Qatar ideal first diplomatic crisis for oilman Tillerson


Washington (AFP)

The Qatar crisis presents Rex Tillerson with his first challenge as Washington's top diplomat and an opportunity for the former oilman to use his vast network of contacts.

But while his former life as chief of energy giant ExxonMobil prepared Tillerson well, he does have one potential handicap -- his new boss, President Donald Trump.

While Trump has claimed credit for Saudi Arabia's air and land blockade of its gas-rich neighbor, Tillerson has urged an end to the embargo and restored alliances.

That differing approach could make the secretary of state's task difficult at best, but his friends in Washington say his regional experience makes him just the man for the job.

"If anyone can do it, it's him," says James Jeffrey of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, a former senior diplomat who advised Tillerson at Exxon.

On the face of it, the diplomatic standoff in the oil and gas-rich Gulf has all the makings of a US foreign policy disaster coming at the worst possible time.

Late last month, Trump made what appeared at the time a triumphal visit to Riyadh to unite US friends in the region against Iranian meddling and Islamist extremism.

But just weeks later, on June 5, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates broke ties with Qatar, accusing its royal government of backing terrorist groups.

The resulting stand-off left the countries that host the bulk of US forces in the region -- Turkey, Qatar, Kuwait and Iraq -- at odds with Washington's other key allies.

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And it could only strengthen the hand of Iran, which is confronting US and Saudi interests through covert operations and proxies in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon.

Trump initially appeared to revel in the situation, praising Riyadh for standing up to fight terror financing and accusing Qatar of supporting extremism at a "high level."

But Tillerson -- who has been asked by the White House to help defuse the situation -- took a different tack, and this week appeared to be making some progress.

On Tuesday, after the secretary of state had cancelled a planned visit to Mexico and spent two frustrating days on the telephone, he issued a strong statement.

His target was not Qatar -- although he has been clear that all countries should do more to eradicate terror funding -- but Riyadh and its Emirati ally.

Tillerson's spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, told reporters that Washington was "mystified" that the Saudis and Emiratis had not released details of their allegations against Qatar.

"The more that time goes by, the more doubt is raised about the actions taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE," she said, before turning the knife.

Were Riyadh's actions really about "Qatar's alleged support for terrorism, or were they about the long simmering grievances between and among the GCC countries?" she asked.

The statement was a clear signal that, despite Trump's rhetoric, official Washington blames the Saudis for escalating an unnecessary dispute.

It was not the first such signal from Trump's top national security team -- whose actions often struggle to speak louder than the president's words.

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A week earlier, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis signed a $12 billion deal to sell Qatar -- supposedly a terror sponsor -- US-made F-15 fighter jets.

In case that wasn't a strong enough sign, Tillerson also made what for him was a rare appearance before reporters to urge the Saudis to "ease" their embargo.

Will Saudi Arabia and the Emirates listen to the State Department and the Pentagon, and seek a face-saving agreement with Qatar that reunites the allies?

Or will they listen to Trump, who during a Wednesday campaign speech praised the Saudi king "for fighting with other countries that have been funding terrorism"?

The key to re-balancing the relationship will lie with Tillerson.

"I think he's doing a good job, and he knows everybody. He knows the Saudis and the Qataris very well," said Jeffrey, a White House advisor under former president George W. Bush.

For Jeffrey, the mistake was to let Riyadh think Trump had given them a green light.

"It isn't that you have two separate policies. Trump is supporting Mattis and Tillerson," Jeffrey argues.

"It's just that Trump can't help himself -- he communicates in a different sphere through tweets and with his supporters.

"It's not Trump the commander-in-chief or the president, it's Trump the leader of a movement with its own worldview," he said.

"It's going to take a while for the Saudis and the Emiratis to understand this and not to take it to the bank, which is what they did."

On Wednesday, a day after the strong "mystified" statement, Tillerson announced that Riyadh had now indeed drawn up a list of demands.