Outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pauses while delivering remarks at the State Department in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg)

Tillerson's Firing Seen Delaying Push to Resolve Qatar Crisis

(Bloomberg) -- Rex Tillerson’s abrupt firing as secretary of state last week will likely undermine the latest U.S. push to resolve a nine-month standoff between Qatar and a Saudi-led alliance, viewed by the Trump administration as a distraction from efforts to curb Iran’s regional influence.

Shortly before President Donald Trump dismissed Tillerson, U.S. officials were working to convene Qatar and the bloc at an April meeting in Kuwait to reach an initial agreement on ending the dispute, according to two people briefed on the plan, including a senior Gulf official. The final deal would then be sealed at a summit in May hosted by Trump, the people said on condition of anonymity because the talks were private.

The departure of Tillerson, who had pushed for a negotiated settlement to the crisis from its outset in June, and his replacement by CIA chief Mike Pompeo, means Saudi Arabia and its allies will be under less pressure to end their boycott of Qatar soon, they said, an opinion supported by analysts.

“The Saudi government will welcome Pompeo as secretary of state, but overcoming the current stalemate in the Gulf will be a very difficult challenge for him to tackle,” said Hesham Alghannam, a Saudi researcher at Exeter University’s Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies in the U.K.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic and transport links with Qatar in June, accusing it of funding Islamist extremists and cozying up to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival. The charges have been repeatedly denied by Doha.

Qatari leaders say the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas has absorbed the shocks of the boycott, which briefly disrupted imports and squeezed banks as foreign deposits dropped.

At a briefing in Washington on Monday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir dismissed the importance of the dispute compared to issues such as Iran or Yemen, saying “Qatar is irrelevant.” Steps taken so far by Qatar -- such as signing a memorandum of understanding on counterterrorism with the U.S. and cutting funding to Hamas -- “are good steps but they need to do more,” he added.

For the Trump administration, the Middle East has been a key foreign policy issue, with much of it centered around supporting the Saudis and isolating Iran.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who meets Trump at the White House on Tuesday as part of an extended U.S. trip, has shown few signs he’s in any hurry to resolve the Qatar crisis, telling Egyptian newspaper editors this month on a visit to Cairo that it could drag on for a long time.

Tillerson’s mediation efforts had put him at odds with the Saudi bloc, which saw the former Exxon Mobil chief as too sympathetic to gas-rich Qatar. Arab News, a Saudi newspaper, celebrated his ouster, splashing “You’re fired!” -- Trump’s catchphrase from “The Apprentice” -- across its front page along with an editorial criticizing his policies.

U.S. officials say the administration’s position is unchanged in the wake of Tillerson’s ouster. A State Department spokesperson, who asked not to be identified discussing administration policy, said the U.S. still believes resolving the dispute is in all parties’ interests and that unity in the region is essential to confronting Iran and countering terrorism.

The standoff broke out after Trump visited Saudi Arabia in May. While Trump initially echoed the Saudi condemnation of Qatar, he has since moderated his tone. The president told a visiting Kuwaiti delegation in September that Gulf Arab monarchies can’t effectively counter the growing regional influence of Iran if they’re busy fighting each other, a Gulf official said at the time.

U.S. Military Base

U.S. and Qatari officials have said Qatar, home to a key American military base used in the fight against Islamic State, has made progress in cracking down on terrorist financing. Qatari ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani is set to visit Washington in April.

While Trump isn’t expected to go back to his initial position at the outset of the crisis, the appointment of Pompeo could complicate efforts to end the boycott, said Andreas Krieg, a lecturer in the department of defense studies at King’s College in London and a former adviser to the Qatari military.

The concern is that Pompeo has a “very black and white vision toward political Islam,” he said. Also, the vehemency of his opposition to the 2015 deal that lifted most sanctions on Iran in return for curbs on its nuclear program has matched that of Trump.

Mohammed Alyahya, a Saudi non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, said Pompeo and Saudi leaders share similar views on key regional issues. They will be expecting him to bring “more pressure on Doha to distance itself from Iran and Islamist groups around the region,” Alyahya said.

Foreign Minister al-Jubeir confirmed that the Saudi government sees Pompeo’s nomination as positive, adding that officials regularly met with him in his role as Central Intelligence Agency chief.

Pompeo, he said, “is a friend,” al-Jubeir said. “Mike Pompeo I believe will do a splendid job as secretary of state.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.