress to embarrass Ronald Reagan in the aftermath of the murder by the El Salvadorian security forces of Blessed Archbishop Oscar Romero and the Maryknoll Sisters. And the Democratic Congress basically forced the president, attempting to embarrass him, to say, yes, El Salvador is making progress on human rights in order to continue military aid to El Salvador.
So what that means is that if Congress – 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. It can be ignored. It can be a nothing burger. I suspect that the president’s motives – and I only have suspicion – is that, first off, he doesn’t want to be on record as saying this thing works because he campaigned against it; and secondly, he’s pursuing this passive-aggressive strategy where if the Iran deal fails, it won’t be because of him, knowing that if he renounces the Iran deal, he’ll have a hard time getting the European allies to go along with him. But if the Iranians renounce the deal, they can’t. So I think what he wants to do is up the threshold of embarrassment on the Iranian side so that they have to walk away, and then he can turn to the Europeans and say snap back sanctions, time to snap back. So decertification itself doesn’t have to be a crisis. It really is only, you know, reindeer – inter-American reindeer games.
DR. MATTAIR: Richard.
AMB. SCHMIERER: I guess I would just only add as a final thank you to our panel just – and to you, Tom, I think we really have looked into this issue in a very productive way, in a way which I help – I hope helps the community here and through the dissemination of today’s event it will help those in other places better understand and move forward to a resolution. So thank you again all the panelists for joining us.
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you to the audience.
AMB. SCHMIERER: And thank you all for joining us. (Applause.)
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
Founder and Executive Director, Arabia Foundation
Author, Arabian War Games and The Saudi Kingdom: Between the Jihadi Hammer and the Iranian Anvil
Associate Professor, Near East South Asia Center for Security Studies, National Defense University
Former Director, Arabian Peninsula, Department of Defense
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
Chairman, Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council
Former Ambassador, Sultanate of Oman
Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council