Tillerson discovers Qatar situation is not ripe for resolution
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ended an effort to bring about a negotiated resolution to the crisis between Qatar and its erstwhile Gulf and regional allies. This was Tillerson’s first moment in the spotlight, his first opportunity to demonstrate his diplomatic and political skills. He found, however, that the crisis was not ripe for resolution.
Until the past few weeks, Tillerson had been largely sidelined by the White House-centric Trump administration and at times has seemed frustrated by his minimal role in policymaking. A popular Washington guessing game has been to predict when he would resign.
At face value, US President Donald Trump seems to have given Tillerson full responsibility for mediating the Gulf crisis. He was also — at least on paper — well-qualified to undertake the mission: Beside his low-key personality, Tillerson had developed good personal ties with many Gulf region leaders during his decades at Exxon Mobil.
Tillerson was, however, perceived as pro-Qatar by members of the pro-Saudi bloc, a perception that prevented him from having the full trust of all parties involved — the first requirement of any would-be mediator.
A more serious challenge was the lack of clear support from Trump. On July 12, Trump, in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), mentioned his “differences” with Tillerson and reiterated previous pro-Saudi positions.
Beside these challenges, Tillerson found the going hard for one additional big reason: The parties in the conflict are not ready to resolve the situation.
The concept of “ripeness,” as it applies to a negotiation or mediation, was developed by Richard Haass, a former senior US diplomat and current president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Many conflicts remain unresolved, not because of a lack of will by the parties involved or lack of effort by mediators, but because the conditions are not ready for an agreement.
One of the key elements that creates ripeness is what conflict resolution scholar I. William Zartman terms “a Mutually Hurting Stalemate” — a situation in which the two sides cannot agree on a way out (hence, the stalemate) and yet both sides are suffering because of the conflict (hence, mutually hurting).
Simply put, the GCC-Qatar crisis is not a “mutually hurting stalemate.” This does not mean that it will not become one but, as of now, neither Riyadh, its allies nor Doha are hurting badly enough to create the conditions that would lead to concessions and a solution.
The Saudis and their allies can live without Qatar much better — and for much longer — than Qatar can live without them. The only direct leverage Qatar has is over the United Arab Emirates, to which it provides natural gas, but Doha has not threatened to cut this off — most likely because it needs the proceeds and does not want (or cannot afford) to exacerbate the crisis.
Qatar can, however, threaten — through words or actions — to side more closely with Turkey or Iran. It is risky for Qatar to get too close to Ankara or, especially, Tehran: Neither is an Arab country and Iran is viewed by Riyadh and Washington as the greatest threat to regional peace and security.
Qatar could consider itself wielding significant leverage over the mediator: Hosting Al Udeid US military base. Interestingly it is not Doha that is threatening to close that base but Trump instead who is suggesting (as he did in his CBN interview) that an alternative site would be easy to secure.
At this point, Qatar and its adversaries can survive the crisis without too much disruption. Riyadh and its coalition have one distinct advantage: Time. They are in this for the long haul and their people are not suffering because of the conflict.
Qatar, on the other hand, not only must use its leverage cautiously but risks having the crisis escalate to a point that its population — which so far has supported the government — becomes disgruntled. It is no fun living in a pariah state.
For the time being, however, the conflict is not ripe for resolution. The only option for Tillerson is to keep talking to all sides, even without great expectations.
Ultimately, the key for him may be to find a way for Doha to save face even as it concedes to most of Riyadh’s demands.