The Needless Crisis in the Arabian Gulf

A year has passed since Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain imposed a diplomatic and economic blockade on their Gulf neighbor, Qatar. To the consternation of his secretaries of state and defense, President Donald Trump chose to take sides in a dispute that pits US defense and security partners against one another. Leaked emails have revealed the extent to which interests linked to the Saudis and Emiratis sought to influence Trump and his administration before and after he took office in January 2017. Beside hampering US efforts to mobilize a unified Arab coalition to counter Iran and regional terrorism, the Gulf crisis has come to symbolize the harm to US interests caused by the distracted approach to foreign policy in the opening months of the Trump presidency.

Relations between the Obama Administration and US partners in the Gulf soured during President Obama’s second term. Officials in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi mistrusted deeply Washington’s willingness to embrace political change—and Muslim Brotherhood governance—in Egypt after the Arab Spring and resented being cut out from the negotiations with Iran that culminated in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015. In response, Saudi and Emirati leaders developed far more assertive policies of their own to contain the fallout from political transitions in North Africa and to counter Iran’s meddling in conflict zones such as Yemen. A hawkish axis arose in Gulf politics based on the hard-line approach to regional security of Crown Princes Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi and Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.

Qatar was a key target of Saudi and Emirati anger. Buoyed by its enormous reserves of natural gas, the tiny Gulf state had carved an outsized role in regional affairs that alarmed Saudi and Emirati policymakers with its readiness to embrace, rather than resist, regional political change in 2011. The architects of many of those policies, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, both stepped down in June 2013. The new 33-year old Qatari emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, came under pressure within weeks of assuming power in an apparent power play designed to force Qatar to submit to the Saudi- and Emirati-led approach to regional affairs. This culminated in a nine-month withdrawal of ambassadors from Doha in 2014. The Obama Administration sensibly refused to pick sides and supported efforts to reach the November 2014 Riyadh agreement, which ended the dispute.

Donald Trump’s unexpected election victory in 2016 and the political inexperience of many of his senior aides offered a unique opportunity to outside actors looking to shape the direction of policy. The Trump Administration entered office signaling its disdain for conventional decision-making and lacking a clear policy planning focus. Early signs that the Trump presidency would be more transactional and less rooted in US “values” were accompanied by hostility toward the institutions of governance, such as Stephen K. Bannon’s “deconstruction of the administrative state,” unprecedented in recent American history. To the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the Trump White House appeared to be operating in the same personalized top-down manner as their own royal courts in Riyadh or Abu Dhabi.

Officials from Saudi Arabia, and especially the UAE, reached out immediately to project their points of view to key White House figures—in the same way as an individual, seeking to shape a decision in an Arabian Gulf royal court, would identify, approach, and lobby a “gatekeeper” with proximity and direct access to the leader. In December 2016, during the transition between US administrations, Abu Dhabi’s Mohammed bin Zayed traveled incognito to New York and held a meeting—not made public at the time—with Jared Kushner, Bannon, and Michael Flynn (who would become Trump’s national security advisor the following month) at Trump Tower. The UAE ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al Otaiba, communicated regularly with Kushner, the president’s son-in-law tasked with much of the new administration’s Middle East policy. Politico quoted Otaiba as saying that “he did all the asking, and I did all the talking.”

It is unclear what records, if any, were kept of these meetings, but hacked email correspondence has shone a spotlight on the outreach of Trump fundraiser Elliott Broidy and his business partner George Nader—supposedly on behalf of the crown prince of Abu Dhabi—to push the White House to take a harsher approach toward Qatar. In exchange for the promise of lucrative contracts in the UAE, some of which materialized, Nader and Broidy undertook a wide-ranging campaign that sought to shape political opinion and influence policy-makers in Washington. Their efforts seemed to pay off as Trump made his first foreign visit as president to Saudi Arabia in May 2017 and then reacted to the June 5 blockade of Qatar by sending a series of tweets castigating Doha, which many Qataris took to signal a green light for the Saudis and Emiratis to launch further action against them.

The challenge the White House now faces is that having encouraged, however unwittingly, the Saudis and Emiratis to assume US support for their isolation of Qatar last summer, it is proving far harder to get the parties to resolve a crisis that undermines US interests in the Gulf the longer it goes on. President Trump belatedly has recognized the strategic value of the US-Qatari partnership and offered to host Gulf leaders at Camp David to facilitate an end to the dispute. However, Mohammed bin Salman made it clear during his visit to the White House in March that he would not accept US mediation, while Mohammed bin Zayed simply refused to come to Washington at all.

From a US perspective, there are no winners and only losers from this needless crisis. When President Trump attended the Arab-Islamic-American summit in Riyadh in May 2017, he called on the Arab world to work with the United States to counter radical extremism and terrorism, both of which he said were supported by Iran. US partners on the front line against Iran promptly turned on each other instead. With President Trump having pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal in the face of much international opposition, he needs his regional partners in the Gulf to take reconcile their differences, now more than ever. Working with the Saudis and Emiratis to identify a face-saving way to back down and end the blockade of Qatar would be a constructive way to start.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC (ACW), and a Baker Institute Fellow for the Middle East at Rice University. To learn more about Dr. Ulrichsen and read his previous publications Click here