A Trump blunder
Qatar hosts the largest US military base in the Middle East. A minor detail the United States president seems to have overlooked.
- Wednesday, 30 August 2017
Over the past few years, the Middle East has seen entire regions disintegrate as national borders have lost their significance and conflicts have concentrated around new dividing lines: Shia versus Sunni, Iranians versus Saudis, Arabs versus Kurds, Kurds versus Turks, regimes versus populations, terrorist organizations versus both regimes and populations, Russian allies versus US allies and so forth. All of these actors are involved in ever-changing constellations. This is true of Iraq as well as Syria, of Yemen as well as Libya, of Nigeria as well as Somalia. Where full disintegration did not take place, deep rifts have opened up, probably heralding further crises to come. The most recent rift, and potentially one of the most alarming for Western interests, is the “Qatar crisis” cutting through the Sunni bloc.
Saudi Arabia, the effective leader of the Sunni bloc, has recently adopted a more aggressive foreign policy stance than in the past. Part of the explanation for this shift lies in the fact that the Saudis appear to be losing ground in the region, with Iraq becoming a Shia state after the removal of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein by the USA, the Houthi insurgency (a Shia rebel movement) in Yemen, the destabilization of Bahrain (a satellite state of Riyadh where a Sunni monarchy rules over a Shiite majority), the failure of the Sunni majority’s insurrection in Syria and, generally speaking, the rise of Iran. Iran’s ascendancy as a regional power was made possible by the nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration and by the fight against ISIS, which expanded Tehran’s room for manoeuvring. But the succession to the throne has also contributed to Saudi Arabia’s emboldened foreign policy. After the death of King Abdullah in January 2015, the new King Salman came to represent the “hawks” of the royal family. In the summer of 2017, Salman named his son Mohammed as heir to the throne. The crown prince and defence minister is in favour of the war in Yemen and of taking a more aggressive line against Tehran.
In such a delicate context, Donald Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia last May backfired against American interests. Trump left the US determined to forge an alliance between Israel and the Sunni bloc (led by Saudi Arabia) in order to curb Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East. But the President of the United States ended up causing the Sunni bloc to fall apart and surprising Tehran with an unexpected gift. Galvanized by US support, Riyadh attempted to drag his Sunni allies into a confrontation with Iran, thus uncovering divergences that had remained more or less hidden up to that point. Qatar took on the role of dissident ally and became the main target of Saudi Arabia’s harsh retaliation.
There are many reasons for Doha’s isolation, including its economic ties with Tehran (Qatar and Iran share the world’s largest gas field, South Pars/North Dome in the Persian Gulf), its dislike of the Saudi leadership, its stance towards Israel (while Riyadh has a softer approach, Doha is closer to Hamas) and its vision for the future of the region. Indeed, it appears that Qatar is but the tip of an iceberg that includes a number of Gulf countries and other nearby states which would rather avoid a confrontation with Tehran and, as a matter of fact, would like to make the most of the Islamic Republic’s return to the international scene by doing business with the Iranians and increasing their economic exchanges. This is true of Kuwait and most certainly of Oman, which might help explain why Saudi Arabia’s reaction was so violent.
Riyadh severed its relations with Qatar, introduced economic sanctions and ordered the closing of the border (Qatar’s only land border is that with Saudi Arabia) as well as the suspension of transportation routes. These measures were far harsher than those adopted in 2014, when the Saud family created a diplomatic crisis in order to force Qatar to expel leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood (who then fled to Turkey). The different stance of the two countries towards this Pan-Arabic political organization is another major area of disagreement. Riyadh treats the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists (they are sworn enemies of the Saudi monarchy), while Qatar has often supported them, especially during the Arab Spring.
On this front of its diplomatic war with Qatar, Riyadh managed to gain the support of Egypt, another country which, since the military coup led by General el-Sisi, regards the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and resents Doha’s activism in providing assistance to the group. Riyadh’s small but rich allies – the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – are also on board. But the rift that emerged in the Sunni bloc around the issues of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood brought about a further result: Turkey entered the scene as an ally of Qatar. For years now, Ankara has been supporting the Muslim Brotherhood alongside Doha, especially throughout the Arab Spring. Moreover, Turkey and Qatar find themselves on the same side of various ongoing crises in the Middle East, for instance in Egypt, Libya and Syria. Last but not least, in recent times (more or less since it became clear that Erdogan lost the match against Assad, and even more so after the attempted coup of last July), Turkey has been strengthening ties with Iran and Putin’s Russia in an attempt to prevent the creation of an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria and beyond. Therefore, in this context, Turkey was the ideal partner for Qatar. And yet the extent to which Turkey is standing up for Qatar was unforeseen: Ankara pledged to provide military protection to Doha in the case of an attack and has already sent troops to its military base in the country. It is worth noting that the Turkish army is the second largest military force in NATO.
Thus, this tiny and yet super-rich Gulf State, whose ability to withstand Saudi pressure was initially viewed with great scepticism, found itself in the position to reject the demands presented by Riyadh in return for lifting the sanctions, demands which included shutting down its Al Jazeera TV channel, cutting its diplomatic ties with Iran, terminating the Turkish military presence in the country and repairing the damages caused to other Arab countries by its foreign policy. Iran was able to take advantage of this rift in its opponents’ court and is already trying to pull Qatar even deeper into its orbit, for instance by providing food supplies now that the land border with Saudi Arabia is closed.
All in all, it was a fiasco for US foreign policy. Qatar hosts the largest American military base in the Middle East, accommodating over 11,000 military personnel. When considering the possibility of encouraging an alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia, with a view toward returning to a more aggressive foreign policy stance toward Tehran, The Trump administration made the big mistake of overlooking the details. Now Doha is inevitably drawn to Turkey and Iran, with Russia in the background. These three countries have been involved in ongoing talks about the future of Syria and the region at large, and their agenda stands in stark contrast to Washington’s plans. Moscow and Tehran’s geopolitical influence has been ascendant in recent years, and it can only grow stronger with the current crisis of the Sunni bloc. Turkey has long distanced itself from the West, soured by the partnership between the US and Syrian Kurds and by the European Union’s criticism of Erdogan’s autocratic streak. Now Qatar might follow. These strategic swings might not be long-term realignments, and they are nothing that a new course in Western foreign policy could not reverse, but at the moment it is difficult to make accurate predictions. What appears certain is that in his eagerness for a confrontation with Iran, Donald Trump failed to notice the cracks in his own bloc, which now risks crumbling and being eaten away by Tehran (backed-up by the Kremlin), the same Tehran that was going to play ball fter having adopted a policy of openness in recent years.