Drama in the Middle East is something usually connected with the Arab-Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but not this time. The decision by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, UAE, Yemen and Libya to cut all relations with Qatar, virtually to completely isolate it, is a dramatic development with far-reaching potential implications, and already immediate effect. Let us be blunt here: Qatar is the formal target, Iran is the actual one. Let us be blunt again: these are six Arab countries, of which two are highly important, which took the plunge, but in actual terms, this is the U.S. which is behind it and a new Middle East big game is thus unfolding.
For many reasons, Qatar, which is a huge oil well with a TV network (Al Jazeera), living off the enslavement of foreign workers, deserved to be the target of the collective ire of its neighbors. The constant meddling in their affairs, the open diplomatic romance with Iran, the public and behind-the-scenes support for the Muslim Brotherhood and their Palestinian branch, Hamas, the incitement of Al Jazeera, were all good reasons for its bigger neighbors to put the Sheikhdom in its place. In diplomacy as in diplomacy, timing is of the essence and now was chosen to be the right time ― not coincidentally, after the Trump visit in the region.
The truth about the bad relations between the Obama Administration and Saudi Arabia and Egypt was an open secret to the open-minded Middle East observers who were not fooled by the honey words of the rhetoric of President Obama. While the Saudis and Egyptians were hostile towards Obama, something which in the case of the Saudis amounted to an obsession after the American-sponsored Iran nuclear deal, and in the case of Egypt, the Obama public flirt with the Muslim Brotherhood, they did not feel that they could express their suspicions and fears as openly as they wished for fear of an American backlash. This is old news now, as the Trump visit and the unfolding new American strategy in the Middle East seem to be in line with Saudi long-held expectations, also Egypt’s, though to a lesser extent. The chaos surrounding the White House overall performance is there, but in so far as the Middle East is concerned, there seems to be a coherent strategy with actions on the ground, not just fine words.
[T]he Saudis... feel that now they have the mandate from the U.S. to go after Qatar as part of a much more assertive approach about Iran.
First, there is a categorical targeting of Iran as the main, most active source of political instability in the Middle East. Then, the specific reference to Hezbollah and Hamas as dangerous terror groups. Third, is the new policy on the ground in South East Syria, where the American military is actively engaged in an effort to prevent the Syria-Iraq-Jordan border region from becoming an Iranian-Shi’ite infiltration route to Syria as part of the Iranian-led effort to create the Shi’ite crescent, a route leading from Tehran to Beirut and the Golan border between Syria and Israel. Fourth, the huge American-Saudi arms deal, which is totally directed against Iran, and fifth, the Trump Administration’s change of tone about the Muslim Brotherhood and the possibility of them being outlawed in the US ― something which pleases President Al-Sisi of Egypt. When put together, this is a strategy, though not without holes in the net, and the most significant one is the lifting of sanctions against Iran rather than tightening them further, a move which should please some business-eager American corporations. Another one is the lack of American action to stop the supply of American arms from the Iraqi Shi’ite army to Hezbollah. That said, the Saudis ― having to deal with Iranian involvement in Yemen, Bahrain, and their own Eastern Province Al Hasa, and the Egyptians dealing with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood ― feel that now they have the mandate from the US to go after Qatar as part of a much more assertive approach about Iran. Iranian initial reactions clearly indicate that the message is well understood there and possibly in Doha itself if we are to believe reports that the Qataris finally demanded Hamas to close its office there. If true, then it falls into the category of too little, too late.
Still, there is another element of the Trump strategy in the Middle East, which is in the very background of what is unfolding now. This is the Trump desire to include Israel in the overall Anti-Iran coalition, something which is very welcome in Riyadh, but one which requires a price from Israel, and this is to engage with a Trump attempt to revive the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. In other words, PM Netanyahu and Israel will have to pay with Palestinian coin for the right to be full members of the anti-Iran coalition. It may seem somewhat complicated, but this is the Middle East. Past experience tells us that grand designs seem not to work in the Middle East, but there can always be a first time, and we may be now following the Qatar drama in the early stages of another big Middle East game. Stay tuned.