Trump to Gulf: Resolve Qatar crisis or no Camp David

Josh Lederman
Associated Press

Washington – President Donald Trump wants to bring feuding Persian Gulf leaders to Camp David for a show of solidarity with the United States. But there are strings attached: No breakthrough in the Qatar crisis, no Camp David.

A potential summit of the six-country Gulf Cooperation Council in May at the prestigious presidential retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains will be scuttled unless Qatar and neighbors Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are on track to resolve the nearly year-long spat. A pair of Trump administration emissaries will deliver the message next week as they crisscross the Gulf in a renewed bid to try to end the crisis.

It’s not clear that the Gulf countries even want to attend such a summit, which would require leaders who have spent the last eight months bashing Qatar to put all of that aside and pose for friendly group photo-ops. But if there’s one trait that unifies Qatar and its neighbors, it’s an unwavering desire to show they’re simpatico with Trump.

Yet even as the White House holds out hope for a summit, it’s telling Gulf nations there’s no sense in proceeding as long as the quarreling countries are still not on speaking terms, according to several U.S. officials and others briefed on the situation. There’s also concern that holding the summit while the crisis is still raging could lead to drama that would reflect poorly on Trump the host, the individuals said.

Short of one side or the other fully capitulating, it’s unclear what steps the countries could take that would demonstrate enough progress to merit moving ahead with the summit. But one proposal being floated by the U.S. is for Qatar’s neighbors to end the air blockade that has prevented Qatari flights from landing in the other nations or using their airspace, officials said.

There was no comment from the White House or the embassies of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. A Saudi official said the notion that the U.S. was pressing Saudi Arabia to end the crisis to make way for a summit was “false,” adding that the leaders of both countries “are keen on continuing cooperation between both our countries and between the G.C.C. and the U.S.A.”

All of the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to comment by name.

Qatar has been under siege since early June, when its neighbors severed ties over claims the small, gas-rich monarchy was funding terrorism, disrupting Gulf unity and fomenting opposition across the region. They cut Qatar’s air, sea and land routes, creating a de facto blockade. The countries vowed to isolate Qatar economically until it heeds their demands, but Qatar has insisted it can survive indefinitely on its own. Eight months later, the crisis is at a standstill, with both sides dug in firmer than ever.

Early on, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to broker a resolution, even shuttling between the countries for indirect talks. When that failed, the United States stepped back, and has largely left it to Kuwait – another GCC country – to mediate.

Since then, the U.S. has offered cautious praise for steps Qatar has taken to address concerns about lax financial regulations that allowed funds to flow to terror groups. But those steps have failed to satisfy Saudi Arabia and the other neighbors, whose list of demands also includes shutting down Qatar-based news network Al-Jazeera and cutting ties with Islamist groups including the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar claims those demands constitute a major infringement on its sovereignty.

“Qatar’s steps in addressing Trump’s concerns regarding terror financing gave room for Tillerson to make the case to Trump that at least for Washington, the U.S. concerns were largely addressed, and the outstanding differences between Qatar and its neighbors had become a distraction,” said Andrew Bowen, who studies the Persian Gulf at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

In a fresh push to resolve the dispute, the Trump administration is sending Tim Lenderking, the top State Department official for the Persian Gulf, and retired Marine Corps. Gen. Anthony Zinni to the region to meet with officials from the countries involved in the dispute.

The renewed U.S. involvement comes as Trump prepares for a string of visits by leaders from the feuding nations. Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, will visit Washington in mid-March, and the UAE’s Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, is expected in the coming weeks as well.

Trump spoke by phone this week with both leaders, as well as with Qatar’s ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. The White House issued nearly identical descriptions of all three calls, saying Trump had discussed “a range of security and economic issues” without mentioning whether the regional crisis even came up.