Salman Beats Kushner in Resolving the GCC Crisis

Dr. Imad K. Harb

Senior Non Resident Fellow Greater Middle East for SAGE International Australia (SIA) as well as Member of the SIA Advisory Board.

He is also the Director of Research and Analysis at the Arab Center Washington DC.

There was much speculation about a purported positive impact by President Donald Trump’s advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner’s intervention on ending the crisis in the Gulf Cooperation Council that began in June 2017 with a land, sea, and air blockade of Qatar by Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. Kushner even attended the 41st GCC summit during which the council’s leaders signed a “solidarity and stability” agreement that ended the blockade and restored diplomatic relations between the disputants. Previous attempts at mediation by Kuwait and the US Department of State in the early days of the Trump Administration were unsuccessful in breaking the impasse or bridging the differences.

But while Kushner’s endeavour at mediation in the three-and-a-half-year rift was welcome, it is doubtful that his role was decisive, despite his close relationships with many leaders and officials in the Gulf. First, it is hard to understand why GCC countries would want to reward Kushner as a representative of the Trump Administration as the president was practically walking out of the White House. Second, Trump and Kushner let the crisis fester as GCC unity weakened an alliance that is supposed to be central in the administration’s anti-Iran policy. In fact, the crisis prompted Qatar to seek closer relations with Iran as it attempted to mitigate the impact of the blockade others imposed on it. Third, and despite close relations between the United States and Qatar, the latter could not just forget that the American president initially supported the blockade––thus giving the blockading countries needed, albeit short, support––until he was persuaded otherwise by his assistants, such as former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Instead, most credit should be given to Saudi Arabia for ending the crisis. Old and frail, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud wanted to close the page on a rift whose continuation would blemish his legacy long after he departs. Saudi Arabia corralled its allies for a reconciliation and moved the meeting from Bahrain, giving itself the opportunity to shepherd the reconciliation on its own soil. It agreed to open its borders with Qatar, which convinced the latter’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to attend the meeting and facilitate the reconciliation. Thus there can be no doubt that King Salman was preparing the ground for a successful summit that can send three important messages.

First, King Salman wanted to give his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), an opportunity to lead a successful meeting with high stakes for the kingdom. Appearing like a statesman and a Gulf peacekeeper would burnish MbS’s image and prestige. In fact, the king let his son chair the proceedings and issue statements as if he was the one in total control.

Second, King Salman appears to want to separate Saudi foreign policy from that of the UAE, a tiny neighbor that was the original instigator of the GCC crisis when it hacked the website of Qatar’s News Agency. There are serious differences between the two countries about Yemen where the UAE today aids the separatist Southern Transitional Council against the Saudi-supported President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. The UAE has also expanded its strategic reach from the Arabian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea, via military bases and trade arrangements from Yemen’s Socotra Island to Somalia’s coast to Libya. This area is practically Saudi Arabia’s backyard. The UAE has also struck out on its own in reaching a normalization agreement with Israel, abandoning the framework of the Saudi-sponsored 2002 Arab Peace Initiative for a settlement of the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli conflicts.

Third, Saudi Arabia wanted to be prepared for four years of a Biden presidency that is expected to emphasize diplomacy in the Gulf. King Salman may be in a difficult position in this regard because of the Saudi war in Yemen, the country’s dismal human rights record, and the credible accusation that MbS ordered the audacious assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Finally, Saudi Arabia wants to be a partner in any negotiations with Iran about the latter’s nuclear program and other issues.

GCC reconciliation is necessary, indeed pivotal, for the stability of the Gulf region. But the agreement to end the GCC crisis was more of a Saudi accomplishment than a result of Jared Kushner’s negotiating prowess. To be sure, King Salman may very well be on his way out, and fixing GCC affairs is a pivotal element of the legacy he wants to leave behind.

Views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of
SAGE International Australia

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