Donald Trump has expressed he wants to succeed where every former President has failed in the Middle East; creating a lasting peace between Israel and its neighbors. He should probably just settle for stability in the Middle East for the remainder of his term.
The fun began less than a month ago when the Saudis hosted Donald Trump and 50 Muslim leaders in Ridayh. Showing their economic and cultural power, the Saudis were able to rope almost every major Muslim nation to come to the summit. The summit was meant to show the Muslim world stands in solidarity with Trump and the West in opposing Iran and terrorism. Instead, it simply notched a foreign policy visit checkbox for Trump and foreshadowed a splintering in the Muslim world.
The United States has always occupied a slightly awkward position between two major Muslim states, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In fact, these are the only two Wahhabi states in the Middle East. Needless to say, they do not like each other much.
Qatar has always been an annoyance to the Saudi Royal Family. Qatar has crushed dissent at home but encouraged it abroad. The Saudi Royal Family blames Qatar for domestic terrorism problems at home.
Qatar shares a major natural gas deposit with Iran and as a result has been a major voice in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for keeping ties with Iran. Saudi Arabia has always viewed Iranian hegemony as a threat to regional and national stability. Thus, Qatar’s alliance with Iran is a threat to Saudi interests.
The Trump administration has yet to publicly take a side in this spat and for good reason. The Trump administration needs Saudi support to curb Iranian influence but the US also has a major base in Qatar. Talk about being in between a rock and a hard place.
Regionally, it seems you can break down the various factions in this spat into three camps. The first is the Saudi-Bahrain-UAE camp, which has severed ties and closed their borders to Qatar. The second faction are Kuwait and Oman, the neutral parties trying to mediate this dispute. Being so small and westernized, Kuwait has good reason to be playing the moderator. The last faction is the Qatar-Iranian camp.
Reflecting the factional nature of the Middle East, Iran was quick to offer its support to Qatar. The move was Iranian officials way of sticking it to the Saudis who they blame for the ISIS terrorist attack in Tehran. Iran has also accused the Saudis of supporting Sunni dissidents in Kurdish and Arab communities in Iran against the government.
The Saudis in turn have their reasons for wanting to quell Iranian expansionist tendencies. Along with threatening Saudi control of the region, Iran has been offering increasing support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen, where the Saudis have been unable to help the local government gain full control of the country. Additionally, Iran has been involved in exploiting Saudi weaknesses in Iraq and elsewhere.
Further muddling the picture is Turkey taking the unprecedented step of deploying troops in defense of Qatar. Ironically, a century ago a former Saudi King, Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, helped engineer the withdrawal of the Ottoman Empire from the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf in coordination with the British. Now, following Saudi action in Yemen and Qatar, the return of the Turkish army seems assured.
Another player in this divide is Egypt who has backed Saudi Arabia. This is mostly self-interest. The Saudis have largely backed the Muslim Brotherhood’s community efforts and fully support the latest government in place.
Due to their power and cultural dominance, many poor African nations such as Eritrea and The Maldives have backed the Saudis. But, beyond geographic proximity, many Muslim nations are staying out of the fray. Despite signing friendship agreements with Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Indonesia are not ending ties with Qatar.
Pakistan is trying to play mediator just as Kuwait is. Pakistan has thousands of its citizens living and working in Qatar and Saudi Arabia so they have a vested interest in the resolving the crisis. Good luck with that.
Saudi foreign policy has historically been cautious and risk averse. The nation has preferred to use its economic and military might in indirect ways to collect victories. Money resolved most issues the latter could not.
But the Saudi Royal Family recently underwent a changing of the guard so to speak and new King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has let his more hawkish son, Muhammad bin Salmon, adopt a much more belligerent defense policy. The signature action of this policy change has been the two years plus old war in Yemen that drags on. The UN calls it the worst humanitarian crisis in the world as millions of civilians are caught in the cross-hairs and lack access to food and clean water. Saudi Arabia cannot walk away from the conflict, otherwise it would lose face, but the longer the conflict drags on the more Iran wins by siphoning off Saudi resources and attention in a fruitless effort.
Trump does not have a ton of clout in the Muslim world. He has the solid backing of Israel, but other than that the US is largely isolated in the region. Even the Afghan government is keeping the new administration at arm’s length.
Still, Trump has tried to make inroads. His meeting with the Saudis last month was designed to show allies in the region the US has their backs. Since Trump has criticized the Iranian Nuclear Deal, it makes sense the Saudis would embrace him on that alone. But, Trump also okayed a $350 billion arms deal over 10 years, partly to show Iran they do not have an any semblance of an ally in the White House anymore.
Unlike Obama, Trump has shown little interest to date in pushing Saudi Arabia to expand civil rights. He also has been more willing to back traditional US foreign policy doctrine that operates on “backing the devil you know over the one you don’t.” Just more reasons why the Saudis would embrace Trump.
But while Trump is more friendly to Saudi Arabia than his predecessor, Congress is not. Case in point, when the last Saudi arms deal was approved last year in the Senate , over 70 Senators voted yes. Less than a week ago, 20 Senators switched sides and the chamber only approved a modest half billion dollar deal to the Saudis by a 53-47 margin.
Saudi Arabia is not doing itself any PR favors in the US by continuing the war in Yemen. By contrast, Qatar has very publicly withdrawn from Yemen and recently inked a deal for 36 F-35 fighter jets from the Pentagon.
In a likely bid to promote unity in the region the administration has backed Saudi Arabia. But, at the same time, Trump’s national security team is trying to keep their base in Qatar open and preserve existing air access agreements that are allowing them to bomb ISIS strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
Nobody is perfect in this scenario. Saudi Arabia supports secretarian and extremist groups when it suits their interests. So does Iran. So does Qatar. But this puts the US in an extremely untenable position.
The US has been allied with Saudi Arabia since 1945, an alliance with origins in preventing Nazi and then Communist expansion into the region. The alliance has allowed the US to confront many issues from Communist expansion to Saddam Hussein to Al-Qaeda. The US cannot throw away such an alliance.
Nor can it ignore the mistakes the Saudis are making or the strategic disadvantage it would find itself in if Qatar closes down the US base in the nation. Mideast peace is a pipe dream if we cannot even maintain a solid presence in the region.
Things may get worse before they get better. The Middle East has always been a mess but Saudi bullying and incompetence combined with Qatari game-playing and Iranian meddling has made this situation potentially explosive. Right now, closing borders and fighting proxy wars in other counties is as far as the scenario has gone. But that could change if Saudi Arabia feels it needs to use its military and believes it can rope the US into the conflict. In such a scenario, all parties involved lose!