Less than two weeks after Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia and spoke of the need for Arab unity against Iran, two of the Gulf’s most prominent and ideologically similar states are at each others throats.
While received wisdom is that the Saudi led diplomatic and economic isolation of the small and wealthy state of Qatar represents a fracture in the grand anti-Iranian coalition the United States seeks to build, practically it means something less and something more at the same time.
Donald Trump spoke of the need to create a united anti-Iranian Arab front, but more crucially he said that he was neither there to lecture them on how to do it, nor would America do it for them. In other words, Trump’s speech boiled down to “here’s what to do, now go do it”.
With Saudi and Qatar at loggerheads and with many other Arab states that have hated Qatar’s sponsorship of terrorism for actual reasons (as opposed to the hypocritical and almost comical duplicity from Saudi), any attempt at building this united front has been crushed under the weight of regional economic rivalries which have been augmented by Qatar’s attempts at some sort of rapprochement with Iran.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry is staffed by deeply intelligent people, something which cannot be said for most Gulf states. Iran knows that Qatar has not suddenly developed an affinity for Iran, but rather, they see Iran as a way of putting a stick in the proverbial Saudi bicycle wheel.
Where Saudi Arabia has a decent sized but poorly trained and undisciplined armed forces, Qatar’s armed forces are so small they are numerically negligible. In the event of an actual war, both countries would have to rely heavily on Pakistani mercenaries. Pakistan’s refusal to break off ties with Qatar is a demonstrable failure for Saudi in its attempt to build a wider coalition against its neighbour.
But where does Donald Trump fit in to this? Donald Trump throughout his campaign had been critical of US involvement in the Middle East. Although his policies as President have often contradicted these sentiments, his initial feelings still often feature in his speeches.
A key section of his speech in Saudi Arabia last month is as follows,
“This groundbreaking new centre represents a clear declaration that Muslim-majority countries must take the lead in combating radicalisation, and I want to express our gratitude to King Salman for this strong demonstration of leadership.I have had the pleasure of welcoming several of the leaders present today to the White House, and I look forward to working with all of you.
America is a sovereign nation and our first priority is always the safety and security of our citizens. We are not here to lecture—we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership — based on shared interests and values — to pursue a better future for us all”.
And why might Trump be privately happy about that?
Trump, in spite of his own anti-Iranian rhetoric is if anything still far less interventionist than either Bush or Obama and even they didn’t go after Iran. If Saudi Arabia was ever so foolish as to provoke a war with Iran, America would be forced to make the uncomfortable decision of refraining from a fight that many at least at the level of perverse dreams seek to fight.
>Now, an all ready insane idea of Saudi launching a war against Iran is even less likely as two major Arab Gulf powers are themselves arguing over Iran in public. Trump has said what he ‘needed’ to say and can now wash his hands of further attempts at forcing the Arab world to do what it has always been incapable of doing.
Increasingly, it has become apparent that Trump sees international relations in terms of monetary benefit and personal status, but critically now ideology. He enjoyed being treated by a king in Saudi and getting paid for it, he enjoyed being lauded endlessly by the Likud government in Israel and he distinctly did not enjoy his trip to Europe where NATO and G7 leaders treated him far less respectfully than did Saudi or Israel and even more importantly, they didn’t pay up in respect of NATO.
Donald Trump got the two things he wanted from the Gulf: money and respect. While Obama may have been making urgent phone calls at such a time, Trump will probably leave matters to civil servants in the State Department. His mind is more on golf than on the Gulf.