WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s decision to nominate Mike Pompeo as his next secretary of state could lead to a change in the U.S. administration’s approach to the spat between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors, say Mideast experts. What’s unclear is how fundamental that change will be.
Pompeo is set to replace Rex Tillerson, who advocated for U.S. mediation and opposed attempts to isolate Qatar. It’s not known if former CIA Director Pompeo will promote a similar policy or push for a tougher line against the natural gas-rich Gulf state.
The Qatar crisis, which erupted last spring, was one of the key issues on which Tillerson found himself clashing with the president. When Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intensified pressure on Qatar, the Trump administration was split in its response: Trump and his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, seemed to enthusiastically support Saudi Arabia; Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis took a different approach, warning the president of the dangers of the Saudi move.
Tillerson was more vocal than Mattis in his opposition to the Saudi moves. He said on a number of occasions that the United States was “concerned” because of the crisis, and that the dispute between the Arab states was “bad” for American interests.
Qatar is home to the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East and has significant business investments in the United States. On the other hand, it has also hosted the leadership of terror organizations like Hamas and the Taliban, and been accused of fostering a close relationship with Iran.
Two weeks ago, the New York Times published email correspondence documenting an attempt by a U.S. billionaire with close ties to the UAE to get Tillerson fired. The paper detailed correspondence between Elliot Broidy – who has significant business interests in the UAE – and George Nader, a Lebanese-American political consultant who was at the time a close adviser to the UAE leadership.
In the emails, Broidy updates Nader about a conversation with Trump in which he lobbied the president to fire Tillerson for his “pro-Qatari” policy.
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While it’s not clear if this contributed to Trump’s decision to fire Tillerson this week, it’s clear Tillerson’s departure leaves Qatar in a weaker position within the administration.
“Mattis and senior Pentagon officials will continue to argue for a close relationship with Qatar,” one senior Arab diplomat involved in discussions on the Gulf crisis tells Haaretz. “But Tillerson was the most vocal opponent of the Saudi blockade. I don’t think Pompeo will follow in his footsteps.”
Pompeo didn’t make any significant public statements about the Gulf dispute during his time as CIA director. As a congressman, in 2015 he co-sponsored legislation to try to get the Muslim Brotherhood recognized as a foreign terrorist organization in the United States.
Qatar has for years been considered a supporter of the Brotherhood. It has faced accusations from countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia of trying to empower the movement, thus endangering the regimes in those countries.
Pompeo’s position on this issue could hint at future problems for Qatar, assuming he passes his confirmation process in the Senate.
Test for Qatar’s Jewish outreach
“The Saudis and Emiratis were not pleased with Tillerson’s approach, and senior people in those countries consider Pompeo an improvement,” says Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “I’ve heard from people in both countries that they’re happy about his appointment.”
Katulis tells Haaretz he doesn’t think the administration’s policy will become completely aligned with the Saudi view, because of the Pentagon’s influence on the internal debate.
He notes that a senior Qatari delegation visited Washington at the end of January and signed memorandums of understanding with the Trump administration, including on energy cooperation. Trump himself later praised the Qataris for their commitment to fighting terrorism and working together with the United States on economic issues.
In recent months, Qatar has invested in a public relations effort aimed at improving its image among decision-makers and influencers in Washington. The campaign has featured a specific emphasis on the American-Jewish community: Qatar has arranged visits to Doha for leaders of Jewish-American organizations, mostly those affiliated with the right.
The Gulf state also flew over people considered to have the president’s ear, such as Israel advocate Alan Dershowitz and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. Qatar hired Washington lobbyist Nick Muzin, a former staffer for Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, for its charm offensive – paying him $300,000 a month for his services.
As part of that outreach, Qatar reportedly promised to shelve a documentary film on the pro-Israel lobby in the United States, which was produced by Al Jazeera (the international news network operating out of Doha). Haaretz first reported on this development last month, and despite denials by the Qatari government, it has since become public that the journalist who oversaw the documentary, Clayton Swisher, is currently on a sabbatical from the network. The film doesn’t yet have an air date.
Enter Robert Mueller
With Tillerson out of the administration, the Qatari outreach effort to the Jewish community and the pro-Trump political sphere now faces a major test.
“If Pompeo comes in and the policy toward the crisis becomes more in line with Saudi Arabia’s priorities, we’ll know their entire lobbying effort in Washington was a waste of time,” says the senior Arab diplomat.
Katulis offers a more cautious analysis, pointing out the limitations any secretary of state has on a policy issue also involving the White House and the Pentagon. “I’m hesitant to read too much into personnel changes shifting policy,” he says. “When in 2013 Susan Rice became Obama’s national security adviser and Samantha Power became his ambassador to the UN, there were many articles predicting that because of their views on humanitarian intervention, the Obama administration would take a more active role in Syria. What actually happened was the reverse,” Katulis observes.
Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank that has been critical of Qatar’s policies, tells Haaretz he doesn’t think the administration will want to take an approach that potentially escalates the Gulf crisis.
“The two sides have settled into somewhat of a status quo,” Schanzer says, adding, “The Saudis can live with the current situation, and the Qataris are under pressure and looking for a way out. I don’t think the administration will take steps that will increase the tension.”
One thing that could alter the situation is Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election – which has reportedly been broadened to also include events related to the UAE and Qatar.
According to press reports earlier this month, Mueller is examining attempts by the UAE to “buy influence” in the Trump administration. One key person now talking to Mueller is Nader, who previously advised the UAE’s leadership.
Investing in Gaza
NBC reported this week that Qatar holds information that could implicate Kushner, but has decided not to hand it over to Mueller’s investigation. This information could be connected to a story published last week by the Intercept, which alleged that the Kushner family’s company tried to secure massive loans from Qatar just weeks before Saudi Arabia began its blockade of the Gulf state.
The story hinted at the possibility that Kushner’s support for the blockade might have been connected to the Qatari rejection of his family company’s loan request. That story was co-authored by Swisher – the Al Jazeera reporter behind the shelved documentary on D.C.’s pro-Israel lobby.
Still, there is one area at least in which Qatar has won praise from the Trump administration recently: Its work to improve the economic and humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip.
Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, publicly thanked Qatari officials for their efforts on this issue. Qatar also participated in an international conference on Gaza, organized by the White House earlier this week.
Afterward, a White House official said it was “refreshing” to see different Middle Eastern countries gathered around the same table, despite their political disputes, to discuss a humanitarian issue.
The comment was interpreted as referring to the fact Israel was present at the conference alongside a number of Arab countries. But in the Middle East of 2018, that could actually be less significant than the fact the discussion brought together representatives from Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia – and the Trump White House.