Jul 12, 2017 | 13:19 GMT

4 mins read

The U.S. Charges Head-On Into the Gulf Crisis

A man faces the skyline of Doha, Qatar's capital.
(STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The crisis in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has reached a turning point. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signed an agreement on counterterrorism with the Qatari government July 11, the second day of a trip designed to diffuse the tension in the bloc. Though the content of the deal is vague, its message is clear: The United States has had enough of the feud between Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on the other. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi will have to reassess their position in the dispute with Doha, much of which centered on Qatar's alleged support for terrorist organizations, in the wake of the memorandum of understanding. But even if the agreement hastens a resolution to the current conflict in the bloc, another one probably won't be too far behind.

When its members are on the same page, the GCC is a powerful union of mostly Arab, mostly Sunni countries with deep pockets and vast resources. Major powers such as the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Russia and China all want the bloc as an ally, both for the energy security the relationship could afford them and for the GCC's influence in the volatile Middle East. More often than not, though, the discord among the GCC's members overshadows their strategic alignment, as the latest diplomatic crisis in the bloc illustrates. The current feud is the most intense internecine dispute to arise in the GCC's 37-year history. Still, it's not the first, nor will it be the last.

By signing the memorandum of understanding with the United States, Qatar undermined Saudi and Emirati claims that Doha must do more to fight terrorism. Washington was interested in the conflict primarily because of Qatar's alleged funding for terrorist groups; its assurance that the country's counterterrorism efforts are up to snuff will take the force out of the arguments against Doha. The Qatari government has hailed the deal as a reinforcement of its long-standing counterterrorism framework with the United States and as a groundbreaking new agreement, the "first of its kind" for a GCC member. At the same time, Qatar's foreign minister has denied that the memorandum of understanding had any relation to the crisis. Tillerson confirmed that the document had been in the works for months and that the United States will extend the same deal to other Gulf countries down the line.

Either way, the deal will pre-empt Riyadh's efforts to deepen the dispute by addressing the issue of global concern that drove Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to isolate Qatar in the first place. It will do little, however, to resolve the underlying grievances among the GCC's members. Saudi Arabia's problems with Qatar have been simmering for years and include Doha's foreign policy independence, its resistance to Riyadh's control, its relationship with Iran, its state-sponsored media and the Islamist groups it harbors. The differences between the two countries have caused conflicts in the past and will endure long after the current crisis subsides. By publishing July 10 the leaked details of the deal it struck with Qatar in 2014 to solve their last diplomatic scuffle, moreover, Riyadh underscored that it places the blame for the current dispute squarely on Doha.

Washington, on the other hand, is proving a more neutral party to the conflict than Riyadh and Abu Dhabi may have initially expected. Tillerson's trip to Qatar, and his insistence that each country present at the Riyadh summit in May would sign the same memorandum of understanding that Doha did, were meant as a signal to Saudi Arabia. If Riyadh understood U.S. President Donald Trump's participation in the summit as an indication that the United States was unequivocally on its side, it had better think again. Washington has made clear that the fight against terrorism is its main priority, and it doesn't want a tiff in the bloc to interfere with that effort.

Tillerson's visit to Qatar suggests that the crisis in the GCC has reached a peak and will begin to die down from here, at least on the public stage. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will likely have the chance to start de-escalating the conflict July 12, when the countries' foreign ministers will meet with Tillerson, along with their Bahraini and Egyptian counterparts, in the Saudi city of Jeddah. But Riyadh will have its work cut out for it to come up with further demands of Doha that will address its lingering grievances while staying within the lines that Washington's counterterrorism agreement has drawn for it. 

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