KUWAIT CITY — After three days of sipping tea with royalty on white couches in ornate palaces, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson left the Middle East on Thursday having failed to resolve a bitter dispute among regional allies.
His last stop in his effort at shuttle diplomacy was in Doha, the capital of Qatar, where he consulted Thursday with Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the emir of the tiny gas-rich country, about his meetings the day before with the Saudi-led coalition behind the embargo of Qatar — an action that threatens a variety of US priorities in the region.
A man of few words even among friends, Tillerson has been nearly mute in the presence of reporters during the trip, and he left for home without saying anything of consequence publicly about his negotiations.
A meeting Wednesday at the royal airport lounge in Jiddah with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir gave some hope of progress, as the two men huddled together for a long talk and then sat nearly knee-to-knee and simultaneously consulted their mobile phones.
But Tillerson left Jiddah on Wednesday night without even attempting the usual tight-smiled announcements of incremental progress.
As he left Qatar on Thursday, Tillerson shook hands with Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad Al Thani, the brother of the emir, who was overhead saying to Tillerson, “Hope to see you again under better circumstances.”
US administrations generally end with top officials less enamored with the Saudis than when their tenures began, and an accelerated version of that disillusionment now seems underway in the Trump administration.
President Trump’s exultant summit in Riyadh in May was a high point in relations between the two countries. But the Saudis’ decision two weeks later to abruptly cut off all land, air, and sea connections with Qatar — home to the largest US military facility in the Middle East — initially bewildered and has increasingly frustrated Tillerson.
The Saudis and their allies said the embargo was intended to stop Qatar from funding terrorism. But this explanation persuaded almost no one at the State Department since the Saudis are widely believed to fund schools and groups around the world that encourage Islamic extremism; 15 of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were Saudi, as was Osama bin Laden.
Trump, though, has repeatedly trumpeted the Saudis’ view and openly sides with them in the dispute with Qatar.
On Tuesday, Tillerson signed an agreement with Qatar to curb and monitor that country’s funding of groups tied to terrorism. The agreement proved, Tillerson said, that the Qataris had leapfrogged their Persian Gulf rivals by being “the first to respond to President Trump’s challenge at the Riyadh summit to stop the funding of terrorism.”
The Saudis and their allies responded Wednesday with a blistering news release saying that the agreement was not enough, and that the embargo would not be lifted. The countries have demanded that Qatar shut down the news network Al Jazeera, close a Turkish military base and downgrade ties with Iran.
Unlike all of his modern predecessors, Tillerson brought a rump contingent of two reporters on his plane; the rest of the journalists who cover the secretary of state had to fly commercially to the region in hopes of watching his progress.
And although he allowed photographers to chronicle his meetings at the beginning of each, he did not hold a single news conference or background briefing during the trip, as was once routine with previous secretaries of state.
Part of the reason a deal could not be reached may have something to do with Trump’s embrace of King Salman of Saudi Arabia; the president’s support is thought to have given the kingdom the confidence to start and then stick by the embargo regardless of Tillerson’s increasingly urgent and frustrated pleadings.
Whether the ongoing dispute between Qatar and the other US allies in the Persian Gulf has strategic consequences may become clear as soon as next week, when representatives from more than 70 countries united against the Islamic State will convene in Washington to discuss how to rebuild and govern Mosul and other areas of Iraq newly liberated from the group’s control.
The Trump administration, which has refused to engage in nation building, is hoping to rally a united Arab world to undertake the huge effort, but as the Qatar crisis demonstrates, such unity may be difficult to achieve.