By backing Saudi Arabia’s vision of the Middle East and boosting the Saudi-Israeli entente against Iran president Trump has sparked a geopolitical earthquake in the region, especially within the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt cut ties, attempting to isolate tiny but influential Qatar, accusing it of sponsoring terrorism. At the same time, the de facto Saudi-Israeli axis labels Iran an immediate existential threat, drawing their American ally back into the Middle East, parenthetically dumping on it the costs of this geopolitical strategy.
President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, with its mutual flattery and highly touted, though still theoretical, multibillion dollar deal, has given carte blanche to Riyadh’s search for regional dominance. After suppressing minorities and other voices of dissent, the Saudis are intensifying the war against Yemen with further carpet bombing, deepening the famine in the most populous country of the Arabian Peninsula, and blocking access to Qatar by air, land and sea, launching a de facto war against it.
In a shocking performance even by his own standards, President Trump in a Washington speech and via Twitter tore into Qatar with inflammatory language, calling it a State Sponsor of Terrorism, while repeating generic accusations against Iran. Gradually, the outlines of a geopolitical plan seem to be forming: Helping Saudi Arabia dominate the Arabian Peninsula by subordinating the Yemenis and subduing Qatar and, with Tel Aviv’s tacit accord, possibly attacking Iran, moving first on Iran-linked Syrian and Iraqi militias before moving directly against Iran itself. Perhaps fighting ISIS is no longer the top priority.
Behind the Saudi-Qatari Split
Between Qatar and Saudi Arabia (as well as the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt) there are several controversies. Qatar – 11,000 square kilometers with a population of 2,500,000, half of them foreigners – is the world’s top exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and shares with Iran the largest natural gas field on the planet, South Pars. One of the world’s richest nations, Qatar is a crucial supplier of LNG to Asia and Europe, with massive investments in Europe through its sovereign wealth fund. Qatar’s wealth tickles many appetites, including Trump’s, who would like the US to replace Qatar as global supplier; and here perhaps is the real reason for Trump’s tweet-storm against the tiny country. To all this must be added the fact that Qatar hosts the US Central Command (CentCom) base in the Middle East.
There is competition among young Arab princes, especially between the powerful 31 year old Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman and 37 year old Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Emir of Qatar. Between Bahrain and Qatar there are also disputes, while the UAE would have the Americans to move their CentCom to the UAE. Qatar admits supporting the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, but denies backing Terrorism; it maintains relatively good relations with Iran, even while keeping an open channel with Israel. This playing to all sides upsets the Saudis, whose forma mentis demands obedience; still, it is not the deepest cause of the Saudi-Qatari schism.
The Split within Sunni Islam
While the economics of natural gas export and related trade management are important, the Saudi-Qatari split is primarily ideological: A Muslim Brotherhood approach based on participation and elections even though in illiberal Islamist form (Turkey, the Egypt of Morsi), vs. Absolutist rule – whether by a military elite (the Egypt of General al-Sisi) or a Salafist tribal petro-aristocracy (Saudi Arabia) or by feuding families (UAE, Bahrain, Qatar) – that rejects participation and elections. It seems an illiberal democracy opposing an undemocratic liberalism. Thus, the Muslim Brotherhood oriented Turkey of Erdogan supports Qatar, while the Egypt of General al-Sisi is aligned with the Saudi coalition.
The blockade of Qatar in reality is the product of the ideology and politics of the Saudi-Egyptian approach, which has the tacit support of Israel and the overt and inflammatory support of Trump.
Trump’s Friendship with the Saudis and his Rhetoric on Qatar
Could Saudi Arabia be classified as a state that combats terrorism? Is Qatar a state sponsor of terrorism, as president Trump affirms? There is evidence that Qatar has been and still is a donor to several more or less Muslim-Brotherhood oriented movements and some extremist groups with Jihadi activity, so to some extent Trump is right. Yet if the natural gas aristocracy Qatar has tried to instrumentalize Muslim-Brotherhood oriented Islamist movements, Saudi Arabia is the Salafist tribal Oligarchy par excellence. Through its network of madrasas and religious schools it manages financially and especially ideologically all Wahhabist mosques around the world. Wahhabist clerics instruct and inspire Salafist-Jihadi groups and cells. Terrorist groups including al-Qaeda and Da’esh (ISIS) are in some degree offspring of Wahhabism, which is the ideological pillar of the house of Saudi. Here, then, President Trump consciously promotes alternative facts, because he knows that leaked cables largely demonstrate the ideological and financial links between the Saudis and Salafist-Jihadi groups. It is well known that 15 of the 19 terrorists of 9/11 were Saudi nationals, with links to the Saudi establishment, while German intelligence reports that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states directly fund Islamic extremism in Germany.
If president Trump thinks Saudi Arabia can be engaged to promote stability by ceasing to export teachings that transform a universal religion into an ideology of violence, he must ask the Saudis to cease financing Wahhabist mosques and centers around the world and have all its top Wahhabi clerics publicly and officially condemn terrorism.
Trump’s Version of Reality
At the Brookings Institution, Bruce Riedel notes Trump’s vaunted multibillion dollar deal with the Saudis is fake news – mostly Letters of Interest dating from the Obama administration. The Wall Street Journal reports some real news: Trump’s hotel received money from a Saudi-connected lobbying campaign. The UAE and Saudi Arabia pledge $100 million to a World Bank global fund promoted by Ivanka Trump. Thus the political and the personal coincide; Thus Trump labels Qatar a state sponsor of terrorism, yet exonerates – nay, lauds – Saudi Arabia, the primary source of Salafi-Jihadi teaching, and supports its regional competition with Iran, ignoring the message Iran’s voters just sent in re-electing President Rouhani, a realist-moderate whose government not only respects the Nuclear Agreement fully, but offers détente with the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, proposing negotiations to stabilize Syria and Iraq and marginalize terrorism. Worse: As Tehran is under terrorist attack by Da’esh (ISIS), Trump again calls Iran a state sponsor of terrorism and blames it for the attacks.
Trump’s Broader Strategy
It seems Trump’s deal with the Saudis runs like this: Trump will support the Kingdom’s absolutist, theocratic oligarchy, and its aggressive geopolitics – the belligerence against Yemen, the effort to subjugate Qatar, and the competition with Iran, which Trump accuses of terrorism even as Iran and its linked militias linked effectively fight ISIS; in turn, the Saudis show themselves ready to put at Trump’s disposal Qatar’s natural gas resources. Trump likely feels that Saudi Arabian dominance on the Arabian Peninsula, Riyadh-Tel Aviv entente, and diminished Iranian influence would give him control of the energy resources of the Persian Gulf and Middle East, with repercussions in Europe and China as its final consumers.
In that light, it does not seem coincidental that Angela Merkel of Germany and Shinzo Abe of Japan travel to Russia to sign an Energy Agreement, while the EU demands respect for the Iran Nuclear Agreement and China openly entertains future membership by Iran into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Further pressure on Iran will push the historically western-oriented country into the SCO, changing the global balance of power, and not in favor of the US.
It is not difficult to understand that diplomacy within a multilateral framework of collaboration offers more upside at lower cost than constant zero-sum competition and recourse to force. Investing in détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran and convincing Israel to find a just and sustainable solution for Palestine, while respecting agreements such as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), keeping commercial channels open, and promoting a culture of civilian law surely would diminish the influence of ideological terrorism universally and thereby boost security and the global economy.