Last year, he said that he would “seek harmony” in the Middle East as US commander-in-chief. But after his first visit to the region, tensions began to rise, especially in the Gulf. Now Trump’s flip-flopping is threatening the stability of the area, which holds some 50 percent of the world’s energy reserves.
On one hand, after long claiming that Saudi Arabia hated America and was behind 9/11, he now sees the kingdom as the bedrock of regional security and moderation, America’s best friend and foremost ally in the “war on terror”.
On the other hand, less than two weeks after calling Qatar a “crucial strategic partner” in his Riyadh speech, and boasting of selling it “beautiful” American weapons, he suddenly began to jeer against Qatar, accusing Doha of supporting terrorism.
To add to the confusion, Trump then offered to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Qatar and asked his secretary of state to calm the situation and urge restraint, which he did rather tactfully in a carefully worded public statement.
But less than an hour later, Trump accused Qatar of historic, high-level support of terrorism and undermined his foreign policy establishment in the process.
All of which begs the question: Why? Why the dramatic u-turn on Saudi Arabia, the confusion on Qatar? And what are the implications for the region?
Puzzling foreign policy
Some blamed the administration’s most recent flip-flop on the persistent foreign policy confusion in the Trump White House. Others detected complicity between the president and his secretary of state, suggesting that they have been playing “good cop-bad cop” with Qatar.
For his part, Trump claimed that he took the position against Qatar after his meetings in the region, where his counterparts told him of Qatar’s support for terrorism.
But what could the Saudis, Emiratis, Egyptians and Bahrainis say that the CIA, Department of State or the Pentagon didn’t know or couldn’t share with the president before his upbeat meeting with the emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani?
After all, Qatar has $30bn worth of investments in the United States and stands out as the host of the largest American military base in the Middle East, from which much of the “war on terror” is being fought in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Also, most of the trumped up charges against Qatar are either demonstrably thin, false or totally fake.
For example, the Band of Four accuses Qatar of supporting the Taliban because it opened an office for the Afghan insurgency, when in fact it did so at the behest of the US administration to facilitate peace talks.
Qatar has also been accused of supporting some of the anti-regime groups in Syria, but a number of its Gulf partners also did so. Moreover, General Joseph Vogel, chief of the US military’s Central Command, wrote that Qatar is a “key and critical” ally that could be of much help in facilitating a sustainable deal in Syria.
Hamas’ political presence in Doha was another item of complaint. But by allowing Hamas a political presence in their capital, the Qataris have had a moderating effect on the Palestinian resistance group. It’s perhaps worth remembering that Hamas won the last legislative elections in Palestine, which the Bush administration helped facilitate a decade ago.
He that is without sin…
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has rightly claimed Qatar has “a history of supporting groups that span the spectrum of political expression from activism to violence”. But who doesn’t do that in the Middle East? Washington also has such a record, and it is a very long and extensive one. Besides, it’s no vice to support those who seek freedom from occupation and oppression.
The same goes for accusations against Qatar “punching above its weight”, especially when it does so in the realm of soft power, like media, philanthropy and sport. Don’t tiny UAE and Israel, just like Saudi Arabia, punch above their weights in most controversial ways?
And then there’s my favourite accusation of Qatar “having it both ways” by presumably financing Al Jazeera and providing platforms for persons and groups hostile to US and Israel, and at the same time hosting the biggest US military base in the region. Assuming that’s a real issue, for that I say, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.”
It seems to me that’s traditionally what countries do, for ill or good. Some call it statecraft or a balancing act. Others refer to it as pragmatism or opportunism. But it’s certainly nothing abnormal in international relations, especially when it comes to smaller countries trying to stay afloat in stormy waters.
Also, which country involved in this whole mess doesn’t try to “have it both ways”? Could it be the Egyptians, who condemned Hamas and opened an indirect channel to the Palestinian group in Gaza? The Emiratis, who accuse Qatar of interfering in other countries’ affairs, while intervening militarily in Libya, Yemen and other countries? Could it be the Saudis, who speak of regional stability while waging a reckless war in Yemen? Or be it the US, which supports its NATO ally, Turkey, while simultaneously arming its nemesis within, the PYD/PKK?
How do any of these even begin to compare with what Qatar does?
To be sure, Qatar has made a few mistakes of its own in the early days of the Arab Spring, but it also seems to have learned from past mistakes, notably the idea that diplomacy trumps war, and mediation, openness and reform is the safest and best long-term bet in an evermore complicated region.
And Qatar is back at doing what it does best. Like a Geneva in the Gulf, it hosted mediation efforts among various conflicting parties, be they Palestinians, Lebanese, Sudanese, Afghans, Libyans or others; certainly more than any other state in the region. And whatever leverage it has over so-called extremist groups, it has used effectively to resolve, not inflame conflict.
Alas, some of Qatar’s more hostile neighbours seem to have concluded the opposite after their adventures in Yemen as well as Libya and Syria. After decades of destructive wars, they’re now advocating open confrontation with Tehran.
To be sure, Qatar has long sided with Saudi Arabia in opposing Iran’s sectarian policies in the region, especially in Iraq and Syria. But like most other Arab and Western nations, it opposes an open showdown with Iran in the Gulf, and rejects the idea of regime change there – especially as the Iranians continue to show support for moderate governments that are frequently at odds with Iranian extremists and are more concerned with building up their country than with regional hegemony.
And yet, the US president has allowed Riyadh to take draconian measures against Qatar even after it became clear that their pretexts are false and their consequences, intended or otherwise, are leading to serious escalation and instability in the region.
So if it’s not about Qatari behaviour, what is the crisis about and why has Trump inflamed it?
Bribed, duped or complicit?
One grudge Trump might have against Qatar lies in the fact that, unlike the Emiratis and the Saudis, who invested in his properties and gave him generous concessions, it didn’t give Trump business incentives that would allow him to expand his brand in the country.
But such banality couldn’t really be the reason why the US president was so prone to ride the anti-Qatar bandwagon, could it? Alas, and for the record, during his campaign, Trump did boast about liking the Saudis for buying $40 million apartments in his towers.
Considering his tendency to value money above principle, and everything else, the US president was clearly “bribed” by his Saudi hosts during his visit to the country. They offered the Trump administration hundreds of billions of dollars of lucrative arms purchases and promises of investment before asking their guest to support them against their nemesis, Qatar.
Indeed, the Saudis exploited Trump’s short-sighted consent to outsource his campaign against “Islamic terrorism” in order to frame Qatar. They also used this opportunity to deflect any and all US accusations directed at the kingdom in the US Congress and media.
But Trump might’ve also had an agenda of his own that correlated with that of the Saudis and Emiratis. Trump made a strategic decision to reverse Obama’s policy towards the Middle East and has committed his administration to support Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt and the UAE against Sunni extremism and Iranian clerics.
This meant creating the right conditions for rapprochement between Israel, the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia; the so-called “outside-in” approach to resolving – or rather dissolving – the Palestinian issue. The fact that this effort is headed by Trump’s inexperienced, radically Zionist son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who maintains close relations with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, speaks volumes. We are witnessing an “unholy trinity” that’s bound to destroy any hope for regional stability.
Worse, instead of leading an already quite disastrous regional coalition against Iran, Trump lazily entrusted this new strategy to his reckless junior allies. This is exactly what his predecessor, President Barack Obama, rejected. Obama refused to be dragged into petty squabbles and regional confrontations. He may have been weak on Syria, but he was smart to decouple US strategy from that of its regional clients, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
In short, Obama refrained from leveraging US power to these unsavoury or inexperienced regional players, which would have been utterly dangerous, if not totally suicidal.
This might explain the reason why the experienced men and women at the US State Department and the Pentagon didn’t go along with President Trump’s unconditional embrace of Riyadh, and warned against drinking Abu Dhabi’s Kool-Aid.
Indeed, Secretary Tillerson was “mystified” by the sudden escalation and took the initiative from the White House to lash out at Saudi Arabia and the UAE for their procrastination and lack of seriousness in articulating their grievances and presenting their demands to Qatar. He also questioned the motivations behind the crisis, arguing that they manufactured the crisis with Qatar to settle old grievances that have nothing to do with terrorism or security.
Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, who has ample experience in the Gulf region, insisted that the demands from Qatar must be “reasonable and actionable” in order to bring a swift end to the crisis and avoid compromising wider US interests.
Interestingly, since Tillerson publicly reprimanded Saudi Arabia and the UAE for their procrastination, President Trump has (thus far) kept quiet and allowed his more qualified foreign policy chiefs to handle the crisis with caution and maturity.
Indeed, the White House seemingly made another u-turn last week, saying that the Gulf crisis was a “family issue” rather than an international crisis about supporting terrorism.
Wait! What! A family feud? Really?! So what about accusing Qatar of “historic high-level support of terrorism” and giving the green light to the Emirati and Saudi leaders to behave recklessly? Is it really possible to classify this crisis as a “family issue” after the Band of Four exploited Trump’s folly to besiege Qatar, split the GCC, and plunge the region into a downward spiral?
The damned demands
When a list of demands that the Band of Four say Qatar must comply with in order to end the crisis was finally released, it turned out to be neither reasonable nor actionable. Indeed, there’s a general consensus that the demands in the 13-point list are anything but “measured and realistic”, to quote UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
If anything, the wording, tone and sweeping nature of the document signal total ignorance of international law and the UN charter. The text underlines Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s unmasked intention to take control of Qatar’s sovereignty and independent foreign policy.
The assumptions in the list, such as Qatar’s support for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, known as ISIS) or al-Qaeda, are clearly baseless. And contrary to US insistence on evidence to support their accusations, there was absolutely nothing in the document to support these outrageous claims.
The Band of Four demands that Qatar downgrade diplomatic relations with Iran, even though the UAE is Iran’s leading trading partner in the GCC, and the other GCC members, Oman and Kuwait, nurture stronger diplomatic relations with Tehran than Qatar.
And they demanded that Qatar round up all opposition figures from their countries in contravention to international humanitarian law, and demanded that Qatar treat the Muslims Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, not a mere opposition group, as seen by most countries of the world. Qatar, like most or all Western nations, has long warned of the dangers and implications of sweeping generalisations and the labelling of popular political opposition groups as “terrorist”.
The Band of Four regimes also require Qatar to shut down a modest Turkish military base it has been hosting for over two years, while continuing to host a US base. How is this a logical demand given that the UAE is hosting a French military base and Bahrain an American naval base?
But the demand that smacks of total hypocrisy and, frankly, stupidity, is the one that calls for an immediate shutdown of Al Jazeera, its affiliates and all other media outlets that are presumably supported directly or indirectly by Qatar.
These demands reflect Saudi, Emirati, Egyptian and Bahraini intolerance for difference of opinion and press freedom. These countries are attempting to silence respectable media outlets when they themselves finance and support propaganda outlets that are infamous for their hate and sectarian speech.
Last but not least, the demand that Qatar complies with all 13 conditions in 10 days, and also consent to provide monthly compliance reports, underline the obvious fact that the Band of Four is not willing to resolve the crisis for anything short of the total surrender of Qatar’s sovereignty.
All of this begs the question: Why is the Band of Four so eager to suppress Al Jazeera and Qatar’s independent foreign policy?
Another major Gulf conflict?
When Tillerson finally weighed in on the list of demands this past weekend, he said some are difficult to meet and others may work as a base for long-term dialogue. But that’s just a diplomatic way to say the demands are not actionable, measured or realistic.
Now the Band of Four is threatening Qatar with “divorce” if it doesn’t swiftly and fully comply with its demands, which clearly demonstrates that this crisis is not a simple “family feud” or a rift caused by Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism.
In reality, this quarrel has little or nothing to do with combatting terrorism. These four regimes are responsible for the death of tens of thousands, and hold tens of thousands of political prisoners. They will not stop until they erase any and all traces of the Arab Spring and the ideas it envisioned in the minds of Arabs; namely, justice and freedom of speech. These dreams may “contaminate” the peoples of the Gulf and the rest of the Arab world.
They insist on shutting down all forums that give voice to the ideas of the Arab Spring, including Al Jazeera, and on ending Qatar’s assistance or support for anyone or any group that survived the counterrevolution in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world.
Unfortunately, despite their dark, repressive and reactionary nature, these measures in effect complement the White House’s embrace of Arab “thugs, dictators and strongmen” at the expense of their peoples in order to narrowly advance Trump’s pro-Israeli, anti-Iranian and anti-Islamist agenda in the region.
Unless the US and European foreign policy establishments restrain the Trump presidency from taking more reckless steps, we may be heading towards more regional chaos and conflict.
After all, the blowbacks from another major showdown in the Gulf will worsen Western and Arab security alike. ALIKE.
Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera. Follow him on Facebook.