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September 14, 2017 No.
1346

Conflicting Reports In Gulf Media About Phone Conversation Between Saudi Crown Prince And Qatari Emir Reflect The Roots Of The Gulf Dispute

Introduction

On September 9, 2017, Saudi Arabia announced that it was cutting off all dialogue with Qatar on the resolution of the intra-Gulf dispute.[1] The announcement came following a phone call between Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Aal Thani and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman discussing a resolution to the Gulf crisis, and less than 24 hours after a joint press conference by U.S. President Donald Trump and the Kuwaiti emir at which Trump expressed his willingness to personally help resolve it. Saudi Arabia explained in the announcement that it was cutting off the dialogue with Qatar because the latter was misrepresenting what happened in the phone conversation between the two countries' top officials.

The Saudi and Qatari media reports on the phone conversation were divergent. An examination of the differences in the reporting on what was said in it sheds light on the main disagreements that underlie the intra-Gulf conflict, and raise questions about how willing both sides are to rise above them in order to quickly and genuinely resolve the ongoing conflict.

This report will examine the differences in the Saudi and Qatari reports on what was said in the phone conversation and will discuss the roots of these differences.


Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (left) and Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Aal Thani (image: Aljazeera.net)

Divergent Reports In Saudi, Qatari Media About Phone Conversation Between Qatari Emir And Saudi Crown Prince

As noted, the Saudi and Qatari media reports on what was said in the September 8 phone conversation between the two officials were divergent. According to Saudi press reports, the Qatari emir phoned the Saudi crown prince and expressed his wish to conduct dialogue and discuss the demands presented by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt, in a way that would assure that each side's interests were protected, and the crown prince had welcomed this. The Saudi reports added that further details would be forthcoming after Saudi Arabia discussed the matter with the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt.[2]

In contrast, the Qatari newspapers wrote, citing the official Qatari news agency report on the matter, that the phone conversation between the two had come in the wake of coordination with President Trump. These reports did not state that the Qatari emir had initiated the conversation, and noted that during it both sides stressed the need for resolving the crisis through negotiations, with the aim of assuring the unity and stability of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member countries. The report stated that the Qatari emir had welcomed the Saudi crown prince's proposal to appoint emissaries who would resolve the matters in dispute "in a way that will not harm the sovereignty of the countries."[3]

The Saudi and Qatari reports on the phone conversation diverge on several major points, each of which is particularly sensitive for the sides involved. Also, the differences are indicative of each side's status in the Gulf and in the Arab and Islamic world in general, and of the power relations between them.

I. Who Phoned Whom?

The Saudi and Qatari media reports differed significantly with regard to who initiated the conversation, and who suggested compromise to resolve the conflict among the countries.

Each side – that is, the four countries that are boycotting Qatar (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, and Egypt) and Qatar – thinks that the other side must be the one to take the first step to resolve the crisis, and that its role is to respond. The side that takes this first step and reaches out to other in order to discuss solutions for resolving the dispute – in this case, the one that picks up the phone and calls the other is perceived as weaker, while the recipient of the call, who considers whether to accept or reject the other side's proposal, is perceived as having the upper hand. 

Thus, the media of Saudi Arabia – a country that considers Qatar a "statelet" or an "authority" that is trying to play a regional role that reflects neither its size nor its status – stressed that the Qatari emir was the one who made the phone call and asked to negotiate, while the Qatari report, on the other hand, omitted this and stressed that the phone conversation was the result of a move initiated by President Trump, and was not initiated by the emir in an act of capitulation. It stated further that the Saudi crown prince was the one who had proposed that emissaries be appointed to conduct negotiations, and that the Qatari emir had accepted his proposal.

In this spirit, the Saudi announcement that Saudi Arabia was cutting off the dialogue with Qatar on the grounds that Qatar had "distorted" what was said in the conversation between the two top officials specifically stated that "the conversation took place at Qatar's request, and was based on its [i.e. Qatar's] request for negotiations with the four [boycotting] countries on the issue of the demands [that they had presented to Qatar]" – and not as reported by Qatar.[4] Thus, according to the Saudi perception, the Qatari reports' omission of the Qatari emir's taking the first step by requesting negotiations indicated that Qatar was neither serious about nor committed to reconciliation, and justified the blowup between the two countries.

Furthermore, it appears that the UAE too is laying claim to the crown of leader of the Gulf, along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar. A report in the Qatari daily Al-Arab stated that there was anger in the UAE about the Qatari emir's failure to phone Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed Aal Nahyan instead of the Saudi crown prince. The reason for this anger was that, according to the UAE, it too is a significant power player in the dispute and no less important than Saudi Arabia, and therefore Qatar should have moved to advance resolving the dispute with it.[5]

II. The Role Of U.S. Mediation In Resolving The Intra-Gulf Crisis

As noted, the phone conversation between the Qatari emir and the Saudi crown prince followed steps taken by President Trump to advance a resolution of the Gulf crisis. According to reports in the Saudi, Qatari, and UAE press, this phone conversation came after three separate phone conversations that President Trump conducted with the Saudi crown prince, the Qatari emir, and the Abu Dhabi crown prince, and that in each of these Trump stressed the importance of cooperation among the Gulf countries and of maintaining a united front against Iran.[6] Earlier on the day of the Saudi-Qatari phone conversation, at a joint press conference with the emir of Kuwait – which is acting as a mediator in the crisis – Trump expressed his own willingness to mediate among the Gulf countries and help them resolve the conflict.[7]

Saudi Arabia, which would prefer not to internationalize the conflict but to resolve it in an internal Arab or Gulf framework, was enraged by Qatar's suggestion that the Saudi moves were the result of American pressure in particular, or any external pressure at all. The charge that Saudi Arabia is not the mistress of its own decisions is incompatible with its self image as leader of the Gulf countries, and there seems to be a fear in the country that its status will be harmed by any depiction of it as submitting to American dictates. Resolving the crisis through dialogue is in itself a compromise from the perspective of Saudi Arabia, which would have liked the crisis to resolve itself via a Qatari submission to the demands of the boycotting countries, amid unreserved Western support for these countries' "war on Qatar's terror."

  Accordingly, several Saudi articles stated that the Qatari reports' claim that the phone conversation had been coordinated with President Trump constitutes "a clear distortion of reality, a lie, and a falsehood, because the Saudi leadership does not accept anyone's dictates and rejects pressure – for [Saudi Arabia] is a sovereign country with its own [independent] views that acts in accordance with its own strategic interests."[8]

On the other hand, Qatar, which hosts the U.S. Central Command and houses the U.S. Air Force in the Middle East at its Al-Udeid air base, sees international, and in particular American, mediation as recognition of its regional importance, and as an opening to extricating itself from the Gulf crisis in a way that places it in a position of power vis-à-vis the boycotting countries. Thus, it has no problem with mentioning this mediation.

III. Qatar's Political Independence Vs Its Commitment To The GCC

An additional bone of contention among the countries is how committed Qatar is to acting according to the uniform political framework set out by the GCC, of which it is a member, and the question of whether it is entitled to adopt an independent policy that deviates from the agreed-upon Gulf line led today primarily by Saudi Arabia, which considers itself leader of the Gulf countries.

Thus, the Qatari reports, which emphasized the sides' agreement to negotiation to resolve the Gulf crisis "in a way that will not harm the sovereignty of the countries," reflect Qatar's perception that it is entitled to an independent policy even though it is a GCC member, and also that it is entitled to influence events and processes inside and outside the Middle East however it wishes.

 According to Qatar, it was legitimate differences between its policy lines and those of its neighbors that prompted Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt to isolate it; thus, its political and economic isolation is completely unjustified.

Qatar sees the moves taken by the four boycotting countries as an illegitimate response to the political independence that it seeks to preserve, and as a violation of its sovereignty. These moves by the four countries include demands that Qatar stop the broadcasts of Al-Jazeera TV and that take down all the news websites that Qatar supports, and that it close the Turkish military base recently opened on Qatari soil, as conditions for lifting the sanctions against it. Additionally, Saudi Arabia's recent contacts with Qatari royal family member Abdallah bin 'Ali Aal Thani are perceived in Qatar as preparing the ground for a political coup in the country.[9] 

Conversely, Qatar's independent policy – its years-long support of the Muslim Brotherhood and its openness to Iran– is perceive by its neighbors in the Gulf as subversive and as jeopardizing their stability. The concept of sovereignty is also a part of the narrative of the boycotting countries. They think that Qatar must act according to the agreed-upon Gulf line in the framework of the GCC, and argue that the steps taken against Qatar, including closing their sea and air spaces to it, closing Saudi Arabia's land border with it, and severing diplomatic relations with it are all legitimate "sovereign" measures that these countries are entitled to take, and that they are compatible with international law. In addition, one of the claims against Qatar is that it is interfering in the internal affairs of the Gulf countries and other Arab countries, in a way that is contrary to the principle of sovereignty.

Conclusion

The differences between the Saudi and Qatari reports on the phone conversation between the Qatari emir and the Saudi crown prince explain much about the essence of the Gulf crisis, which emanates from fundamental disputes regarding the balance of power within intra-Gulf politics. Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar place supreme value on their status in the fabric of the Gulf, both within and outside the framework of the GCC. But preserving the status of one country necessarily means harming the other – its status, its interests, and its aspirations for acquiring hegemony in the region.

What is clear is that  each side's entrenchment in its positions, even though an opportunity for mediation has been laid at their doorstep, raises questions about how willing the sides are to rise above these disagreements for the sake of  rapidly resolving the dispute among them.

 

*B. Shanee is a research fellow at MEMRI; Y. Yehoshua is Vice President for Research and Director of MEMRI Israel.

 

[1] On the factors that led to the crisis, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1315, Uproar In The Gulf Following Alleged Statements By Qatari Emir Condemning Gulf States, Praising Iran, Hizbullah, Muslim Brotherhood And Hamas, May 25, 2017; for reactions in Saudi and Gulf press to the crises, see Special Dispatch No. 7007, Criticism In Gulf, Egyptian Press: Trump Administration Is Pro-Qatar, July 13, 2017;  Special Dispatch No. 6987, Senior Saudi Columnist Voices Unusual Position: Boycott Should Target Qatari Officials, Not Our Brothers The Qatari People, July 3, 2017; Special Dispatch No. 6996, The Gulf Crisis As Reflected In Editorial Cartoons, July 6, 2017.

[2] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), September 9. 2017.

[3] Al-Watan (Qatar), September 9. 2017.

[4] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), September 9. 2017.

[5] Al-Arab (Qatar), September 10, 2017.

[6] Wam.org.ae, September 10, 2017;  Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), September 9, 2017, Al-Raya (Qatar), September 8, 2017.

[7] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), September 8, 2017.

[8] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), September 10, 2017.

[9] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), September 13, 2017.