President Trump took to Twitter Tuesday to offer a full-throated endorsement of this week’s surprisingly aggressive moves by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against Qatar. Trump cast the moves against Qatar as the realization of his visit to Saudi Arabia: “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar.”
Trump’s tweets may not have been coordinated with the rest of his administration, or he may not have thought through the implications of promoting a blockade of a country hosting America’s most important military base for the campaign against the Islamic State. But his position builds naturally upon the full embrace of the Saudi-UAE position on regional issues articulated during his visit to Saudi Arabia. During that visit, he prioritized confrontation with Iran and an escalated campaign against “radical Islamist terrorism,” while removing questions of human rights and democracy from the agenda.
This embrace of the Saudi-Emirati axis was likely intended to rebuild American leadership of its regional alliance structure. But the focus on Iran and on Islamism misses several other critical lines of conflict in the region. As I outline in my recent book, the intra-Sunni political battle between the Saudi/UAE axis and Qatar has long been as central to regional politics as has the conflict with Iran. The campaign against the Islamic State has relied upon de facto cooperation with Iran. The focus on the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist extremism has often been a cover for a more general campaign against any form of democratic change or popular activism.
The competition between Qatar and the Saudi-Emirati coalition has long been one of the key lines of regional politics. Since the mid-1990s, Qatar has contested Saudi hegemony over the Gulf and competed as a regional power broker. The Qatari television station Al Jazeera in the 1990s challenged the carefully controlled Saudi-owned Arabic language media. Qatar competed with Saudi Arabia over the mediator role in arenas ranging from Lebanon and Palestine to Somalia. It also built networks that included not only the Muslim Brotherhood but also the young online activists who would later become pivotal players in the Arab uprisings.
Its hosting of personnel and assets belonging to the United States and other allies at the Al-Udeid Air Base made it a critical node in the American regional security architecture, and offered protection against external threats — whether from Iran or Saudi Arabia.
The uprisings of 2011 produced a rare moment of unity among the Gulf Cooperation Council states. Qatar supported the intervention into Bahrain, and allowed Saudi Arabia to take the lead in formulating a GCC response to Yemen. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE worked together to push successfully for military intervention in Libya and less successfully for a similar intervention in Syria.
But this cooperation faded quickly as the sense of existential threat passed, and competition quickly intensified in almost every arena. In both Egypt and Tunisia, Qatari-backed coalitions initially prevailed, as the Muslim Brotherhood won both elections in Egypt and Ennahda won in Tunisia. But Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in a military coup backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while Tunisia’s Ennahda government voluntarily stepped down from power in favor of the Saudi and UAE-backed Nidaa Tounes. In Libya and Syria, the rival coalitions poured money, guns and media support into local proxies, to enormously destructive effect.
This regional proxy war came to a head with the June 2013 abdication of Qatar’s Emir and the dismissal of Hamad bin Jassim, the architect of Qatari foreign policy. The 2014 crisis between Qatar and the Saudi/UAE axis, which closely paralleled this week’s campaign albeit at a lower level, seemed to have forced the new emir into line. The sudden resurgence of the conflict should therefore be seen as more of a resumption of a long-standing structural feature of Gulf politics than something dramatically new. What’s different is the absence of any obvious proximate cause, the norm-shattering intensity of the Saudi-UAE campaign, and the confused American position. What is also new is the availability of Russia as a potential alternative for Qatar, should the American security guarantee prove worthless.
The Saudi summit sought to prioritize both pushback against Iran and an escalated campaign against the Islamic State. Today’s terrorist attack against Iran’s parliament and the shrine of Ayatollah Khomeini puts the tension between these two goals into sharp relief. The armed assault has been claimed by the Islamic State. If true, this would complicate the notion popular with the Saudi media (and recently repeated by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis) that the Islamic State and Iran are effectively allied.
Escalation against Iran could have serious and immediate negative repercussions for the campaign against the Islamic State, particularly in Iraq. The United States has worked very closely with the Iraqi security forces in the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq, despite Iran’s commanding role in Iraqi politics. Escalating confrontation with Iran or with Shiite militias could fatally undermine that cooperation just as the endgame in Mosul appears close. It could also put U.S. advisers and troops embedded with Iraqi forces at risk.
It’s more than just a military problem. If deteriorating relations with Iran undermine the effective reconstruction of Mosul in Iraq and other territories recovered from the Islamic State, it would lay the foundations for the rapid regeneration of the Sunni Islamist militant insurgency under another banner. So too could the sharp escalation in civilian casualties by coalition forces in Mosul — or the unleashing of Shiite militias to carry out sectarian massacres after its liberation. The sectarian nature of the public campaigns against Iran also resonates easily with that of the many Sunni Islamist militant groups beyond the Islamic State.
The top priority of Arab regimes has always been self-preservation. The Arab uprisings posed an existential threat to their survival, and they have worked ever since to prevent such challenges from undermining their control. Since 2011, there have been major advances in the cooperation among these autocratic Arab regimes against democratic challengers. This has been justified across the Gulf and in Egypt as a response to the threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood.
But the Muslim Brotherhood is much more the excuse for repression than its cause. Arab regimes opposed to any form of democratic challenge find the Muslim Brotherhood a convenient way to justify their increased repression. It is telling that upgraded security crackdowns have targeted all forms of civil society and activism, not just Islamists. Trump has signaled full support for these anti-democratic practices. The increased repression does little to address the mounting economic problems and dysfunctional governance of these regimes and likely increases the risk of renewed political instability.
Trump’s embrace of the Saudi-UAE vision during his Middle East trip looked dangerous at the time. The unfolding implications over the last two weeks suggest that those risks may have been understated.