US President Donald Trump has an odd formula for combating terrorism: Do what Saudi Arabia says. On Tuesday, Trump attempted to claim credit for what could, in his words, perhaps “be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism”. Except this beginning referred to actions taken by Saudi Arabia, whom leaked US cables once called the “most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide”. On Monday, a group of countries led by Saudi Arabia broke off ties with Qatar, a small Gulf Arab nation that often defies Riyadh’s line, claiming they were acting to end the country’s funding for militancy.
On Tuesday, Trump attempted to take some credit for causing the West Asian diplomatic crisis on Twitter.
All of that sounds good, except like most things that the US president posts on Twitter its either hopelessly naive, horribly misguided, intentionally malicious or a combination of the three.
Trump in Saudi Arabia
Last month, Trump chose Saudi Arabia as his first port of call in his inaugural trip abroad as US president. There, in addition to signing defence deals worth $110 billion with Riyadh, Trump also inaugurated a Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology alongside the Saudi king and the president of Egypt (which featured a hilariously ominous image of the leaders placing their hands on a glowing orb).
Through his tweets, Trump has quite clearly explained what happened.
Remember, this is the same Trump who is battling the American judiciary to effect a travel ban on Muslim nations as a way of keeping the US safe from terrorism. That ban, which was later struck down by courts, curiously did not include citizens of either Egypt or Saudi Arabia, despite the latter’s well-known history of funding terror and nurturing extremism. Indeed, even as Trump is promising a beginning to the end of terror, the British government has decided to permanently hide a report that, according to the Guardian, points to Saudi Arabia as the major source of Islamist funding.
Trump & terror
Yet Trump nevertheless went to Saudi Arabia, signed a deal with hundreds of billions of dollars to give the Saudis weapons, and then, based on his tweet, told them to take a tough line on terror funding. Saudi Arabia’s way of doing this appears involves leading a large coalition of governments to break ties with Qatar, force its citizens to leave their countries and even attempt a partial travel blockade.
There are a number of reasons why this is problematic:
- Qatar is not just an American ally, it also plays host to Al Udeid Air Base, America’s largest military base in West Asia. Al Udeid is home to the forward headquarters of America’s Central Command, which ran the US military’s operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Any danger to Qatar would imperil a huge, key American asset as well.
- The American ambassador to Qatar does not seem to agree with her own president’s assessment. On June 5, the day that Saudi Arabia broke off ties, she retweeted previous statements from the US government, albeit under the last administration, appreciating Qatar for its role in combating the funding of terror. Indeed, the very next, the Pentagon also said it continues to be grateful to Qatar for its “enduring commitment to regional security,” despite Trump’s tweets.
- The American Federal Bureau of Investigation recently sent a team to Doha to help the Qatari government investigate the alleged hacking of Qatar’s official news agency, which in May published remarks by the country’s king that sparked this latest crisis. The remarks, which suggested Qatar was getting closer to Iran, were later denied by the Qatari authorities who said they had been planted by hackers. If the US is aware that this crisis might have been manufactured, reportedly by Russian hackers, then its hard line on Qatar seems even more incongruous.
- That Trump took to Twitter to throw an American ally under the bus, without even briefing the ambassador or the Pentagon, might send a message to other US allies as well. As the New York Times’ Max Fisher pointed out in a series of tweets, “Qatar’s biggest aim in accepting the [military] base was to get US guarantee against Saudi Arabia. Their US insurance plan turned out to be worthless... How many allies have to now ask: Is our US insurance plan also worthless? Can another ally get Trump to abandon us overnight?”
- Consider the coalition that Trump is allying with: Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Maldives and what remains of Yemen. It is not as if Qatar has any democratic claims to its name, and Doha has credibly been accused of funding terror in the past. Yet the countries standing with Qatar – Iran and Turkey – not only have some level of democracy, they also help break the simplistic Western narrative that the West Asian crises are the outcome of a century old Shia-Sunni divide. Sunni Qatar is being supported by Shia Iran and a mixed Turkey, both of which are non-Arab nations. Which of these groupings seems more likely to play a role in helping end Islamist terror?
What’s going on?
The Barack Obama years were deeply troublesome for Saudi Arabia. For one, former US President Obama supported the democratic uprisings in a number of Arab states, a line that made the Saudi ruling family nervous about its own precarious position. Obama also signed a historic deal with Iran, the country that Riyadh sees as the biggest rival to its own influence in the region. Coupled with Qatar’s willingness to compete for influence in the neighbourhood, either through the coverage of the Arab Spring or by funding militants in wars in Libya and Syria, Saudi Arabia spent much of the Obama years convinced it would need to look beyond the US for real support.
Trump seems to have changed all of that. The new US president has always claimed the Iran deal was terrible for America, though he has done little to actually repeal it. And choosing Saudi Arabia for his very first foreign visit sends a clear message. As a result, Riyadh seems to have taken its cue from Trump and made a major effort to to recapture all the influence it lost over the last decade by making an example out of Qatar, a country it has repeatedly tried to dominate in the past (including through coup attempts).
But actual policy is not so easy. Trump’s stance is likely to foster anti-Americanism in one of the few Arab nations that has never had a major issue with it, will endanger extensive Qatari investments in the US and raise questions about the utility of the Al Udeid base. Is the US president prepared to handle all that fallout at a moment when West Asia is already volatile?