America Has Much to Learn From Saudi's Failure to Subdue Qatar | Opinion

Rarely is the Middle East a source of good news. However, Tuesday, January 5 was an exception, when the region ended what turned out to be one of its most frustrating and needless spats—or, more accurately, agreed to begin the process of ending it.

For three and a half years, the small but influential Persian Gulf state of Qatar has been the black sheep of the Gulf Arab family—cut off from its immediate neighbors, condemned as a miscreant seeking to undermine the internal affairs of other Arab nations, and accused by some of the region's governments of being a terrorist-sponsoring state. In June 2017, weeks after President Donald Trump's state visit to Saudi Arabia, Riyadh and its partners in the Gulf decided they had enough and sought to punish Doha for what it perceived as its bad, unneighborly behavior (Qatar strongly denied all of the allegations leveled against it). Qatar's only land border with Saudi Arabia was cut, trade between Qatar and its Gulf Arab neighbors was severed, Qataris were expelled back to their homeland, and Qatari airplanes were barred from flying through Saudi, Emirati, Bahraini and Egyptian airspace.

The Trump administration and Kuwait have attempted to resolve the internal dispute ever since, culminating in this week's signing of an agreement that aims to close the book on this frustrating chapter in inter-Gulf relations. For the first time in over three years, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman openly embraced Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani on the airport tarmac like two long lost brothers, as if the period of intense animosity between them never happened. The exact details of the agreement have yet to be released, but according to public reports, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt will end their economic blockade of Qatar in exchange for Doha dropping lawsuits against each of them at the World Trade Organization. Diplomatic relations will also be restored.

For the United States, the stalemate in the Gulf may seem like a nuisance in a region more typically associated with multi-generational problems than air-tight solutions. But this entire affair provides U.S. officials with two lessons that, if operationalized, will help Washington avoid the same needless pitfalls that hindered Saudi Arabia's own negotiations with Qatar.

Lesson #1: don't waste precious time pushing maximalist demands. Diplomacy is the art of the possible. You know an agreement is relatively solid when it leaves all of the stakeholders at the table partially satisfied. In a genuine negotiation, nobody flies home with everything they want. Choices have to be made, priorities have to be set, and concessions have to be put on the table if the process is to progress. Sometimes the red-lines are simply too intransigent to breach; history is a graveyard of failed negotiations, where the parties were either to unable to bridge their respective national interests. But for a negotiation to even begin, all sides must be willing to conclude that trading at the conference table is a better way of meeting their goals than being stubborn or using force.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt never seemed all that interested in haggling. From the very start of the dispute, the coalition linked the end of the embargo to a series of ludicrous diktats Qatar had to meet if it hoped to resume normal diplomatic and trade relations. The list of 13 demands was so expansive in scope—close Iranian diplomatic missions; close the Turkish military base; shut down Al-Jazeera; align Qatar's foreign and security policies with the rest of the Gulf—that Doha saw them as insulting and quickly rejected the list. Those 13 demands stopped any inkling of a diplomatic offramp in its tracks, sullying the overall atmosphere for dialogue and playing into the hands of hardliners who were more interested in capitulation than compromise.

It turns out that even besieged countries, whether it be Qatar, Iran, Venezuela, or North Korea, are not wiling to surrender their sovereignty or subject themselves itself to public humiliation.

Lesson #2: decisions that may look good in the moment can turn out to be wildly counterproductive over time. The Saudis and Emiratis hoped and expected that their diplomatic, economic, and P.R. campaign against Qatar wouldn't have significant adverse effects for their own interests. The theory embedded in the Saudi and UAE strategy was that, unable to import basic necessities and ostracized from their neighbors, Doha would come to the realization that keeping themselves fat and happy was more important than pride and self-respect.

Unfortunately, this assumption proved wrong and discounted other possibilities, like Qatar learning to live with the pressure and indeed adapting to it. The blockade forced the Qataris to accept the reality that they were almost totally dependent on their Gulf neighbors for food. So Doha became more self-sufficient, constructing greenhouses to grow vegetables, importing over 20,000 cows from the United States to build their own milk-processing plants, and diversifying their investments. Qatar increased its relationship with next-door Iran, resuming diplomatic relations shortly after the embargo was enacted, boosting bilateral trade with Tehran by 181 percent in the first year of the embargo, and flying Qatari airlines through Iranian airspace at a tune of $130 million a year to bypass the Gulf. These are not exactly the results Riyadh and its partners were looking for—rather than strengthening its own leverage, the Saudi and UAE-led boycott gave Qatar an opportunity to strengthen its own capability.

The foreign policy community in Washington may believe the United States has the power to mitigate unintended consequences. But this would be a faulty assumption to gamble a policy on. Big powers, even extremely powerful ones, are not immune to the side-effects of its own decisions.

Here's to hoping the diplomatic breakthrough in the Persian Gulf is an omen to those in the U.S. who are or will soon be responsible for defending U.S. interests overseas.

Daniel DePetris is a columnist at the Washington Examiner, a contributor to the National Interest and a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.