Robert Amsterdam Image Credit: Supplied

Abu Dhabi: US interests are deeply rooted on both sides of the Qatar row, and the Donald Trump administration has presumably avoided taking sides to protect vital US relationships, a renowned international lawyer said on Wednesday.

Robert Amsterdam, whose blend of political advocacy and international law has led to his retention by several world leaders, spelt out why the US administration has been sending mixed messages to both sides of the Qatar rift.

“All of the Gulf nations are members of the US-led coalition against Daesh. Qatar hosts the largest US airbase in the region; more than 10,000 US troops are based at Qatar’s Al Udeid Airbase, which acts as US Central Command’s regional headquarters. Outside Qatar, all Gulf countries are purchasers of US defence equipment and are tied to US foreign policy priorities in numerous ways. Between 2009 and 2015, the US concluded $58 billion in arms deals with Saudi Arabia, and their financial ties are continuing to expand,” Amsterdam told Gulf News in an exclusive interview.

Amsterdam, who was detained more than once by Russian President Vladimir Putin, explained that during President Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia, he finalised deals totalling over $200 billion to go towards industries that will help Saudi Arabia diversify its economy. “Outside of financial and military ties with Gulf countries, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) represents one of the most stable multilateral bodies in the region. Both Qatar and its boycotting coalition are members of this council (except Egypt), meaning that the rift threatens the Gulf’s most stable unified international body. In other words, the costs of alienating any of the countries involved in the Qatar crisis are high,” Amsterdam said.

Amsterdam assessed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been involved in negotiations between the Saudi bloc and Qatar, further indicating that US interests hope to facilitate a rapid and peaceful resolution that maintains GCC regional stability and US ties with both Qatar and the Saudi coalition.

On how US anti-boycott laws could come into play in the Qatar crisis, Amsterdam said these laws say that US companies can be punished if they accept a foreign country’s demand to comply with a boycott that is not supported by the United States. The laws were designed to ensure that US private firms are not used as a tool by another country to advance their own foreign policy, and were initially passed to protect Israel when Arab League countries boycotted the small state in the 1970s.

So, unless the United States is participating in the boycott of Qatar, US companies can stumble into legal trouble by making an individual decision to boycott the small country. Given Trump’s ambiguous position on the crisis, it is not fully clear whether companies could violate anti-boycott laws because US participation in the boycott is in question.

Amsterdam argued that a US corporate boycott of Qatar as a means for stopping their alleged support for terrorist organisations would be a misguided policy decision.

Amsterdam suggested if the US is interested in limiting terrorist activity in the region, it must focus primarily on facilitating negotiation and maintaining unity within the GCC.

On why the US can’t afford to mismanage the Qatar crisis, Amsterdam said the GCC is arguably the most stable force in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE acting as de facto regional leaders and stabilisers. The stability of the Gulf and United States’ influence over the region’s most powerful countries are both invaluable to US strategic interests. The Qatar crisis puts all of this at risk.

Amsterdam stressed this crisis threatens the future of the GCC, the current balance of power in the region and, therefore, the future of US influence and control within the Middle East.

“As Iran and Turkey are taking advantage of the regional rift to strengthen ties with Qatar and counterbalance regional power against Saudi Arabia, the US must be aware that a shift in power away from US-ally Saudi Arabia will reduce US control and influence over the tumultuous region,” he said

Amsterdam added Trump has been clear that his foreign policy decisions are primarily motivated by limiting the spread and financing of terrorist organisations in the Middle East. If mismanaged, this crisis threatens to upset the regional balance of power and to diminish US influence in the Middle East.

“If the US hopes to maintain influence over the spread of terrorist organisations through multilateral decisions and partnerships with regional leaders, they cannot afford to mismanage this crisis,” Amsterdam said.

On whether the Qatar crisis will end anytime soon, Amsterdam said currently, there are no indications that either side is willing to or interested in reaching a compromise or resolution soon. Recent decisions on both sides point towards further escalation, not resolution.

“Saudi Arabia’s list of demands for Qatar included unreasonable requests, (severing ties with Iran, defunding Qatar’s global Al Jazeera news network, and severing government ties with the Muslim Brotherhood), and gave Qatar an unreasonable timeline of only 12 days to complete the excessive demands,” he said.

Amsterdam added, meanwhile, Qatar has hired a Swiss law firm to investigate and pursue lawsuits over the Saudi coalition’s violation of human rights, and has accused its boycotting countries of violating international law.

“On both sides, leaders have opted for escalation. Iran and Turkey have used this opportunity to show their support for Qatar by keeping the small country supplied with food and other vital goods, giving Qatar the means to continue to survive indefinitely,” Amsterdam said.