US Secretary Of State Rex Tillerson To Fly To Kuwait In Bid To Diffuse Gulf Crisis

This past Thursday, it was announced that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will fly to Kuwait on Monday, as part of an ongoing international effort to de-escalate tensions between the Saudi-led quartet of blockading countries (namely Egypt, the UAE, and Bahrain) and economically and politically isolated Qatar. Kuwait, which has played the role of mediator ever since the current crisis first began in early June—centred around Qatar’s supposed funding of terrorism—has invited Mr. Tillerson to visit the emirate. He is set to have a more direct role in bringing about a peaceful resolution to the dispute. His visit follows hard on the heels of a statement released by the State Department, in which it was made clear that the US is worried over the current impasse between the feuding countries. It is hoped that the high-level talks will serve to boost the collective efforts of the leading Western and Middle Eastern powers, whose aim at present is to bring an end to the blockade and to settle the existing grievances between the rival countries, in order to shift attention towards other regional issues (which include, but are not limited to the wars in both Syria and Yemen).

Another indicator of how these foreign powers appear intent on resolving this dispute comes in the form of a state visit by German foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, who last week said that Qatar has agreed to allow Germany’s intelligence service to monitor its finances. That would allow Qatar to address one of the accusations levelled at it—that it funds and sponsors extremist groups. This and other monitoring measures would help to appease some of the blockading countries, despite that block’s stated intention of imposing new economic sanctions on Qatar.  These high-level visits from the three top diplomats should serve to both pressure the rivals into constructive dialogue and to veer their attention away from what can only be seen as a distraction, considering the wider context of the issues currently plaguing the region. Concurrently, Mr. Tillerson’s British counterpart, foreign secretary Boris Johnson, has also been involved in similar talks with Gulf officials as part of his regional tour of the Middle East. He is said to have shuttled between major regional capitals, urging both sides to de-escalate tensions. In light of the aforementioned developments, some analysts and experts have called for dialogue to be backed up with actions. Among these voices is that of the president of the Gulf Arab Institute in Washington, Marcelle Wahba, who believes that the US in particular, can use its position as the world’s leading arms dealer as leverage during these talks. This position is particularly useful in the present context since both sides purchase arms directly from the US— this economic and military relationship can, in turn, makes it easier to incentivize de-escalation from both sides. In the case of Qatar, the US can make it clear that “Doha has to change a lot of things, it can’t be a sanctuary for individuals on both UN and US designated terrorist lists, and it cannot provide Al Jazeera as a platform for hate speech and extremists’ voices.” On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and co should be reminded that the present impasse creates a situation in which “the fight against ISIS is undermined.”  

The flurry of visits by the aforementioned diplomats is indicative of the urgency felt by Western powers, owing in large part to the growing fear that the diplomatic row is set to continue for weeks or even months. That explains why the US and Britain are pursuing a more active role in mediating the crisis. This change in approach goes against much of what has taken place in the weeks prior to the announcement of this trip, especially since it was Mr. Tillerson who called on the Gulf countries to settle their issues amongst themselves. Yet, the rhetoric emanating from both sides of the divide has forced Mr. Tillerson and US defence secretary, James Mattis, to adopt a more active role than previously envisioned. Such a change in approach is not without challenges of its own, of course, considering how contradictory statements from the present US administration have so far created deep fault-lines in this diplomatic row. President Trump has waded into the current dispute by making statements regarding Qatar and its alleged ties to terrorism, which in hindsight only served to embolden the blockading quartet, led by Saudi Arabia. The US president’s lack of restraint in such instances puts both Rex Tillerson and James Mattis in a complicated situation since both men would rather avoid alienating any of their valued partners, while at the same time avoiding further fragmenting the tense relations amongst these countries.

On a brighter note, the fact that all sides have ruled out a military option as a means of settling their grievances is sure to bring some form of relief to both officials (Tillerson and Mattis) and their fellow counterparts.

Ultimately, as the next steps taken by all sides becomes clearer, it is hoped that cool heads will prevail and that ongoing mediating efforts can be sustained, due to how much is at stake.  

Arthur Jamo
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