THE diplomatic crisis, now entering its third week, between Qatar and a bloc of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, will probably neither significantly escalate nor be resolved anytime soon. Both sides appear to be digging in for a protracted standoff.
Qatar, in particular, has a clear interest in dragging out the crisis, as it now stands, for as long as possible. A protracted confrontation surely heightens the risks of a dangerous miscalculation or misunderstanding. It means the costs to the Arab world will probably be maximised rather than minimised, especially since predatory opportunists such as Iran might find ways of exploiting the discord.
As the contretemps developed last month, Qatar increasingly counted on hopes Washington would pressure all sides to not merely de-escalate, but also return to the prior status quo. The United States has an obvious interest in containing and quickly resolving any major clash between key allies.
But while the Trump administration has indeed pushed the parties to resolve their dispute, it has not remained neutral. Both Donald Trump, the US president, and Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, clearly said Washington wants Arab countries to ease their isolation of Doha, but insist that some longstanding Qatari policies and conduct must change.
This is not only consistent between Mr Trump and Mr Tillerson, despite their radically different tones. It is also reflective of American objections to some Qatari policies and practices that date back well over a decade and were shared by the George W Bush and Barack Obama administrations. Most US concerns about Qatar aren’t sudden shifts, but instead reflect long-standing and bipartisan positions.
Given that Washington even Washington is demanding Qatar submit to an evolving list of policy changes, Doha knows it must eventually concede. Despite its defiant affectation, Doha lacks any viable long-term options other than the eventual accommodation of its outraged neighbours and a friendlier, but still stern, Washington.
Doha’s priority, beyond ensuring the stability of the regime and maintaining national morale, is thus to somehow minimise the price required to keep Washington sufficiently onside, and for an eventful rapprochement with its erstwhile Arab allies.
Washington is likely to emerge as the “weak link” against which Doha must press to lower such costs, because US demands will be both decisive and easier to shift than Arab ones. This dispute is important, but neither familial nor existential, for Washington.
The US nonetheless has a clear stake in the outcome since it shares many core concerns about Qatar’s conduct. And the quarrel among its allies may prove not merely uncomfortable, but increasingly problematic for Washington’s agenda. Relocating the massive US military presence in Qatar would be time-consuming, costly and potentially disruptive of American military plans. It is therefore highly implausible.
The existing arrangements give Washington considerable leverage over Doha. But they also provide Qatar – especially when it’s trying to appear as cooperative as possible – many ways of reminding Washington of the benefits of the current configuration and manifest risks of any alternative, which would probably involve trying to change either the current military configuration or the Qatari regime.
Qatar will therefore try to use a protracted crisis to maximise American discomfort and impatience, thereby pushing Washington towards merely urging a return by all parties to the status quo. Hence US demands for meaningful Qatari policy change could be minimised, or even practically eliminated.
As the imbroglio drags on, the Arab bloc will be tempted to try to resolve it by applying more pressure. Yet the pressure on Qatar is already widely labelled disproportionate. Some measures, such as outlawing expressions of sympathy for Qatar, are being used to denigrate the campaign as spiteful or excessive.
Arab states confronting Qatar did not do so without understanding the serious risks involved – including potential political openings for Iran and other malefactors, and the possibility of miscalculations, unintended consequences and unforeseen pitfalls. Such campaigns inevitably defy anyone’s rational plans or control.
This is not a measure of Arab impulsiveness or caprice, but rather the determination with which these countries are once again pressuring Doha after the unfulfilled promises of 2014.
Nevertheless, the Arab camp has allowed the crisis to metastasise far enough. Further escalation won’t benefit them.
Qatar cannot sustain any significant additional pressure. It’s putting on a brave face, and as long as Turkey and Iran – and much more importantly Kuwait and Jordan – remain open to Qatar at many registers and numerous levels, for a time Doha can endure. But not indefinitely.
While Qatar must eventually concede, in the near term neither side is likely to either back down or escalate. Indeed, dragging this out, especially to Washington’s growing chagrin, is Qatar’s best bet to minimise the depth of its eventual climbdown.