Jared Kushner takes on Qatar blockade in Middle East ‘swan song’
Jared Kushner, the son-in-law and senior adviser to United States President Donald Trump, has travelled to the Gulf in the waning days of the Trump administration to seek final, longshot victories in US Middle East policy – including ending a Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, analysts have told Al Jazeera.
Kushner, who reportedly arrived in Saudi Arabia on Monday, is likely attempting late-stage achievements in the administration’s Middle East policy that has been defined by advancing Israeli interests and applying maximum pressure against Iran, observers said.
That encompasses ending the over three-year-long land, air and sea blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia and its Arab neighbours the Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – and uniting the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) against Tehran.
The blockading countries in June 2017 had accused Qatar of becoming too close with Tehran and supporting “terrorism”. Qatar has consistently denied those allegations and refused to comply with a list of 13 demands that included scaling back diplomatic ties with Iran and shuttering a Turkish military base in Qatar.
“I see all of [Kushner’s] agenda items connected to enhancing Israel’s interests and Israel’s position,” William Lawrence, an American University lecturer and a former senior State Department official under the administration of US President Barack Obama, told Al Jazeera. “They include continuing to maximise efforts against Iran by trying to solve the Gulf blockade of Qatar totally or in part.”
The US has in recent months overseen normalisation agreements between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan, and Kushner is expected to make a final attempt to secure a normalisation of ties between Riyadh and Tel Aviv.
Even if that objective, which is widely considered unlikely, is not achieved, Israel will loom large in any breakthroughs on the Qatar blockade, also known as the Gulf crisis, Lawrence said.
“To see Kushner’s visit as somehow a pro-Saudi or a pro-Qatar or pro-competition with Iran strategy, for its own sake, is to misunderstand what motivates Jared Kushner himself,” he said.
Lawrence noted that that the team accompanying Kushner to the region – which reportedly includes Middle East envoys Avi Berkowitz and Brian Hook as well as Adam Boehler, chief executive of the US International Development Finance Corporation – have been working primarily on Israeli normalistion agreements and isolating Iran.
They are not “people who’ve been working on the Gulf crisis,” Lawrence said.
Saudi showing ‘flexibility’
Kushner, who has been the White House’s point man in the region throughout Trump’s time in office, is expected to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) and also visit Doha to meet Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in the coming days, US media reported on Sunday.
The visit comes shortly after a post-US election tour of the region by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, which, according to Israeli media, included an unprecedented meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and MBS in the Saudi city of Neom that did not result in a normalisation deal.
Observers say Kushner’s attempts to resolve the Qatar blockade in the administration’s final days serve as a bookend to Trump’s initially incoherent response to the Gulf crisis, which occurred during his first year in office. Critics have said Trump’s actions emboldened Saudi Arabia and the UAE and failed to squash the diplomatic dispute in its earliest days.
“We cannot forget, when the crisis started, the statements by Mr Trump himself accepted the logic of confronting and isolating Qatar, even though he later changed his mind based on complaints from his own inner circle, and his own secretary of state and his own secretary of defense,” Khalil Jahshan, Executive Director of Arab Center Washington DC, told Al Jazeera.
The visit also comes as Riyadh, in recent weeks, has displayed “more of a flexibility than we’ve seen in the past” when it comes to resolving the dispute, Jahshan added, while “distancing itself from its main ally in the Gulf” the UAE, which has continued to take a hard line against Qatar.
In October, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said there may be a path to ending the rift in the “relatively near future”.
In early November, Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said there were no winners in the Gulf crisis and that Doha was hopeful it will end “at any moment”.
‘In Saudi Arabia’s court’
According to analysts, a Saudi breakthrough or concession in the Gulf crisis could give the Trump administration a parting victory while helping to pave the way for the next administration in the US. President-elect Joe Biden will take office on January 20.
In a dramatic shift away from Trump, Biden has signalled his intention to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal from which Trump withdrew in 2018. He has also vowed to take a harder line on human rights in the region than Trump.
“What is interesting to consider is the possibility of the Saudis giving sort of a parting gift to Trump that could maybe help them deal with the new environment in Washington, once Biden and [Vice President-elect Kamala] Harris enter the Oval Office,” Giorgio Cafiero, the CEO of Gulf States Analytics, a Washington, DC-based risk consulting firm, told Al Jazeera.
When it comes to possible concessions, particular attention has been paid to returning Saudi overflight rights to Qatar.
Qatar had previously sued the blockading countries over the matter, accusing them of violating a convention that regulates the free passage of its passenger planes through foreign airspace. The United Nation’s top court backed Qatar in the dispute in July.
Any major concessions are likely to come from Riyadh, Cafiero added.
“It’s more in Saudi Arabia’s court, because Qatar has moved on from its past alliances with the GCC states that have been blockading it,” he said. “For the past three and a half years, Qatar has found a way to move past this crisis.”
Observers say it remains unlikely that a comprehensive resolution between Saudi Arabia and Qatar will be reached before Trump leaves office.
“I suspect both the Saudis and the Qataris will, to some degree, be in a wait-and-see mode,” former State Department official Lawrence said, “to see if they can get more within the context of the Biden administration than they would have gotten from a departing Trump administration that has less and less leverage and power by the day and can do less and less for them in the subsequent months and years.”
“The lame-duck position of the Trump administration is a major mitigating factor on anything Kushner can accomplish,” he added.
However, he said, Riyadh and Doha could use the meetings to put forward proposals they hope will be communicated to the Biden team amid the ongoing presidential transition.
Nevertheless, the trip represents a personal “swan song” for Kushner, who has maintained a close relationship with MBS over the last four years, said Joshua Landis, the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University.
“This is his personal end of power. And then he is going to go back to being a real estate magnate,” he told Al Jazeera. “I think he wanted to give one last personal effort to move the ball down the road.”