Rex Tillerson’s first big test as secretary of state has finally come

It’s Rex time.
It’s Rex time.
Image: Reuters/Yuri Gripa
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

When Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt decided to send a collective message to Qatar that Doha would now be isolated from its neighbors over terrorism concerns, my reaction to the news was cautious. Personal animosity and policy differences between the Saudis and Qataris are nothing new; indeed, they’ve happened several times before, most notably when Doha’s three Gulf neighbors recalled their ambassadors in 2014 in retaliation for what they considered Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood. That diplomatic crisis lasted for about eight months and was generally viewed as a minor irritant in the overall the Gulf Cooperation Council relationship. After Qatar agreed to commit to certain promises—like expelling Muslim Brotherhood figures from its soil—the Saudis, Emirates, and Bahrainis sent their ambassadors back to Doha. No harm, no foul.

This diplomatic crisis, nearly three weeks in, is far more serious than I and many others expected at the outset. Diplomatic relations have not only been cut by three of Qatar’s neighbors as a show of protest and defiance, but economic relations have been curtailed and travel restrictions by air, land, and sea have been ordered and enforced. The hope in Riyadh is that closing off much of the GCC’s airspace to Qatari-owned and operated aircraft and shutting down the Qatar’s only land border will convince the Qatari leadership to step back, deescalate the crisis, and come to the negotiating table with a weak hand. What it’s done instead is make the situation among the Gulf states even worse. The 13 demands that the Saudi-led coalition sent to the Qatari Foreign Ministry—a wish list that includes the shuttering of the Al-Jazeera television station, a decrease in Doha’s bilateral relationship with Iran, monetary reparations for their interference, and an abandonment of a Turkish military base on Qatari soil—was taken as an insult by the Qatari ruling family and an attack on Qatar’s sovereignty. Even Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recognizes that “some of the elements will be very difficult for Qatar to meet.” 

It’s difficult to project how this internal spat between Gulf Arab royals will be resolved, or whether mediation is even in the cards over the short-term. The UAE and Qatar have both been fighting their battles in the American press in an attempt to get the United States on its side of the divide. In the Wall Street Journal, the UAE Ambassador to the US laid out a damning indictment of what it labels as Qatar’s state sponsorship of extremism and terrorism in the Middle East. Qatar’s Foreign Minister didn’t take too kindly to the criticism, bashing the UAE public relations campaign as a “smokescreen” to the real issue at hand—that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states that are subservient to it are threatened that Doha pursues an independent foreign policy. 

One would have hoped that the GCC states could resolve the problem in-house. Kuwait has served as an intermediary and neutral powerbroker in past Gulf Arab disputes and it has generally worked out well. Unfortunately, Kuwait, Oman, and every other regional state that has offered assistance has had a far more difficult time getting all of the parties to cooperate in a spirit of dialogue. Every additional day that this arm wrestling match continues, the tougher it is for Kuwait to find an amicable way out of the impasse. 

Some amount of American participation may not be inevitable at this point in the crisis. Indeed, this is a perfect opportunity—perhaps the best opportunity—that Rex Tillerson has had to showcase his diplomatic talent to his colleagues in the Trump administration. 

Tillerson’s tenure thus far has been underwhelming from the perspective of how we traditionally measure a diplomat’s success: striking good deals for the United States. In fact, it’s difficult to point to an agreement that secretary Tillerson has signed that has been newsworthy. The former Exxon-Mobile chief executive has devoted most of his time to managing and downsizing the department he leads; interviewing candidates for senior State Department positions and ambassadorships (at a glacial pace); defending a 30% cut to the State Department’s budget to members of Congress; reassuring his counterparts in foreign ministries around the world that the United States under the Trump administration will remain a solid strategic ally. All of these jobs are unquestionably important, but they are generally left to the secretary of state’s deputies to handle. Some of this is just the normal course of doing business in the State Department and being America’s top diplomat. There isn’t anything historic in meeting foreign ministers in Europe during a NATO conference or reaching out to ambassadors on the phone.

Fortunately, if handled in a deft way, Tillerson could use the intramural competition in the Gulf to prove to his many detractors in Washington—and in the State Department itself—that he has the fortitude, personal relationships, and diplomatic magic to pull prevent the imbroglio from spiraling into a real regional crisis. 

To his enormous credit, Tillerson hasn’t had much to work with. President Trump’s public statements all but declaring Qatar a state sponsor of terrorism and his tweets taking credit for the economic and travel blockade have substantially limited Washington’s ability to act as an impartial negotiator between two very hostile sides. Tillerson has attempted to water down the president’s remarks with statements of his own, all of which have counseled for cool-headiness, dialogue, constructive cooperation, and “reasonable and actionable” demands from the Saudis, Emiratis, and Bahrainis. He’s reportedly held dozens of phone calls with Gulf Arab foreign ministers ever since the GCC-Qatar dispute erupted this month. That amount of activity illustrates quite vivid that Tillerson recognizes that Washington needs to do what it can to alleviate the tension and that a personal touch from him may be required to knock some sense into everybody. ”The GCC must emerge united and stronger to show the world the GCC’s resolve in its fight against violence and terrorism,” Tillerson said. But that unity can only emerge if everybody lowers the temperature, stops playing diplomatic games in the press, and drops all preconditions before serious negotiations can begin.

Can Rex Tillerson, a figure largely unknown and untested in diplomatic circles, leverage the tit-for-tat in the Gulf to his advantage? If he can, he will kill two birds with one stone: get US allies in the Middle East back on the same page, and enhance its own personal credibility in Washington at the same time. A successful mediation in the GCC issue would be by far Tillerson’s biggest accomplishment since he was sworn in. 

But if he can’t, those on and off Capitol Hill who already believe that Tillerson is overwhelmed by the job will have another reason to question his efficacy.