Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words and in this case, the two screenshots below might be worth closer to a million.
Both of these screenshots were taken on 13 January, 2019, thus clearly demonstrating that while a US search engine lists the UAE’s Embassy in Damascus as open – complete with a phone number, the UAE’s embassy in Qatar remains closed and is listed not only as closed but “permanently closed“.
These screen shots help to explain just how much inter-Arab relations have changed since the beginning of December, 2018. Prior to that time, many felt that Qatar and its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain (along with non-GCC member Egypt) might well eventually patch up their dispute dating back to 2017. Moreover, the conventional wisdom of the very recent past indicated that a reconciliation between Qatar and its antagonists would likely happen long before any GCC member would re-establish relations with a Bashar al-Assad led Syrian Arab Republic.
And yet, while Qatar has a longer history of partnership with its GCC neighbours than Ba’athist Syria has ever had with the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf, in late December of 2018, one saw the UAE and Bahrain re-open their long shuttered embassies in Damascus. Meanwhile, these respective embassies remain closed in Doha.
It is against this background that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the following during a press conference in Doha, in respect of trying to patch up the dispute between Qatar and its erstwhile partners:
“We are all more powerful when we are working together and disputes are limited. When we have a common challenge, disputes between countries with shared objectives are never helpful”.
The US has multiple reasons for wanting Qatar and the de-facto Saudi led GCC to re-establish normal relations. First of all, as Qatar drifts ever closer to Turkey and by some accounts also closer to Iran, the American aim to create a united Arab front against Iran and according to pro-Qatari media, also against Turkey, looks less and less credible as a small but wealthy Arab state has found that its top regional partners are non-Arab powers. Secondly, while Donald Trump has publicly supported Riyadh against Doha in the continuing dispute, the official line of the US State Department remains one of neutrality in the Saudi led boycott of Qatar.
As such, the fact that Saudi Arabia’s closest ally the UAE once again has a functioning Embassy in Assad’s Damascus but still does not have one in Qatar, is a source of embarrassment to an American government that has at least superficially tried to end the Qatar-Saudi led dispute, whilst also trying to isolate Assad’s government in Damascus as much as is still possible.
Thus, even though it is widely accepted that America’s close Israeli ally has passively facilitated the overall GCC (minus Qatar) reconciliation with Damascus that will likely see Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC restore normal relations sooner rather than later, the US Secretary of State is clearly trying to apply damage control to the damning optics of the situation. The fact of the matter is that America’s closest allies in the Middle East continue to have a united front against Qatar – one that officially, the US opposes. As Qatar hosts America’s Al Udeid Air Base, the largest single US base in the Middle East, the US has a clear strategic reason for wanting to ease the tensions between Qatar and its Arab “rivals”.
And yet, while the US continues to face resistance from its Arab partners over a would-be reconciliation with Qatar, this has not stooped the UAE, Bahrain and likely the Arab League as a whole from rushing to reinstate formal ties with Syria, a country whose diplomatic status is not likely to be normalised by the US any time soon.
What all of this demonstrates is that while the US remains a highly influential country in the GCC, it has not been strong enough to ease the Saudi/Emirati led feud with wayward member Qatar. Likewise, it could well be that Israel and Russia, rather than Israel and America played a heavy hand in jointly passively facilitating the Emirati led Arab reconciliation with Damascus. While Israel is clearly not an official supporter of Bashar al-Assad and almost certainly never will be, Israel also knows that so long as Assad is in power, so long will Russia continue to make sure that Israel’s illegal but de-facto purple line border with Syria is grudgingly respected by Damascus and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies.
In this sense, one could surmise that the UAE’s decision to restart relations with Damascus had more to do with the Russo-Israeli alliance the with the US-Israel alliance, as it remains uncertain that any GCC could act fully autonomously in respect of its relations with Damascus at this sensitive period in Middle East diplomacy.
Thus, while it would be false to say that the US is losing influence holistically in the Arab world, there are clearly other factors at play which include the following:
–Israel’s genuine rivalry with both Turkey and Iran that Tel Aviv is eager to gain further Arab support for
–Russia’s “security” assurances to Israel which have convinced Tel Aviv to passively facilitate its de-facto (though unofficial) GCC partners in normalising relations with Damascus
–The matter that while the Saudi led feud with Qatar is something of an old fashion inter-personal feud, the GCC-Syria feud of 2011, was always largely one of opportunity rather than one motivated by conviction
Therefore, when all is said and done, the situation of the UAE having an open and functional embassy in Damascus while still not having one in Doha – something that would have been inconceivable even a year ago, is now the reality that many pretend not to see.