Less than a month after hosting US President Donald Trump and 50 Muslim leaders, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s alliance of Sunni states is in tatters, squandered on a vendetta. The Saudis’ self-inflicted damage comes as tensions with its arch nemesis Iran are becoming more dangerous than ever. Support in the United States for the kingdom is polarizing.
King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud demonstrated the impressive convening power of the Saudi government last month by hosting the American leader and those of dozens of Muslim countries. With a few exceptions (Algeria, Oman), most Islamic heads of government came to Riyadh for the summit. The Saudis rightly announced that the summit was a strong display of unity against terrorism and Iran, one that probably no other country in the Islamic world could have arranged. Saudi wealth and the king’s status as the custodian of the Two Holy Mosques account for the success.
The longstanding rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the world’s only two Wahhabi states, is now shattering the unity built just last month. Qatar has long been an irritant and gadfly of the Saudi royal family and other leaders. While suppressing dissent at home, Qatar has encouraged it abroad. It shares an enormous natural gas deposit with Iran and together with Oman has been a voice in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for keeping ties open with Tehran. Saudi Arabia is apparently determined to put Qatar in its place.
Now the GCC is broken into three camps. There is the Saudi-Bahrain-UAE bloc, which has severed ties and closed borders to Doha. Then come outliers Kuwait and Oman, leaving Qatar alone. Although close to Riyadh, Kuwait is trying to mediate what has become the worst split in the history of the GCC.
Iran was quick to offer support for Qatar. Iranian officials are also blaming the Saudis for the Islamic State terrorist attack on Tehran. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has accused the Saudis of supporting Sunni dissidents in the Kurdish, Arab and Baluchi communities against the Iranian government. The Saudis broke off relations with Iran a year ago. Iran is stepping up its support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen, where the Saudis have been bogged down for more than two years. Iranian advisers are helping the Yemenis with their missile strikes. It’s a cheap game for Tehran to exploit the Saudi vulnerabilities in Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere.
Turkey is taking the unprecedented step of deploying troops to the defense of Qatar. A century ago, the founder of the modern Saudi state, King Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, helped engineer the withdrawal of the Ottoman Empire from the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf, with British assistance. Now his son has precipitated the return of the Turkish army to both, and it’s unlikely to leave.
Egypt is backing the Saudi boycott. The Saudis have rallied many poor African and Indian Ocean states to their side. The Maldives and Eritrea, for example, have little choice but to answer the Saudi call. But most Muslim countries are staying out of the squabble. The king visited Malaysia and Indonesia earlier this year, for example, and signed friendship agreements, but they have not broken their ties to Qatar.
Pakistan, which refused to join the Saudi war in Yemen two and a half years ago, is trying to calm tensions in the Gulf. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has good relations with the royal families of both Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Millions of Pakistanis work in the GCC states, with two million in Saudi Arabia alone. Sharif traveled to the kingdom to try to mediate a deal to end the siege of Doha, but there is no sign of a restoration of relations yet.
Saudi foreign policy has traditionally been cautious and risk averse. Salman’s predecessors — his brothers Abdullah, Fahd, Khaled and Faisal — usually avoided confrontation and worked subtly behind the scenes. Money resolved most issues or at least helped smooth out rivalries. The Saudi military was rarely used in combat.
Salman and his son, Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Muhammad bin Salman, are much more belligerent and willing to take risks. The signature policy of their two and a half years in power is the war in Yemen, the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today, according to the United Nations. Operation Decisive Storm is a quagmire wrapped around a stalemate. Iran is the only winner. If Yemen is a harbinger for Qatar, expect a long, drawn-out and messy process.
Trump is profoundly unpopular with Muslims around the world. Even in the kingdom, only a handful of Saudi citizens when polled last fall wanted him to be elected. He is still trying to get his Muslim ban enacted in the United States. The Saudi royal family embraced Trump because he is not Barack Obama. He doesn’t care about human rights or gender equality, he hates the free press and he loves strong men. His leadership means no more criticism of Saudi support for sectarian violence against Shiites.
Trump claims that he brokered $350 billion in arms and other deals with the Saudis at the summit, but The Washington Post and others have shown his claims are enormously exaggerated. The joint statement released at the summit makes no mention of any deals. A very modest half-billion-dollar arms deal for more munitions for the Royal Saudi Air Force to bombard Yemen barely survived a vote in the Senate this week. Of the senators who voted for the last Saudi arms deal in 2016, 20 switched sides this time to oppose the deal and the final decision was 53 to 47. The trend is against the Saudis as congressional opposition to the war in Yemen grows. Meanwhile, Qatar has signed a deal for 36 F-15 fighter jets and withdrawn from participating in the Yemeni war.
Tweets from the president are mostly pro-Saudi and have defined the Qatar quarrel as the epicenter of the war against terror. The administration’s national security team is more focused on keeping the crucial American military base in Qatar and resetting GCC unity. Neither has spoken about Saudi Arabia’s own interactions with extremists in the region or its extreme sectarian politics.
A nuanced approach to this very important American alliance is crucial. Saudi Arabia is America’s oldest ally in the Middle East. The alliance dates to 1943, when then Prince Faysal visited the White House, and was sealed two years later when King Ibn Saud and Franklin Delano Roosevelt met on Valentine’s Day 1945 on the USS Quincy. Together, they have confronted many challenges, from Soviet imperialism to Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda. It’s a partnership that needs a sure touch, not a blind eye.
The Qatar affair combines American incompetence, Saudi bullying and Qatari game-playing with Iranian meddling and subversion. Too many outside players are getting involved muddying the waters. What began as farce may end as much worse.
By Bruce Riedel