May 29 2019
It’s now nearly two years since a coalition of Arab countries imposed a misguided economic blockade on Qatar. The group — Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — said it was punishing the gas-rich emirate for its ties with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, but the embargo is widely perceived as part of a larger competition for preeminence in Arab affairs.
Ending it should be a priority for U.S. President Donald Trump. Of the Arab world’s many divisions, sectarian and political, none is more damaging to American interests than this one. The Saudi-led group’s objectives haven’t been met. On the contrary, denied food supplies from — and air routes over — the blockading states, Qatar has only grown more dependent on Iran, while its economy has weathered the blockade with ease.
Meanwhile, the dispute is putting U.S. allies Kuwait and Oman in an awkward position. Both countries have strong relationships with Qatar and maintain wary ties with Iran, which is close enough to menace their security. But neither can afford to antagonize Saudi Arabia, the region’s most powerful nation.
More important for Trump, the impasse is now obstructing his broader Middle East policy, in particular his maximum-pressure campaign against Iran. Effectively confronting Iran and its proxies would require the Arab states to unify behind the U.S. Instead, America finds itself in the middle of an internecine Arab conflict: While Saudi Arabia is its most important ally in the region, Qatar hosts the giant Al Udeid Air Base, forward headquarters of U.S. Central Command, which is essential to keeping pressure on Iran. The rift has also handicapped Trump’s efforts to create an “Arab NATO” to guard against Iran’s mischief-making.
Resolving the quarrel is therefore imperative, and the U.S. — which both sides depend on for protection — would be the natural mediator. Unfortunately, after some early, desultory passes, the Trump administration has largely abandoned its efforts to intervene. Anthony Zinni, the special envoy assigned the role, stepped down early this year, having failed to get much traction in Doha and Tehran, or much support in Washington. He hasn’t been replaced.
Trump should now redouble the effort. For starters, he should state — if necessary, directly to the Qatari emir and the Saudi king — that ending the rift is a priority. He should appoint a new envoy to take Zinni’s place, ideally someone of significant political stature. And he should prevail on the blockading nations to drop the maximalist and deliberately offensive list of demands that they’ve made of Qatar. The Qataris, for their part, need to offer convincing reassurances that they won’t allow relations with Iran to threaten their neighbors.
Arab unity and resolve is crucial to constraining Iran’s malign activities, which the Trump administration has rightly identified as the most pressing concern in the Middle East. The threat Iran poses — manifested in recent attacks against Saudi shipping and oil infrastructure — has prompted King Salman to call an emergency meeting of Arab states in Mecca on May 30. There can hardly be a better moment for the U.S. to press for an end to lesser squabbles.
By Editorial Board - David Shipley