Like his war on Yemen, heir apparent to the Saudi throne Mohammed Bin Salman no doubt felt confident that adding another belligerent policy to his name – an act of war no less – against another one of his neighbours would deliver a swift outcome. The newly appointed Crown Prince had, after all, the backing of three other Arab states as well as the blessing of US President Donald Trump. So what could go wrong?
The young prince would quickly come to learn that the law of unintended consequences is the only real law of history. He only needed to take a furtive glance at the region’s recent history to see that nothing goes as planned, least of all needless wars. From the invasion of Iraq, to the post Arab Spring chaos sucking the region into a vortex of war and misery; the fate of the region, he would find, was being determined by forces beyond anyone’s control.
But Bin Salman did what anyone with a powerful sense of entitlement does: He assumed he is different and that he alone could bend the region to his will. He could not be more wrong. Bin Salman’s impulsive foreign policy adventure spelled disaster in Yemen and also in Qatar where, with the backing of the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, he imposed a siege on his tiny Gulf neighbour. Though the blockade on Qatar has been nowhere near as tragic in the scale of human suffering, it nonetheless highlighted once again the incompetence of the 32-year-old who had stabbed his cousin, Mohamed bin Nayef, in the back to get a shot at becoming the King of Saudi Arabia.
The region had been crying out for a wise head; someone willing to put people and principal ahead of all else. Instead, the Middle East became saddled by yet another leader whose first instinct is to throw petrol on a burning flame. In orchestrating a regime change in Doha, the blockading countries made a grave mistake. Their intention may have been to circle their wagons against the threat posed by Iran but instead they have weakened their hand and potentially pushed an important ally into the embrace of a despised enemy.
In one sense who could blame them. In the eyes of Bin Salman and his chums, there was nothing standing in the way of squashing tiny Qatar into submission. Doha’s more powerful Arab neighbours have long resented its rise to global prominence as a major player in the world. Watching Qatar cultivate its soft-power and influence thanks to its prodigious gas reserves has been a thing of envy. With the third largest gas reserve in the world to fall back on, the ruling Al Thani family have found a degree of freedom and independence its more powerful neighbours despise. Some may say Doha’s polices are little too maverick for the regional superpower who demands everyone to fall in line at the snap of a finger.
Nothing has infuriated the blockading states more than what they say is Qatar’s meddling in regional conflicts, its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and the revolution in the Arab media fuelled some degree in by Al Jazeera. In their eyes, Doha had proven itself to be untrustworthy and a threat to their absolute rule by siding with what they believe is subversive elements in the region.
It may have seemed there was no better way to bring their wayward neighbour in line than by making an example by dishing out a kind of punishment to a fellow Gulf state unseen in the region’s history. How could they not, with Trump cheerleading them; a fact that has become one of the more intriguing subplots of the entire debacle that still continues to garner media traction more than the actual blockade itself, which appears to have fallen off the media radar.
One year into the blockade, who could have predicted that Qatar would be able to survive an assault on their sovereignty and come out as strong as they have. As one commentator neatly put it “if your country was under threat from a powerful expansionist rival, turned into a political island by a trade blockade, had its airspace restricted and its borders shut, you probably wouldn’t expect its economy to thrive”. But in the case of Qatar, that’s exactly what seemed to have happened. In what appears to be an unlikely turn of events, the charges against Qatar have not just merited no serious investigation the spotlight has been turned on the blockading countries, denounced by the UN for imposing an illegal blockade.
None, least of all the Saudis and its allies, would have predicted that much of the focus would shift to the corruption, nepotism and influence peddling that appear to have become the defining characteristic of the current US administration. Exactly why did Trump give his complete backing to the blockading countries with his customary tweet and a statement blaming Qatar for the funding of “radical ideology” and terrorism? His comments appear to have been lifted word for word from a Saudi foreign policy statement.
Trump’s initial decision to join the dictators in Riyadh, Cairo and Abu Dhabi in beating their chest to cower the Qataris to submission was slapped down with a dose of reality by the former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who himself may have been the subject of a lobbying campaign by the UAE to have him sacked at “a politically convenient time.” Trump later backed down and even gave the Emir of Qatar a warm reception in the White House where he described Al Thani as a “gentlemen” while discussing the strength of relationship between Doha and Washington.
What appeared to be a subplot is now the main plot. Qatar was just a pawn that needed to be swatted away, as far as the Saudi’s and UAE were concerned. With Trump – who seems more corruptible than any previous US presidents – in the White House, they thought they had found the perfect guy to serve their agenda. It wasn’t to be and instead their assault on Qatar exposed something else: American susceptibility to foreign lobbying, to the extent that a sitting President can get away with making decisions that are not in the national self-interest. This serious issue is not only the subject of an FBI investigation; it is also the most riveting aspect of the Qatar blockade and Trump presidency.
There is a theory that US power is neutral and that competing groups vie with each other to wield the American sword to serve their interest. But not until the disastrous US intervention in Iraq in 2003 were questions raised about whether the US power had been hijacked to serve the interest of a foreign state, at that time Israel. 18 years on, and under a President who appears to run the White House as though it were a family enterprise, the spotlight on foreign states meddling with US policy is unlike anything seen in history.
The Israeli lobby under Trump has grown into a “hydra with many heads”, as one commentator puts it. Trump’s decision to proclaim Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, even if it threatens a trade war with the Europeans, has even prompted one veteran Israeli commentator to ask: “who is the vassal”, while concluding that it is the US that is now doing Israel’s bidding even if it is to the detriment of American interest.
But it’s not just Israel that appears to have mastered the art of wielding US power for interest other than its own. Under Trump, any firewall America had against foreign influence over its foreign policy has become gravely compromised.
While the US is currently gripped by the thought of what appears to be a covert Russian campaign to influence US politics to Moscow’s advantage, there is very little concern over the fact that the Saudis with the support of Israel and UAE, attempted to do something similar. What unites the three is their animosity towards the previous President Barack Obama, who they felt was soft on Iran. Of course, one meeting is not a smoking gun but there does appear to have been a concerted campaign by some Gulf states to demonise Qatar in Washington. Elliott Broidy, a top fundraiser for Trump received millions of dollars from a political adviser to the United Arab Emirates, George Nader, just weeks before he began handing out a series of large political donations to US lawmakers considering legislation targeting Qatar. Broidy, is also reported to have sponsored a conference on Qatar’s alleged ties to Islamic extremism, attended by US lawmakers.
The UAE’s effort to turn the US President against Qatar is now the focus of an investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller’s legal team. The extent to which Mueller’s line of investigation into the Gulf states is connected to the original investigation into the communication between the Trump campaign and Russia is still unclear, but more details are likely to emerge over the coming months.
A year on, the blockade against Qatar has been nothing short of a disaster for the Saudis and UAE. Bin Salman, who it seems has the reverse Mida’s touch turning everything he touches into dust instead of gold, has failed in his efforts to get the Qataris to yield. Instead, the rift has become a stalemate, like Yemen, where no side is happy with the outcome and no leader is willing to make the bold and necessary decisions to end needless crises without losing face. Which dictator will step up?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.