Renewed calls for reconciliation from US President Donald Trump could help rekindle hopes for a speedy and immediate resolution of the Gulf crisis, which is nearing its eighth month this week, according to an expert in Middle East affairs.
But aside from a dialogue between Qatar and the Saudi-led quartet, which imposed an air, land, and sea blockade against the LNG-rich nation on June 5, 2017, lies the challenge of dissolving tension and mending trust issues between the Gulf states, according to Baker Institute fellow for the Middle East Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen.
Ulrichsen emphasised that the US “would need to make it very clear to all the parties, including the quartet against Qatar, that it wants to see an end” to the Gulf crisis. 
“But even that may not be enough,” he noted, citing how Trump “encouraged” a telephone call between His Highness the Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman in September 2017.
“And that was right when the Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah was meeting with President Trump. And then the next day we had that telephone call but then you saw how straightaway even the telephone call became a focus of division because both sides blamed each other, trying to sort of mischaracterise it; and we saw there is so little trust between the different groups.
“Even if the US were to really try to push for a resolution what concerns is that the damage that has been done to the trust and confidence of the six states is so great; we saw this even with the GCC summit in Kuwait,” Ulrichsen told Gulf Times in an exclusive interview on Tuesday. 
He continued: “Even if they do meet, we see that there’s still such tension today. So President Trump could try to renew his call for all the leaders to go to Camp David, for example.
“That’s only one side of the coin. The other side is to try and rebuild the trust. And that’s going to be much difficult because this has happened twice in three years; we also had the diplomatic row in 2013-2014, so from the Qatari perspective it would be very hard to trust some of their neighbours,” he said. 
Ulrichsen also pointed out some risks if a treaty signing between the affected parties were to be held in the presence of other international bodies.
“Well, I also think the Riyadh agreement of 2014 has become politicised. So some sort of international guarantee of any agreement is necessary, because otherwise, it could easily become the flashpoint for the next argument. And there seems to be less trust and confidence right now that almost anything is immediately the focus of another argument,” Ulrichsen stressed.

Baker Institute fellow for the Middle East Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen.

But according to Ulrichsen, holding a bilateral dialogue at this point shows that “Qatar is, once again, illustrating its partnership and its value to the US, but it is also a signal from the US side that they want to see a resolution.” 
“And it is primarily a signal to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh that the US government is not going to take sides even though President Trump seemed to take sides in June. That was then and this is now. And the US government now will not take sides. And it seems to be a signal that whatever hope you may have had, it doesn’t exist any longer,” Ulrichsen said.
Asked to trace back the roots of the motive behind the Gulf crisis, Ulrichsen said the issue goes back to 2011 “to the fact that Qatar and its neighbours followed different approaches.”
“Qatar was much more comfortable with the direction of some of the changes. It did not feel that it had anything to fear from political challenges to authoritarian leaders in North Africa and also in Syria. Some of the neighbouring Gulf states were much more concerned about the rise of Islamists to power and wanted to maintain the political status quo.
“I think the Qataris felt that they were much more comfortable with a political Islam model – a form of political Islam dominating the transitions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria and they were willing to assist the popular demands for change,” Ulrichsen said.
But this, according to Ulrichsen, “was not an option that the Emiratis, especially, wanted to follow, because for them their perception was Islamism was a security threat domestically, as well as regionally.
“And I think the fact that the UAE saw such a domestic security challenge for many potential Islamist opposition made them the leader of the campaign to try to roll back the kind of Islamist expansion in North Africa and then once in 2013.
“Once the Arab Spring really came to an end when Mohamed Mursi was toppled in Egypt, the Emiratis and the Saudis acted very quickly to ensure that never again could either an Islamist group or a country like Qatar, again, threaten that status quo.”
He added that while Qatar is not a revolutionary power, the fact that it was “much more comfortable” with the given idea that regimes could be changes “was a step too far for the other states and the other side of the argument.”
Ulrichsen also said Qatar’s “active” role in trying to be a messenger between Hamas, the US government, and Israel fuelled rumours that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is part of a “bigger deal” to blockade Qatar.
“The value that Qatar could bring was that it could sort of send messages between groups that could not speak directly to each other, and we saw that in 2014 during the last major conflict between Israel and Hamas when Qatar was very active in trying to find the outlines and to negotiate a settlement that could end the fighting.
“We saw the same with the Taliban in Afghanistan for the US where the Qataris were able to do this intermediary work to pass messages between groups and this I think has become a source of a lot of controversy,” Ulrichsen said.
He added: “A lot of the critics of Qatar perhaps forget that Qatar acted throughout with Israel and the US on board; it’s not that Qatar was freelancing, which is sometimes what is alleged. So, again I think this whole involvement has become part of the campaign of
information and misinformation but at that time Qatar was acting with the support of the other stakeholders. They were not doing it alone.”
Ulrichsen also pointed to the inexperience of Trump’s leaders in the White House as well as the lack of background knowledge on Middle East affairs as reasons that added to the Gulf crisis.
“I think what happened was when the Trump administration came to office, it was unprecedented in the sense that you had the entire political class coming into office with much less experience, with much less policy experience, much less foreign affairs experience than most presidential administrations would have. And especially that was the case with the White House rather than say, the State Department or in the Pentagon.
“So, in the White House there were people, I think, who had little background knowledge of the Middle East or of the Gulf and so when you saw the UAE in particular reaching out to people like Jared Kushner very quickly and trying to help them to understand the Gulf, it was obvious that this was going to be a very specific perspective on the Gulf,” Ulrichsen said.
“And so I think we saw very quickly the Saudis and the Emiratis reaching out to Jared Kushner…to President Trump…it was an opportunity to try and influence some of the thinking and especially with the run-up to the Riyadh summit a lot of the preparations were undertaken by the White House rather than by the State Department.
“So, again it was the White House heavily involved with Jared Kushner working with Mohamed bin Salman and Mohamed bin Zayed and then trying to do it together without necessarily involving the institutions. And so when we had the meeting in Riyadh, I think it was probably no coincidence that the next day was the day of the hack,” he continued.
Ulrichsen said the hacking of the Qatar News Agency in May 2017 was part of a media campaign designed to “shape the perceptions in Washington.”
“I think it was a campaign to try and shape the perceptions of the echo chamber in Washington. And again I think the ultimate prize was to try and secure President Trump’s support for the measure against Qatar,” he said.
Ulrichsen added that Trump’s tweets on June 6 and former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon’s speech at the Hudson Institute “drew a direct line between his conversations in Riyadh and the move against Qatar.”
“So, he (Trump) appeared to acknowledge there was a direct link between whatever was said in Riyadh and the embargo…and Steve Bannon said the same thing in October in the conference at the Hudson Institute…he also drew a linkage between whatever was said in Riyadh and the subsequent move,” Ulrichsen said.
According to Ulrichsen, the Saudis and Emiratis “miscalculated” and “assumed” that if Trump would change sides, “the US government would do the same.”
“And what I think we saw was a pushback straightaway from the State Department, from the Department of Defence, and from all the commercial groups who, perhaps, had more of an understanding that this was not an opening shot. And so I think we saw straightaway the government did not swing as President Trump had changed his mind. And I think that was the miscalculation,” he said.
Ulrichsen said Qatar “was fortunate” to have on its side US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who, Ulrichsen described as “a man who has extensive experience of Qatar from his time with ExxonMobil and who knows probably more than anyone else in the US the true value of the Qatari partnership to the US.
“I think that change matters in the context of General Mattis at the Pentagon, who also knows full well the value of CENTCOM and also the value that Al Udeid gives the US
the ability to project power not just in the Gulf but across the region in
Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere.”
Ulrichsen said that over time the US government has realised, especially, Trump, “that this crisis does not help the US.” 
“I think it took him some time but I think President Trump’s telephone conversation with His Highness last week…his position was the opposite of what he said back in June. Now he is thanking Qatar for their support.”
Ulrichsen also said the way Qatar handled all of the accusations and the allegations, which, he said, “have never been underpinned by evidence,” was “to follow the rule of law and to follow a very practical response.”
“Qatar’s response was to actually put in place measures such as the memorandum of understanding with the US to address and to acknowledge there are some concerns but then to act to address them. And I think that the US government recognises this as a protective partnership and practical response,” he said.
Asked about Qatar’s “weak points” that led to the Gulf crisis, Ulrichsen traced these factors to the Arab Spring.
“The Arab Spring began as a very momentous opening and then took turns that people did not necessarily expect in 2011 and Qatar was trying to support that opening and clearly, perhaps, didn’t have, at that time…trying to take on the size of Libya or Syria perhaps was too great even for a country with the resources of Qatar; that to think that you could steer a transition, to support and kind of shape that transition was maybe too much and too ambitious for any one country, especially when there are other actors who are trying to do something different.
“And so I think after the initial moves to oust Gaddafi there was a backlash and the resources were not necessarily there. And in Syria, not just Qatar but other regional states, perhaps supported groups that they didn’t have time to do due diligence on because things are changing so fast.
“The civil war was so chaotic and groups were appearing so quickly that in many cases there perhaps wasn’t the ability to or the kind of understanding of who was on what side,” Ulrichsen said.
Another “weakness” Ulrichsen pointed out was that Qatar, “at that time, seemed to be
quite limited in explaining what they were doing and why they were doing it.”
“But I think at the time Qatar had been so active even before the Arab Spring in mediation in Lebanon, in Yemen, in Darfur, and active also in 2011 and 2012 in the transitions but not explaining, not really answering properly, not responding to people’s questions so that I think encouraged conspiracy theories.
“I think we saw that in Mali. In 2012, there was an Islamist uprising in Northern Mali and there was a Qatari Red Crescent team who were there and they became the focus of an intense media speculation why they were there: ‘Are they somewhat involved in doing more than just humanitarian work?’ And we saw how quickly Qatar was suspected of doing many things.
“And because I think they weren’t necessarily explaining; and the public diplomacy aspect was perhaps missing. And at that time when Qatar was in its most active, that was I think the time when they most needed to be explaining to people what they were doing, why they were doing it, what they hope to achieve. And that I think was a weak point at that time,” Ulrichsen said.
But today, Ulrichsen said, Qatar’s Government Communications Office has taken a more proactive stance for “a much more active campaign to try and explain why Qatar is. It’s to kind of open Qatar up to the outside.”
“And to give the credit, I think that they have realised that. But to some extent I think it was too late. And it really had encouraged a lot of conspiracy theories that the quartet against Qatar now keeps referring back to,” he pointed out.
According to Ulrichsen, the “intangible” aspects of the Gulf crisis “will be the most difficult to resolve.”
“Interfering with tribal and ruling family politics is really a red line and I think it’s going to be very difficult once this has happened to try to kind of get beyond that. I think an agreement is one thing but even if there’s a sort of political reconciliation at an elite level, we could see just such a cold peace for a long time to come because the social fabric of Gulf society has been shaken and of course there are so many members of families on different sides who have been torn. I think that’s one issue that is going to be difficult to rebuild mutual confidence and trust now it’s happened two times in three years,” he said.
Ulrichsen also noted that Gulf politics “is realigning around the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi.” 
“And this is a very hawkish, very security-focused partnership and I think that’s going to dominate regional politics for a long time. And we see a much more assertive, a much more interventionist approach and so you may see kind of a two-track Gulf since the Qatar-Kuwait-Oman will be a sort of counterbalance, and Kuwait will be interesting to see where they try to sort of traditionally balance between the two.
“And I think people in Oman and Kuwait are looking at the Qatar case study you can say and to see if it’s a concern that they will have to have political transitions at some point…and I think they are looking at what’s happening to see what sort of clashes they may also face from this axis that now runs from Riyadh to Abu Dhabi,” Ulrichsen said.
He added: “And we’re seeing this new generation of leaders acting without the kind of consensus of the past and so I think that is going to dominate regional politics for a long time, particularly since some of the new people in charge are so young and I think the old GCC is now changing very fast and what will follow I think is still unclear.”