Though the Saudi-led embargo on Qatar started immediately after the Arab Islamic American summit in Riyadh in May, little is remembered about the promises President Donald Trump made in exchange for a price. Instead, events prove the summit had little to do with strengthening relations, confronting extremism or fostering peace, stability, and development in the region. As developments unfold the crisis exemplifies Trump’s policy of igniting soft wars in search for investments or financial gifts. Yet the same policy may backfire as other players find room to step in.
The over 55 Muslim leaders who attended the summit turned a blind eye to Trump’s double-talk. His call for civilisational reconciliation in Riyadh was an insulting surprise. He pivoted from demonising Islam and labelling it a source of fascism to describing it as “one of the world’s great faiths”. However, a few weeks later, his administration axed a two-decade-long tradition of hosting a Ramadan event at the White House. Thus, his reconciliatory rhetoric was mere hot air, but, possibly, Muslim leaders still need more proof to keep his promises at arm’s length.
The summit declared a new reserve of 34,000 troops to assist with counter-terrorism and combat Iranian intervention. This isn’t the first time regional leaders have signed off on a hypothetical “Arab NATO” to fight extremism. Seeds of failure occur in its being the second attempt of its kind and from kicking down existing structures, especially the Arab League, the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation and the GCC. The summit transcended them because it did not aim to foster regional co-operation or stability, which is clear in the current divide among neighbouring Arab states.
Also, instead of a push back against Iran, one of its presumed allies has been besieged. If all Iranian allies are worth an embargo, then the list should include the UAE, the Assad regime, Iraq and even Russia. True, Iran has played a destabilising role in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria. However, what legitimacy is there for singling Qatar out? If for commercial ties, the UAE-Iran economic exchange is among the highest in the region. If for instability, the US and Israel, among others, have sown the biggest share of disorder in the region, especially by backing autocrats and plutocrats.
So, are today’s moves truly targeting Iran? Or is it simply about inflating a minority country to monitor all else in the region? Possibly, the US has learnt from its lessons in post-2003 Iraq that leading from behind is a more fruitful strategy. Instead of waging direct, armed wars to advertise arsenal, military aid and political support, the US administration favours igniting soft wars that reap similar, or better, fruits through the hands of weak oligarchs.
However, this superficial withdrawal somehow weakens US allies. It has made a total embargo on their presumed enemies difficult. Whether Turkey, Iran or Europeans, countries that would prefer to break the embargo and keep strong economic ties and diplomatic relations with Doha do not face the same fences of a direct confrontation with the US. They feel freer to disregard the Saudi-led coalition’s recommendations, helped by Trump’s credibility-destroying misstep of putting Daesh and Hamas into one basket. Blurring the distinctions between these organisations might whitewash Israel’s crimes, but it will backfire by pushing other countries to challenge the Saudi-led embargo.
Finally, with no clear foresight for the Arab NATO, the US administration focuses on securing Middle Eastern investments, even through signing arms deals. This may help Trump create jobs at home, but how can it foster stability in a region with the highest youth unemployment rates in the world? Neglecting much more entrenched issues such as authoritarianism, unemployment, and lack of opportunity for the region’s youth will promote instability.
Thus, nations in the region need to work closely on co-operating in economic development and joint security efforts to counterbalance the fake promises of the Riyadh summit. Prioritising economic opportunities is an imperative first step before clearing their own border areas of militant groups.
This may go hand-in-hand with diversifying foreign partnerships by encouraging greater co-operation with the EU. True, many European governments see the region solely as a source of terrorists and refugees, and Brussels has not played a proactive role in any major conflict, be it Libya, Syria, or Palestine. Yet German mediation in the crisis may be taken as a step to draw the EU’s funds and attention to bilateral projects to foster democracy and economic opportunity-based stability on its borders.
A post-Brexit London may also be part of the alternative. In her address to the GCC summit last December, Theresa May said she wanted Britain to invest more than $3.7 billion in the region over the next decade. That sum will be fruitful for all parties if invested in economic development efforts instead of military training or defence.
These steps can reduce the costs paid for US intervention and, most importantly, mitigate the chances for a highly-expected new wave of the Arab Spring. Responsibility rests with Arab-Muslim leaders first.