Trump of Arabia: Into the Hornet’s Nest


President Trump has put his finger into a hornet's nest. With a couple of early morning tweets last week, he drew a new line in the sand by endorsing Saudi Arabia's move to ostracize its small neighbor Qatar, and lead an unprecedented campaign against it. Worse, he even boasted about his role in engineering it. Trump has waded into the region's monarchial and tribal rivalries, and tensions. His vagaries have added a layer of complexity to an already troubled region.

These tensions, fueled by festering rivalries between the small gas-rich Qatar, and its only land neighbor, Saudi Arabia, are not new.  Independent since 1971, Qatar has been a constant irritant to its neighbors, large and small, dating back to Ottoman-era tribal feuds. Simply put, its Arab neighbors believe Qatar should have been part of their territory. In 1995, Doha crossed the Rubicon when Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani deposed his own father -- a crime of lèse-majesté the House of Saud would not easily forgive. It did not help either when in 2013, at the age of 61, he abdicated in favor of his 31-year old son Tamim, now the Emir. The message to the aging Gulf monarchs was unmistakable, and unforgivable: pass on the scepter. 

Doha became a thorn in the side of Arab leaders when it launched Al Jazeera in 1996, and dismissed recurrent calls for its closure. Beyond the inordinate influence Qatar wields in the geo-political and financial spheres, Riyadh could simply not stomach Doha’s relationship with Tehran. Saudi Arabia also has little patience for its neighbor's ideological aspirations; in 2011, the opening of Qatar’s national mosque, named after the founder of Wahhabism, triggered serious diplomatic tensions between the two countries. Six years on, this remains an issue.

Seemingly oblivious to the deep-rooted tensions among Gulf countries, Trump has allowed intra-Gulf politics to inflex US policy. He tweeted a telling insight into his credulity when he met with Arab leaders in Riyadh: 'I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar - look!’.  For anyone inclined to see this as a loose, pre-breakfast tweet, the President read out an astonishingly blunt prepared statement in the White House's Rose Garden on 9 June: ‘The nation of Qatar, unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level.’  His verdict blunted the distinctly different on-camera message delivered less than an hour earlier by Secretary of State Tillerson, who cautioned about the 'unintended' humanitarian consequences of the blockade which was 'impairing US and other business activities in the region’ and 'hindering US military actions in the region and the campaign against ISIS'.   

The bicephalous US foreign policy, and the way it is crafted, has startled prominent US Senators, including the Republican Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Bob Corker. By issuing a list of 59 Doha-based suspected terrorists, including members of the ruling al-Thani family, the Saudi-UAE-Bahraini triumvirate is signalling its goal: regime submission --or change.  And Trump took sides. This, despite the fact that Qatar hosts the US Central Command which is vital to its military operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. 

What has seduced Trump in the Saudi argument? Qatari sponsorship of terrorism and extremism? Doubtful, as the reality is far wider than Qatar: in Syria alone, many Gulf countries have their own unsavory surrogates, whether or not they have been declared as ‘terrorist organizations’ by the United Nations.  Perhaps more perplexing, given his damning ruling, Trump did not recall his own ambassador from Qatar, whereas Egypt and several other countries severed diplomatic ties with Doha. A few days earlier, US Ambassador Dana Shell Smith was tweeting that the 'US supports Qatar's efforts in combatting terrorism financing'. The President himself had described Qatar as a 'crucial strategic partner' in his Riyadh address.  Why then was he willing to undercut his own officials, contradict himself, and jeopardize the US strategic relationship with a critical ally? Rather than terrorism, the Iran factor may be a more plausible explanation — and there is the smell of gas in the air.

The North Dome/South Pars gas field straddling Iranian and Qatari waters is the largest in the world. Whereas Qatar was able to exploit part of the North Dome, Iran could only modestly lift gas from South Pars. No longer under international sanctions, Tehran plans to boost its gas production by 40 percent —half of it from South Pars. The two countries may be competitors on the gas market but are bound to cooperate to monetize their offshore wealth. Tensions, on the other hand, would keep much needed foreign investors away from Iran.

If the aim of Trump and his newly forged special friendship with King Salman was to compel Doha to shun Tehran, it has so far produced a perverse effect: Iranian Air cargo flights have already unloaded more than 450 tons of food in Doha, with plans for 100 tons a day. And Iran has opened its airspace to Qatari aircrafts, to offset the air closures implemented by Saudi Arabia and its allies. 

For now, Saudi Arabia has scored a major victory with Trump. But it remains to be seen how far this orchestrated move against Qatar will go. What is next? Will Bahrain completely close its airspace to Doha-bound aircrafts —in violation of its obligations— to air-lock Qatar and achieve a full air and land blockade? Will Qatari Liquefied Natural Gas carriers be hampered through the strait of Hormuz or the Suez Canal in violation of international law? How will the US handle the involvement of Russia in this crisis and its NATO ally Turkey, whose President has been vocal in his support for Qatar and fast-tracked the deployment of troops to the country.

Candidate Trump liked to criticize the ‘disastrous wars’ his predecessors dragged the US into. As President, faced with the looming ‘cloud’ of the Russia-gate investigation, will he resist the temptation of another quagmire, another war even? Not if his twitter impulses are anything to go by. Now that he has poked his finger into the Middle East hornet's nest, he may well get caught in its blinding sandstorms -- and treacherous quicksands. 

Originally published on The Huffington Post 14 June 2017.