Saudis risk big in trusting Trump over Qatar

After the US president's trip to the Kingdom last month, Riyadh's monarchs felt emboldened to start a campaign to isolate Qatar, a fellow US ally, but they should see what happens to others when they rely on Trump — or just check his tweets

Reuters: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Reuters: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Saudi Arabia's King Salman (2nd L) welcomes U.S. President Donald Trump at a ceremony at Al Murabba Palace in Riyadh, May 20, 2017.

Wilson Dizard Wilson Dizard is a deputy editor at TRT World. @willdizard

The United States has played the most confusing and contradictory role of all the actors in the Gulf diplomatic crisis, with the country’s rookie president Donald Trump accusing Qatar of funding terrorism while his top diplomat states that Qatar is still a key ally in fighting terrorism.

The US also maintains its largest military base in the country, Al-Udeid, home to the Middle East headquarters US CENTCOM, the hub for American operations against Daesh in the region. And on Wednesday, the US and Qatari defence chiefs signed a multibillion dollar deal to deliver F-15 fighters jets to the now blockaded Gulf state.

"This is of course proof that U.S. institutions are with us but we have never doubted that," a Qatari official said of the deal, Reuters reported. "Our militaries are like brothers. America's support for Qatar is deep-rooted and not easily influenced by political changes."

If you think this situation doesn’t make any sense, you’re right. It doesn’t. To understand what’s going on, it’s important to remember something about US President Donald Trump. Sometimes he says things that have no bearing on reality.

Here are the three Trump tweets Saudi Arabia is banking on.

In other tweets over the last few months, Trump has accused his predecessor, Barack Obama, of wiretapping him (providing no evidence); falsely insisted that his inauguration crowd size was the largest in history; referred repeatedly to unfavourable media coverage as “fake news”; fired his own FBI director James Comey for reasons he later directly contradicted; and then suggested, again on Twitter, that he may have secretly taped his private conversations with that FBI director (again, providing no evidence).

In a single week last month, Trump’s tweets managed to set in motion a high level investigation into his own administration, culminating more recently in dramatic testimony by Comey and an evasive performance by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

And then there’s the fact that the Saudis are betting on the backing of a president who is now under investigation for obstruction of justice. He has, to put it mildly, other priorities. And rigid partisanship in the US also imperils the Saudi gamble. The Senate only narrowly passed a bill on Tuesday providing $500 million in military aid to the Saudis, with Democrats presenting an (almost) united front against the measure, objecting to an ongoing Saudi assault on Yemen.

But Trump’s unreliability and unpredictability isn’t good news for the Qataris either. It just means the conflict is likely to drag on and on.

As for tweets denouncing Qatar, Trump’s subordinates have chosen to ignore rather than follow their boss. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and US Defence Secretary James Mattis have tried their best to continue with business as usual, as much as they can.

It’s only possible to guess at what’s going through Trump’s mind here. One possibility is that Trump knows a brazen and boisterous stance will distract from looming scandal at home. Another possibility is that Trump heard from both Israeli and Gulf officials on his trip last month that Iran is the gravest threat the region faces, and that Qatar is in league with Tehran. 

Convincing Trump of something might seem like a triumph by the Gulf. However, to borrow a phrase from the late American musician Prince, by trying to play Trump, Qatar’s foes have indeed played themselves.

“The president seems to be acting on his own...His own views that are just spontaneously coming out, sometimes in tweets, divorced from any coherent process,” said Philip Gordon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.

That the Saudi bloc cannot rely on Trump doesn’t necessarily put the region, or Qatar, in a better situation. The diplomatic dispute is likely to drag on without resolution. The traditional mediating diplomatic force in the Middle East isn’t just holding back, but has become another unpredictable factor

“The United States is the one country with the most leverage on both sides and the closest ties to both sides,” Gordon continued. “Trump’s actions have inflamed the crisis rather than helped to resolve them. And if the United States is just going to take a position—or at least the commander in chief of the United States is just going to take the position that is totally going with one side rather than the other, then there’s not a lot of place to produce that mediating outcome.”

If the super rich residents of glowing, gilded cages in Riyadh and Dubai think they can rely on Trump to come through to help them further isolate Qatar, then they can add themselves to the long list of people Trump has effortlessly conned. The Saudi and Emirati royal families are just way wealthier than the usual run of such people; Trump University students, who paid thousands for worthless degrees, and the hapless voters of American coal country, who believed Trump could somehow bring back jobs to the region. 

If the Saudis are betting on Trump to come through on major promises he made to them on his trip, they should remember that Trump doesn’t even come through for construction contractors, who have had to sue him for payments.

The Saudis might have gotten a blank check from Trump, but that check could still bounce.

Whether they realise it or not, what the Saudis are taking advantage of is the White House’s willful neglect of the American diplomatic community. Since taking office, Trump has successfully filled only a few of the almost two hundred ambassadorships around the world. Tillerson, for his part, only has so many strings he can pull in the Gulf petroleum business to make up for his boss’s bizarre and self-incriminating social media habits.

The Saudi-led coalition against Qatar wants to reign in its independence as a media, economic, and regional power, but whether they can rely on the US to help them in this endeavour is doubtful. And it’s not just because Trump is untrustworthy. Despite his fiery rhetoric directed at Iran, the United States needs to keep a dialogue open with Iran, as both countries coordinate efforts against Daesh in Iraq. To do that, Washington needs that CENTCOM base in Doha. 

Saudi is trying to shakedown Qatar. Trump, who lived through New York City in the seventies, knows how a shakedown works. It means intimidating someone until they give in to your demands. But if the Saudis think that they’ll get much more commitment than just a comment and a few tweets, they’re mistaken.

 
The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.