Foreign Relations & International Law

New Qatari Royal Enters Gulf Feud, Palestinian and Israeli Leaders Confused by U.S. Policy, and Diplomats Try to Prevent Kurdish Independence Referendum

J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, August 29, 2017, 12:45 PM

Saudi Arabia Grooms Qatari Royal as Feud Continues

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

Saudi Arabia Grooms Qatari Royal as Feud Continues

The Saudi-led bloc working to isolate Qatar is trying to keep the Gulf feud in the family—both the figurative Gulf Cooperation Council family and the literal Qatari royal family. Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia began publicly courting Sheikh Abdullah Bin Ali Al-Thani, who belongs to the branch of the Qatari royal family tree that was ousted in 1972 by the current line of emirs. He was hosted by the Saudi king and crown prince in Saudi Arabia and at their estate in Morocco. The Saudis appear to be building the relatively unknown royal’s diplomatic credentials, crediting him with an arrangement to allow Qataris to bypass the blockade at the Saudi-Qatari border to participate in the hajj. Media outlets in the Saudi bloc have praised Sheikh Abdullah as a “voice of reason to whom the hearts of Qataris have opened.”

The Saudis seem to be positioning Sheikh Abdullah as a potential rival to Qatar’s current emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani. Sheikh Abdullah may be obscure, but he has a legitimate claim to the throne. Finding an alternative to the current Qatari government is an idea that officials in the Saudi bloc have toyed with since the start of the crisis. “Qatar has a fine history of regime change on its own. It is up to the Qatari people and the royal family to decide if that is the right approach or not,” Omar Saif Ghobas, the Emirati ambassador to Russia, told The Guardian in June. But experts doubt that Sheikh Abdullah presents a compelling alternative to the ruling family. “He has absolutely no standing or credibility in Qatar, neither with the public nor within the royal family,” Andreas Krieg, a professor at King’s College, London, told the Wall Street Journal. “Nobody with a sane mind believes he could be an alternative to Sheikh Tamim.”

Finding an alternative to the current Qatari government is an idea that officials in the Saudi bloc have toyed with since the start of the crisis.

What’s more, it’s not clear that Sheikh Abdullah is even a willing participant in the palace intrigue, at least according to AEI’s Andrew Bowen. “It now appears that MBS [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] brought Abdullah to Riyadh on the threat of seizing the Sheikh’s lucrative property holdings in Saudi Arabia, and, during the meeting, that he threatened to expropriate that land if Sheikh Abdullah didn’t agree to serve as the face of a Saudi-led media campaign positioning him as the ‘legitimate’ ruler of Qatar,” Bowen wrote last week.

Even if he’s a reluctant pawn, Sheikh Abdullah is now a public face of the campaign against the Qatari leadership. Over the past week, Qatari and other Gulf media have issued reports about the legitimacy of the Abdullah-linked hajj agreement that read like they are in direct conversation. “For Muslim pilgrims in Qatar who hoped to perform one of the pillars of Islam, the annual Hajj that began this week is out of reach. This is because Saudi Arabia—which oversees and manages Islam's two holiest sites in Mecca and Medina—has made it impossible for them to go,” reads the lede of one typical article from Qatar’s Al-Jazeera, under the provocative headline, “No Hajj for Qataris this year amid Saudi dispute.” Another article, from UAE-based Gulf News, touts a letter from Sheikh Abdullah encouraging Qataris to make the pilgrimage. “The crossing has been open since then [August 17] and hundreds of Qatari nationals have reportedly driven into the Saudi kingdom,” Gulf News reports.

Qatar is no closer to rejoining the Gulf fold; rather, it is drifting further and further from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates’ foreign policy goals. Last Thursday, Qatar announced that it would restore full diplomatic ties with Iran. In a brief statement, the Qatari Foreign Ministry stated its desire to improve relations with Iran “in all fields.” Despite the hints at Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, discussed further below, this is still a sticking point in the Gulf states’ relationship with Qatar; Doha’s coziness with Tehran was one of 13 grievances the bloc presented to Qatar as the crux of the current dispute. Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash responded on Twitter than Qatar “has escalated its troubles.” The crisis will only continue to fester. In an interview meant to clear the air, Emirati Ambassador Yousef Al-Otaiba denied once again Emirati involvement in the hacking incident that precipitated the crisis and wouldn’t even acknowledge if whether he thought the planted story that started this mess was false. “There’s so much fake news that it’s become really hard to distinguish real news from fake news anymore,” he told The Atlantic, pointing to reports about Mohammed bin Salman’s appointment as crown prince that Otaiba says were also false. “This is the new style of warfare in Washington—leaks, planted stories.”

Trump Administration Tries to Look Busy on Peace Process

The Trump administration’s all-purpose envoy, Jared Kushner, traveled around the Middle East last week for a series of meetings. Not only did he fail to make any apparent progress, he failed to dispel the pervasive confusion about U.S. policy in the region that has been a running theme of the administration’s outreach. Earlier this month, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas expressed his frustration with the administration’s team. “I have met with Trump envoys about 20 times since the beginning of his term as president of the United States,” he told a delegation from Israel’s Meretz Party. “I can’t understand how they are conducting themselves with us.” At that meeting, before Kushner’s visit last week, Abbas seemed particularly frustrated by the Trump administration’s seemingly disingenuous assurances to him about the U.S. commitment to the two-state solution and concern about settlement construction. “I have pleaded with them to say the same thing to Netanyahu, but they refrained. They said they would consider it but then they didn't get back to me,” he reportedly said.

He got an answer of sorts this week: At a press briefing last Thursday, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said the administration would not reiterate its support for the two-state solution. “We are not going to state what the outcome has to be,” Nauert said. “It has to be workable to both sides. That’s the best view as to not really bias one side over the other, to make sure that they can work through it.” And in a meeting with Abbas last week, Kushner told the Palestinian president that the United States would not put pressure on the Israeli government to halt settlement construction “because it will cause the collapse of the Netanyahu government.” If this remains U.S. policy, it’s hard to imagine the Palestinians participating in any effort to restart the peace process.

The decision seemed to catch the Egyptian government by surprise; it was certainly a shock to observers of the Trump administration, which had previously been clear about its apathy regarding human rights.

If the Trump administration does have an Israel-Palestine strategy, it rests on garnering support for the process from the Arab states. “The gaps, the level of distrust, and the political realities of both Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas make it nearly impossible for them to do anything without an Arab cover," former U.S. peace process envoy Dennis Ross told The National. “Mr Abbas can only move in a context where Arab states are creating an explanation for him taking steps.” It’s not clear that Kushner and his team made any progress on their trip, though. In fact, Kushner’s meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was made more awkward by the State Department’s announcement that it would withhold much of its aid to the Egyptian government over concerns for Egypt’s respect for human rights and democracy. The decision seemed to catch the Egyptian government by surprise; it was certainly a shock to observers of the Trump administration, which had previously been clear about its apathy regarding human rights.

Israeli officials are confused and frustrated, too, though more about U.S. policy in Syria than on the peace process. “We are not in the administration’s priorities. They are preoccupied with other issues, and there is a feeling that they have very limited attention span,” a senior Israeli minister told Jewish Insider, noting that this was a particular problem in addressing concerns about Iran’s military presence in Syria. The Trump administration’s distraction has “given increased importance to the strategic dialogue with the Kremlin,” the official said ahead of Netanyahu’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week. “The Russians fill the American void and they are the ones who determine the facts on the ground. We want to make sure that the facts on the ground do not hurt us.”

Diplomats Scramble to Halt Kurdish Independence Referendum

Iraq’s war against the Islamic State continues—this past week, Iraqi forces retook the city of Tal Afar after just a week of battle—but as the terrorist group’s infrastructure collapses and it is forced out of its remaining territory, the government is turning toward addressing what a post-Islamic State Iraq will look like. This has been playing out in recent weeks through Baghdad’s diplomacy with Iran and Saudi Arabia, which seems to be coinciding with improved relations between Riyadh and Tehran. Iran and Saudi Arabia are discussing plans for diplomatic visits that could lead to the two countries reopening their embassies, which have been closed since the feud escalated in January 2016 when Saudi Arabia executed Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Saudi Arabia is also interested in investing in reconstruction in Iraq, which could help Baghdad address some of the Iraqi Sunni community’s grievances.

Perhaps the most immediate political challenge to Iraq’s post-Islamic State order, though, is a national referendum on Kurdish independence scheduled for next month. The plan for the vote was announced by Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani in June, but with now just a month to go diplomats are scrambling to convince Kurdish officials to cancel it. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis met with Barzani last Tuesday and urged him to at least postpone the referendum. “Our point right now is to stay focused like a laser beam on the defeat of ISIS and to let nothing distract us,” Mattis told reporters on the trip. Representatives of the central government in Baghdad have also been meeting with Kurdish officials to discuss alternatives to holding a vote next month.

[Postponing the referendum] would only kick the issue down the road, but a delay may be more advantageous to both Baghdad and the Kurds than tackling it now.

Despite comments from some Kurdish leaders that they are committed to going through with the vote, Barzani has reportedly signaled being open to a compromise. One Kurdish official told Reuters that a package of financial and political concessions could allow the KRG to save face; likely among those political concessions, though, would be “a formal guarantee that the international community will respect the results of a future referendum or an assurance that Kurdish aspirations will eventually be recognized,” the New York Times reports. That would only kick the issue down the road, but a delay may be more advantageous to both Baghdad and the Kurds than tackling it now.

The referendum is not popular with governments in the region. Only one head of state, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has voiced support for the independence vote, while others have joined the United States in openly discouraged it. One Turkish politician, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli, even went so far as to argue that the referendum would be a casus belli for Turkey, though Prime Minister Binali Yildirim distanced himself from Bahceli’s remarks and stressed efforts to dissuade the KRG from holding the vote. As historian Andrew Apostolou notes for DemocracyPost, the planned referendum is deeply problematic for legal as well as diplomatic resons. The planned vote is not valid under Kurdish law and not tied to any plan for secession, he writes. According to Apostolou, “What Iraqi Kurds ... need is a vote that empowers the Kurdistan Regional Government ... to negotiate independence,” but the referendum would instead inflame tensions over disputed territories without any strategy for resolving the issue.

J. Dana Stuster is the deputy foreign policy editor for Lawfare. He is also an instructor at the Naval War College and a PhD candidate at Yale University. He worked previously as a policy analyst at the National Security Network and an assistant editor at Foreign Policy magazine. All opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the Naval War College, U.S. Navy, or Department of Defense.

Subscribe to Lawfare