As my colleague Adam Garrie has written, Qatar has rebuffed the insanely worded ultimatum served on it 2 weeks ago by the Saudi led coalition. A meeting that coalition held thereafter in Cairo however failed to come up with any new measures. Instead it announced – weakly – that the current ineffective blockade of Qatar would be continued indefinitely.
It is difficult to imagine a less satisfactory outcome to this artificial crisis from the perspective of the individual who is beyond question its primary instigator: Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Here is what I wrote about this on 25th June 2017, shortly after the ultimatum was presented
It would be entirely in character for Prince Mohammed bin Salman – pressed by Rex Tillerson and the US State Department to clarify what Saudi Arabia actually wants from Qatar – to respond by doubling down, by sending an impossibly worded ultimatum to Qatar via the Kuwaiti mediators.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s previous behaviour points to someone who consistently and recklessly overplays his hand, and even if he is not actually planning a war against Qatar it could be that like a bad poker player he is responding to a challenge by raising his stake to ridiculous levels in the belief that no-one will then dare to call his bluff.
The question is what will he do when his bluff is called and the 10 day time limit in the ultimatum expires with Qatar still having failed to comply with it? Will he step back and permit the Kuwaiti mediators to do their work, or will he escalate further?
The list of demands in the ultimatum is so extreme that it is impossible to see how it can form the basis for a negotiation. If there is going to be a negotiated solution to this crisis – which Prince Mohammed bin Salman has single-handedly created all by himself – then the ultimatum will have to be dropped in its entirety.
In theory Saudi Arabia could try to sustain the status quo indefinitely by persisting with its air and land blockade of Qatar. However growing criticism of the blockade in the US might make that difficult, with US pressure probably increasing over time on Saudi Arabia to agree a compromise.
That would entail a climbdown, whilst doing nothing after the 10 day time limit of the ultimatum expires might anyway expose the ultimatum as too obviously a bluff.
That might be more than Prince Mohammed bin Salman can stand. He might fear that if were to climb down or fail to act on the ultimatum that would humiliate him before his father the King and the other Saudi Princes.
It would also surely lead to more questions being asked within Saudi Arabia about the quality of his judgement. Given that he is almost certainly already the target of criticism from some of the older Princes – including from some of his older brothers, who are being passed over for the throne – he might also fear that such a humiliation would weaken his position and damage his chances of succeeding his father.
At the time I wrote those words I was seriously concerned that when the deadline of the ultimatum passed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman would double-down further and try to avoid a loss of face by launching a military attack on Qatar.
Thankfully that has not happened, either because Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has had the wisdom to draw back or because, if the option of military action was ever proposed it encountered too much opposition from Saudi Arabia’s allies in the anti Qatar coalition (probably first and foremost from Egypt) and probably from within Saudi Arabia itself.
That however has left Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the situation of trying to sustain the blockade indefinitely, a position which on 25th June 2017 I said looked unsustainable.
It is impossible to see in all this anything other than a major diplomatic defeat and a personal humiliation for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Whether it is causing criticism of him within Saudi Arabia from the other Saudi Princes I do not know. However that both he and his father King Salman feel humiliated is shown by one telling fact: both of them have chosen to stay away from the G20 summit in Hamburg.
Whether as some are speculating that is because both of them feel that in the aftermath of this humiliation their position within Saudi Arabia is too insecure for them to take the risk of going away I frankly doubt. More likely both are simply too embarrassed to appear before the other G20 leaders in the aftermath of this debacle. If so then they have brought this humiliation and embarrassment on themselves.