Amidst scandals and media squabbles at home, United States President Donald Trump’s agenda in the Middle East finally broke through the news cycle this summer during his widely-publicized trip to the Gulf nations. The famous businessman demonstrated his desire to cut some deals, including some interesting — and vacillating — positions on the recent sanctions by other Arab nations against Qatar. The events of that trip were highly scrutinized and alarmed some critics, but despite his reputation as a wild card and at times zig-zagging actions, thus far Trump’s handling of the situation in Qatar is an indicator that he may be more effective at foreign policy than he’s been given credit. If stability continues, it may also bode well for his stature among Middle Eastern nations.
Qatar is a pivotal component of the U.S. fight against ISIS, housing Central Command’s regional headquarters. Last week two U.S. envoys have been dispatched to Qatar to deal with escalating tensions since the small-but-powerful nation declined to comply with 13 demands made by Arab neighbors, including closing a Turkish military base and shutting down Al Jazeera. The situation has been mired in tough talk, but relations have remained relatively neutral considering the seriousness of the threats involved. As the U.S. State Department navigates its strategy, things could still get ugly depending on what happens next.
Even though Trump’s bait-and-switch strategy has worked so far, it would be wise to expect the unexpected. We’ve already seen a number of eyebrow-raising moments as the conflict surrounding Qatar developed.
The U.S. envoys to Qatar come on the heels of an abrupt and short-lived break in diplomatic relations. On June 5, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt and several other Arab countries announced their grievances with the emirate accusing it of supporting terrorism and trying to destabilize the situation in the region. Qatar was subjected to a blockade, and former close allies announced the cessation of multi-directional relations. In addition, Saudi Arabia also excluded Qatar from the ruled Arab-led coalition in Riyadh.
Tel Aviv supported the anti-Qatar campaign. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that “the diplomatic rift between Qatar and fellow Arab countries in the region opens up opportunities for cooperation in the fight against terrorism.”
Trump created a stir when, despite the longstanding allied relationship between the two countries, he took credit for the organized sanctions, saying that Qatar “unfortunately has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level.”
It is interesting that the largest Arab monarchies broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar shortly after Trump arrived in Saudi Arabia on his first foreign visit. In Riyadh, Trump spoke to the leaders of the 55 Muslim countries, giving a speech in which he harshly criticized terrorism and the states that support it.
During the visit to Riyadh, Trump also closed a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, the largest in history. The agreement provides for the modernization of the armed forces of Saudi Arabia, including the improvement of the air defense systems of the kingdom and the localization of the production of other types of weapons. In addition, the United States decided to supply Air Riyadh armament for $350 billion over the next 10 years.
After Trump’s very successful visit to Saudi Arabia, unexpectedly on June 14, Qatar made a deal with the United States to secure F-15 fighters worth $12 billion. This news surprised many who expected Trump to remain in solidarity with Arab sanctions against Qatar.
After this deal, the U.S. launched into the Gulf nations taking action against Qatar. Heather Nauert of the State Department said, “Now that it has been more than two weeks since the embargo started, we are mystified that the Gulf states have not released to the Qataris, nor to the public, the details about the claims they are making toward Qatar.”
According to Nauert, “The more that time goes by, the more doubts are raised by the actions taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE… At this point, we are left with one simple question: Were the actions really about their concerns regarding Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism? Or were they about the long-simmering grievances between and among the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries?”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson further complicated the mess a week later, stating that “Qatar has begun its careful review and consideration of a series of requests presented by Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE. A productive next step would be for each of the countries to sit together and continue this conversation. We believe our allies and partners are stronger when they are working together towards one goal which we all agree is stopping terrorism and countering extremism. The United States will continue to stay in close contact with all parties and will continue to support the mediation efforts of the Emir of Kuwait.”
This massive flip-flop was and continues to be a very significant moment in Trump’s Middle East policy. Was it intentional or a flub? Regardless, the deal demonstrates to the countries of the region, including Saudi Arabia, that the United States is seeking to regulate the conflict and continues to regard Qatar as its ally.
Upon evaluation, we can say that Trump’s visit to the Persian Gulf and ongoing crisis management turned out to be successful for the United States. The Americans received big contracts worth billions, and Trump sent a message that he will continue mutually beneficial relationships in the region. Trump’s prestige increased as a result of positioning himself as a conflict mediator, and he projected control of the situation by reassuring major players like Saudi Arabia and Israel. He also put Qatar in check.
Whether these victories come at a long-term cost remains to be seen. Although Trump acted as a “businessman” making profitable deals, he also revealed his loyalties when the ally-turned-foe allegedly supporting terrorism became a reliable partner again in just two weeks.