By Karim Mezran and Elissa Miller
The rift within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is one of the most significant foreign policy challenges facing the Trump administration.
The conflict between Qatar on the one side, against Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, as well as Egypt, is based on divisions over key issues including political Islam and Iran’s quest for regional influence.
These divisions have fed long-simmering tensions between Doha and the Saudi-led bloc. As the United States seeks to navigate the Gulf crisis, it would be a mistake to ignore these underlying political tensions at the heart of this dispute.
A clear example of how these tensions have played out on the global stage is the ongoing proxy wrangling over Libya.
Libya has been suffering from a civil war that began in 2014 when the country split between rival factions based in the east and west, respectively.
The United States supported a U.N.-led negotiation effort that resulted in the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement in late 2015 and the establishment of an internationally recognized Presidential Council (PC). However, it has been unable to solidify its hold on the capital in Tripoli, let alone the rest of the country. It faces a major challenge from eastern-based strongman Khalifa Haftar, who is aligned with the House of Representatives (HOR) in the east.
It is against this backdrop that the divisions in the Gulf have played out most clearly in a proxy conflict. As a result of personal relations between the Qatari elite, authoritative figures in the Muslim Brotherhood, and Islamist-leaning intellectuals and personalities, Doha in 2011 openly supported the Libyan revolution and worked to strengthen forces in the country close to its Islamist allies. While Qatar briefly suspended its support for proxies in Libya in 2015 due to U.S. and U.N. pressure, it resumed this support in 2016.
The UAE and Egypt, while ostensibly supportive of the PC in official rhetoric, have provided Haftar with military support in his campaign to “free” the country from “all Islamists.” These states support Haftar’s anti-Islamist rhetoric because they have sought to isolate and crack down on certain Islamist groups, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood.
The HOR joined the Saudi-UAE bloc in cutting ties with Doha, and Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) accused Qatar of deploying forces in Libya and financing radical groups.
The Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB), which has been battling Haftar’s army and has fought alongside PC-backed forces, was one of the organizations on a terrorist sanctions list issued by the Saudi-UAE bloc accused of receiving financing from Qatar.
The proxy support provided by the Gulf to Libya’s rival parties is no secret. In March 2013, the U.N. panel tasked with monitoring the arms embargo on Libya said that in 2011-2012, Qatar violated the embargo by “providing military material to the revolutionary forces through the organization of a large number of flights and the deliveries of a range of arms and ammunition.”
The U.N.’s most recent report in June found that the UAE violated the embargo from 2014 to 2017 by providing aircraft and other military assets to Haftar. UAE airpower was also likely decisive in helping Haftar retake key oil facilities from the BDB in March.
The conflict in Libya presents the United States with an opportunity to mediate between the conflicting parties in the GCC rift. The United States is the only country capable of leveraging enough authority to convince Doha and Abu Dhabi to cease support for their respective proxies on the ground in Libya and come to the table in earnest search of a credible solution to the crisis in the country.
Progress on this front would establish a level of positive cooperation between the Qatar and the Saudi-UAE bloc that could lead to a more productive, U.S.-led dialogue aimed at ending the Gulf crisis.
While the State Department has been correctly reluctant to throw its weight behind the Saudi-UAE bloc, the current policy of keeping at an arm’s length is ineffective. Days before the Saudi-UAE bloc released its demands to Qatar, State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert noted that “The more time goes by, the more doubt is raised about the actions taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE” and whether they were about concerns of Qatari funding for terrorism or longstanding grievances.
This was a welcome shift from the immediate support expressed by President Trump for the Saudi-UAE bloc. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on Riyadh to ensure that its demands to Doha were reasonable and actionable. However, Qatar is unlikely to bow to the heavy list of demands issued on June 23. Doha insists that it will not negotiate with the Saudi-UAE bloc while faced with punitive diplomatic and economic measures.
In this context, rather than pressure Qatar to submit to the demands or call out the Saudi-UAE bloc for what are unlikely the “reasonable and actionable” demands Tillerson envisioned, the United States should present Libya as an opportunity to address the competing interests of the Gulf states.
By bringing the Gulf rivals together around the negotiation table on Libya, the United States could foster common ground between the Saudi-UAE bloc and Qatar. An improvement in relations surrounding the Libya issue could help build trust and find solutions for other major disagreements. Indeed, recent progress in Libya could provide an opening, such as the decision by the BDB, condemned by Haftar and his Gulf supporters, to demobilize and agree to join a formal, legitimate national army.
One of the demands issued by Saudi-UAE bloc to Qatar is to cease interference in the affairs of sovereign countries. This is a standard that must be met by all regional actors engaged in Libya; the proxy war has exacerbated tensions within the country and made dim any prospect for a peaceful solution.
By recognizing the conflict in Libya as one manifestation of Gulf regional competition, the Trump administration, in coordination with the U.N., could exert U.S. leadership to obtain Gulf rapprochement through the resolution of divisions over Libya.
Karim Mezran is a resident senior fellow with the Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
Elissa Miller is an assistant director at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.