The footsteps of a war in the Middle East?
In a dramatic move this week, eight countries under the leadership of Saudi Arabia cut their diplomatic and commercial ties with Qatar.
While Kuwait has pursued mediation efforts and conveyed Saudi demands to Doha, U.S. President Donald Trump also invited the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to the White House to settle the dispute.
Given its geographical location as a tiny kingdom on a peninsula adjacent to Saudi Arabia in the Gulf, the cutting of its lifelines through a triple land, naval and air blockade threatens all manner of trade and travel to Qatar. Since Qatar is one of the world’s biggest exporter of natural gas, the blockade endangers the shipment of LNG to world markets. But Doha faces a more serious issue regarding food supplies. With grain stocks that will run out in just four weeks, Qatar has had to reach out to Turkey and Iran to address food and water shortages.
Qatar has been a key ally of Turkey, both economically and strategically. Qatar’s investments in Turkey total about $18 billion. In the first quarter of 2017 alone, Turkish companies signed projects worth $14.2 billion in Qatar. Turkey established its first overseas military base in the country in 2016. The two countries stood on the same side throughout the Arab Spring and supported pro-Muslim Brotherhood governments that came to power in the Middle East. Therefore, Turkey’s position in this crisis is very delicate. The hardest part is how to maintain Qatar’s friendship without engendering the hostility of others and becoming embroiled in this conflict.
In this respect, the timing of the Turkish parliament’s approval of a bill permitting a deployment of troops in Qatar indicates that Ankara has overtly decided to take a side in this conflict.
As if we do not have enough trouble in the region, Iran’s parliament and the Khomeini shrine in Tehran were hit by simultaneous terrorist attacks on June 7. Even though the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claimed responsibility for the dual attacks, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards blamed it on Saudi Arabia and vowed to take revenge.
It’s true; Trump’s Middle East tour was fruitful – but only in terms of deepening sectarian conflicts in the region.
Since coming to power, Trump has been a fierce opponent of the nuclear deal with Iran. And the fact that he assembled a team of hawks with a clear anti-Iran stance was a sign of a toughening policy toward Tehran.
While it is yet to be shaped, Trump’s Middle East policy rests on two main pillars, one is the containment of Iran in the region and the other is combatting radical Islamist terrorism.
But in the mayhem of the Middle East, no country has an unblemished past and each has flirted with radical groups at one point and used proxies for its own power ambitions.
Wasn’t it the late Saudi prince Saud al-Faisal who told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that Daesh (the Arabic acronym for ISIL) was their Sunni response to the U.S. support for the Da’wa, the Shiite party that has dominated Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein?
The timing of the Gulf crisis suggests that the $110 billion dollar arms deal, as well as the shared intentions and promises made in Riyadh, seem to have emboldened Saudi Arabia to take the opportunity to tame Qatar so as to force the rest of the Gulf to adopt its line.
Ironically, this rift undermines Trump’s efforts to unite the Gulf countries against Iran. And since Qatar hosts the al-Udeid base, CENTCOM’s forward headquarters that is of critical importance in the anti-ISIL fight, the crisis may disrupt the efficiency of operations in Iraq and Syria.
However, Trump has so far backed the Saudi decision in the name of taking a hardline on funding radical ideology.
Given the discontent in Washington about Trump’s presidency with regards to his alleged ties with Russia as well as his penchant for ignoring advisers on key decisions, perhaps a controlled crisis abroad will be perceived as advantageous in terms of diverting attention.
However, fueling sectarian tensions in the Middle East will definitely come at a price.
Unfortunately, Trump’s Middle East strategy promises further arms sales and no peace.