Trump’s intervention fails to mend GCC’s broken fences

An attempt by President Trump to break the stalemate that has divided the wealthiest countries in the Middle East ended in failure, when leaders from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, after speaking by phone for the first time in months, exchanged dueling, contradictory statements.

Mr. Trump arranged the call and anticipated  a breakthrough in the bitter dispute, which has plunged the Gulf into turmoil and threatened American security interests.

Since June, Saudi Arabia has led the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain in imposing a trade and transport boycott against gas-rich Qatar, accusing it of financing terrorism and having a ‘too close for comfort’ relationship with Iran. Qatar has rejected the charges, countering that its rivals are seeking to curb its sovereignty and tame its influential television channel Al Jazeera.

Mr. Trump stepped into the frame, offering his services as a mediator and predicting a quick victory. “I think you’d have a deal worked out very quickly,” he said at the White House , standing alongside the emir of Kuwait, who has led Arab efforts to end the standoff.

However, the phone call between the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, seemed to underscore only how difficult it might be to settle the angry, often petty, dispute.

Within hours of the call, Qatar’s state news agency said the emir “welcomed a proposal” by the young Saudi prince to appoint two peace envoys to help bridge their differences.

That language infuriated the Saudis, who appeared insulted by the suggestion that they had bowed first in the dispute. The Saudi state news service retaliated by accusing Qatar of distorting the facts and declared that dialogue between the two countries had been suspended. According to the Saudi Arabian version of events, it was the Qataris who first broached the idea of peace mediators.

The exchange encapsulated the vehemence of a dispute that has worried Western countries allied with both sides. Through the summer, a series of envoys, including the United States secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson, have travelled to the Gulf region for talks. Qatar and its foes have exchanged  barbed exchanges through news and social media, in fake news stories and leaked emails, and on the streets of Western capitals.

While some analysts said that the telephone call between high ranking Saudi Arabia and Qatari leaders, even if unsuccessful, held out hope that the two sides were finally ready to talk, others viewed it as a sign of how entrenched they have become. “The problem is as much about appearing not to capitulate to the other side as it is trying to solve any problems,” said Michael Stephens of the Royal United Services Institute in London. “Given the hypersensitivity of both sides to appearing weak,” he said, “it makes the problem considerably harder to solve.”

This edited article first appeared in The New York Times

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