Arab NATO is desert mirage

Ever since Teddy Roosevelt began a tradition of overseas state visits when he headed to Panama to check on his canal project in 1906, American presidents have chosen the destination of their first overseas visit with foreign policy theater in mind. The majority, from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Barack Obama, stayed close to home to focus on North America or the Caribbean Basin. Others, from Woodrow Wilson to Jimmy Carter, crossed the Atlantic amid wars hot and cold. Donald Trump, however, is the first to choose the Middle East for his foreign debut. His reach, in this case, may well exceed his grasp, especially when it comes to the concept of building an “Arab NATO” to manage the region.

Ever since Teddy Roosevelt began a tradition of overseas state visits when he headed to Panama to check on his canal project in 1906, American presidents have chosen the destination of their first overseas visit with foreign policy theater in mind. The majority, from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Barack Obama, stayed close to home to focus on North America or the Caribbean Basin. Others, from Woodrow Wilson to Jimmy Carter, crossed the Atlantic amid wars hot and cold. Donald Trump, however, is the first to choose the Middle East for his foreign debut. His reach, in this case, may well exceed his grasp, especially when it comes to the concept of building an “Arab NATO” to manage the region.

A Trump Tweak to the Balance of Power

Trump was seemingly determined during his recently concluded visit to bring new vigor to the dragging war on jihadism and the West’s unsettling relationship with Iran by offering a different tack: Unite with Washington behind a common mission to eradicate a barbaric strand of Islamist extremism and, in return, Uncle Sam will mind his own business when it comes to the region’s domestic affairs.
The broader strategy of a United States trying to reduce overseas burdens by prodding regional partners to step up and do more is, in fact, an extension of Obama’s foreign policy. Trump, however, is trying a very different means to the same goal. The president’s characteristically brazen manner, admonishing European partners while lavishing praise on his Arab counterparts and acting aloof toward Asia-Pacific allies is, in its own odd way, designed to spur the rest of the world into action. In the case of the Middle East, in particular, Trump has espoused the concept of an Arab NATO — led by Saudi Arabia and handsomely outfitted with U.S. military hardware — to help the United States neutralize terrorist threats and push back against Iran.
Though it may appear different, the U.S. tilt back to the Sunni camp under Trump is still in keeping with a general balance-of-power approach to the Middle East. Former U.S. President George W. Bush knocked the region out of balance when he deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and effectively opened an Arab gateway to Iran to spread its influence from Shiite-majority Iraq. The Obama years were then consumed with efforts to resolve an overwhelming Iran problem without a destabilizing war in the Persian Gulf. With a viable, albeit imperfect, nuclear deal in place, the United States was able to downgrade Iran from crisis levels so that it could focus on other pressing foreign policy priorities. In inheriting this foreign policy agenda, Trump now has greater room to bolster support for the Sunni camp to keep a strong check on Iran, now unshackled from sanctions but facing much greater regional competition.
Saudi Arabia was as thrilled to host Trump’s first state visit as Trump was eager to lap up the royal pageantry. But things were not always this cozy between Washington and Riyadh. During the Cold War, when Riyadh was legitimately paranoid that a secular, smooth-talking and clean-shaven Shah of Iran would coax the White House into backing an Iranian grab for Saudi oil fields in the name of regional security, the golden-robed Wahhabi royals of Riyadh had to be extremely clever and resourceful to edge their way into the club of U.S. allies. Trump’s visit was Saudi Arabia’s rare chance to upgrade the House of Saud’s insurance plan in the wake of Obama’s strategic rapprochement with Iran, which had come just as the region’s monarchs and surviving autocrats were still trembling from the Arab Spring uprisings. There could be no better gift than an American president willing to maintain a tough line on Iran while sweeping human rights concerns under the rug.
But the American president is in for a rude discovery: An Arab NATO is nothing more than a desert mirage. Even as many of the region’s Sunni Arab powers share a fear of Iranian expansionism, economic oblivion, and regime overthrows, their deep, geopolitically-rooted divisions will deny Saudi Arabia and its American sponsors a neatly packaged security alliance. Doubters of this prophecy need only reflect on the past few days to understand why.

What Lies Behind the Gulf Media Offensive Against Qatar

The bizarre tale of events began the evening of May 23, two days following the Riyadh summit, when state-owned Qatar News Agency published a report quoting Qatar Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani making several controversial comments that favored Iran, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. The comments, which briefly ran on the QNA ticker before disappearing, included statements such as, “Iran represents a regional and Islamic power that cannot be ignored and it is unwise to harbor hostility against it.” Another declared, “Hamas is the representative of the Palestinian people,” while noting “tension” between Trump and Qatar. Shortly thereafter, the Twitter handle of Qatar’s foreign minister included statements that Doha had ordered the ambassadors from Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to leave the country.
Within a couple hours of the comments surfacing, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia leapt on the issue and began banning Qatari media outlets. QNA quickly reported that the comments on its website and the Qatari’s foreign minister’s Twitter account were the result of a cyberattack. But the hacking explanation fell on deaf ears. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had already seized on an opportunity to shame and isolate their Qatari neighbors. The Qatari emir’s phone call to newly-reelected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on May 27 only added fuel to the fire. A deluge of editorials condemning Qatar gushed from Saudi and Emirati media outlets. Just as rumors began to swirl that Qatar could be kicked out of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Saudi Arabia reverted to a historical throwdown and questioned the legitimacy of the Qatari royal family’s lineage to the founder of Wahhabism.
This seemingly well-coordinated Saudi-Emirati pressure campaign on Qatar appears to have a strong American lobbying component to it as well. Much to Doha’s vexation, the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a group known to be allergic to the Muslim Brotherhood and in favor of hardline on Iran, held a pre-arranged conference on May 23 (the same day the controversy over the emir’s statements broke out) titled, “Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Global Affiliates: A New U.S. Administration Considers New Policies.” Many of the remarks made at the conference, along with editorials written by FDD representatives in major U.S. outlets, focused on a message that branded Muslim Brotherhood affiliates — and their Qatari sponsors — as a “gateway drug” for violent Islamists. U.S. policy, they urged, should be to “ostracize, isolate and delegitimize” the so-called “hate group” and their Qatari sponsors. Moreover, they argued, the United States’ 2003 decision to shift from the Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar is not irreversible, especially when the gap between the United States on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on the other has narrowed considerably since the 9/11 attacks. Even attempts were made to lure Stratfor into this media barrage with an interview request from an Emirati media outlet containing leading questions that were obviously designed to denigrate Qatar and fuel speculation that the United States would withdraw from its base in Qatar.

The Geopolitics of the GCC

To make sense of the drama, we need to take a step back and take stock of the geopolitical map. Saudi Arabia, with its vast oil reserves, claim to Islam’s holiest sites, and increasingly friendly relationship with the United States, feels both compelled and entitled to lead a broader Sunni alliance to block Iran and prevent Islamist political activists from threatening the existing regional order. But the Sunni Gulf sheikhdoms sprouting off the Arabian Peninsula, wedged between Iran and Saudi Arabia along the Persian Gulf, have discrete ways of managing their existence between the Sunni and Shiite giants.
Aspiring for Gulf domination has historically entailed vying for control over the Strait of Hormuz along the isles of Bahrain and the oases of Qatif and Hasa (located in the modern-day, oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.) Kuwait, precariously nestled at the top of the Gulf, lies vulnerable to both Iran and Shiite-majority Iraq and is thus more cautious when it comes to dealing with its Persian neighbor. With more than one-third of its population comprised of Shiites, Kuwait’s diverse demographics and imbedded sectarianism compels the Kuwaiti leadership to find a working balance among its Shiite, Sunni, Islamist and secular factions.
Bahrain, a tiny Shiite-majority island under Sunni rule that is physically tethered to the Saudi kingdom via a causeway allowing easy access to Saudi troops, is at the frontline of the Saudi-Iranian proxy war. It is wholly dependent on Riyadh for its internal security and thus easily falls in line with the Saudi agenda. Oman, lying opposite Iran’s control of the Strait of Hormuz at the southeastern tip of the peninsula, understands just as well as Tehran that a close bilateral relationship is vital to its security. The quirky sultanate thus maintains a policy of fierce neutrality and is consequently a regular diplomatic go-between for Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The United Arab Emirates, curving at the mouth of the Arabian Sea and heavily dependent on the security of the Strait of Hormuz, can also at times exercise an Omani and Kuwaiti-like pragmatism in dealing with Iran, especially when it comes to commercial matters. When Iran was buried under economic sanctions, for example, Dubai was a prime spot for Iranian businessmen to set up shell companies. But the United Arab Emirates also has its deep grievances with Iran and concerns about its growing ambitions. These include Iran’s seizure of three strategic islands near the entrance to the strait in 1971, just a day before the British formally ended its Gulf protectorate to create the United Arab Emirates.
The United Arab Emirates, far more economically and politically secure than Saudi Arabia, is also not interested in living under a Saudi umbrella. The Emiratis largely view the Saudis as clumsily playing catch-up on economic diversification and expect to eventually see Riyadh stumble when social, economic and political pressures overwhelm the House of Saud, leaving space in due time for the United Arab Emirates to make a bid for regional leadership. The Emiratis also have differences with Saudi Arabia over certain coalition projects, such as the war in Yemen. While Saudi Arabia, which is most exposed to spillover from Yemen, has to entertain a compromise with Islamist groups like Al-Islah to manage Yemen’s divided north, the United Arab Emirates remains steadfast to its anti-Islamist policy and is willing to flout Saudi policy by fanning the flames of Yemen’s southern separatists.
But as a federation of seven emirates, the United Arab Emirates also has its own internal cleavages to manage. Though more socially and politically liberal than Saudi Arabia, large wealth disparities exist between the rich southern emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai and the five poorer northern emirates. In the early years after its founding, the United Arab Emirates cautiously allowed political Islamists in from other parts of the Arab world. Islamist activists settled in poorer areas and developed influence in the education system with the growth of Al-Islah — the Emirati affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood. Over time, however, Abu Dhabi and Dubai grew paranoid of Al-Islah’s political ambitions, a fear that was confirmed with the spawning of the Arab Spring in late 2011. Since then, the United Arab Emirates has taken the most hawkish stance of all the GCC states in espousing a zero-tolerance posture toward political Islamists of every stripe at home and abroad in places like Yemen, Egypt, Libya and Syria.
Qatar, a nub jutting out of the Arabian Peninsula, went the opposite direction. With a small population and a unitary state centralized around Doha, Qatar lacks the internal ethno-religious tensions and political insecurities of its neighbors. This level of security gives Qatar an independent streak with Doha balking at taking orders from either Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. Qatar resisted incorporation into the United Arab Emirates in 1971 when the British protectorate ended, preferring to hold out on its own under an American security umbrella. The poor nation survived mainly on fishing and pearl diving for much of its short history until a natural gas boom put Qatar on the map in the late 1990s. As the only major natural gas player in the region, Qatar had a clear path and ideal energy platform to differentiate itself among its neighboring oil heavyweights. As it rose to global LNG dominance, Qatar’s investment portfolio grew globally, and Doha wasted no time in building up its regional clout to be able to finally punch above its weight in the Gulf.
To the horror of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Qatari money rapidly gave rise to media giant Al Jazeera and has propped up Islamist groups in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Gaza and Yemen. When the Arab Spring briefly brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt, it was Qatari (and Turkish) backing that enabled the group to hold ground until the Egyptian military caught its breath and intervened. When Saudi Arabia froze out Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood after the Arab Spring, Qatar and Turkey gave fleeing Islamists refuge. When Saudi and the United Arab Emirates found a vehemently anti-Islamist strongman in Gen. Khalifa Hiftar to shape post-Gadhafi Libya in the east, Qatar threw its weight behind the Islamist-led government and militias in Tripoli. Doha has also preferred to maintain a tight working relationship with Tehran (also critical to Qatar’s ability to exploit its natural gas fields under joint custody with Iran) rather than invite the kind of Iranian meddling that tends to come with latching onto the Saudi bandwagon. Everywhere Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates turned, there was a Qatari counter from within their GCC bloc.

Doha: A Rebel With a Cause

If the GCC had any hope of building a credible and coherent security bloc, Qatar would need to get in line. This is a wrangling effort that goes back decades; in 1995, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates tried to no avail to rein in Qatar when the Qatari emir deposed his father and declared himself ruler, thus flouting a GCC tradition of dynastic rule. But the first big attempt to snuff out Doha’s rebellious streak in foreign policy matters came in 2014, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha and demanded that Qatar end its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and rein in critical coverage by Al Jazeera on how regional regimes were putting down Arab Spring uprisings. (Kuwait and Oman largely stayed out of the affair.) After eight months of the Saudi-UAE isolation campaign against Qatar, Riyadh convened a summit to settle their differences, and Doha made some nominal assurances to its Gulf neighbors on relocating a few Muslim Brotherhood figures to Turkey and shutting down the Egyptian arm of Al Jazeera. In the end, Qatar largely maintained its maverick policy of backing Islamist political activists and maintaining a pragmatic relationship with Iran. Qatar also proceeded apace with plans for Turkey to establish a permanent military base in the Gulf country, giving Ankara greater ability to reshape politics in the Gulf in favor of political Islamists. Fed up with Doha’s intransigence, the Saudis and Emiratis have spun up a media firestorm over the Qatari emir’s comments to try to force Doha into another diplomatic timeout, while Kuwait and Oman try to appeal for calm once again.
This latest media rabble is just the latest exposure of the deep cleavages within the GCC and has the potential to further fray the alliance, undermining any idealistic American agenda to cobble together a so-called Arab NATO. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates both see an opportunity to expose Qatar’s rebellious nature to Trump and use that as leverage to reinforce their own security ties with the United States, while trying to convince Washington to officially brand the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. But even as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates share a common purpose in exposing Qatar, they, too, are competing for leadership of the Sunni Gulf bloc in the longer run. Regardless of how much backing the United States puts into this project, the fault lines of the GCC alliance will continue to flare.

Short-Term Needs v Long-Term Realities

Qatar’s next steps will largely be dictated by how far the United States goes in backing this Saudi and Emirati play against Doha. On the one hand, the United States wants to see a tighter Sunni Arab coalition and can use the threat of reconsidering its military footprint in Qatar to try to bring Doha in line with the Saudi agenda. Doha cannot survive in this neighborhood without an external security guarantor and though Qatari-Turkish military ties are strengthening, Turkey is still nowhere near a substitute for the U.S. military. While Qatar cannot afford to sacrifice its American security guarantees, Qatar also sees little strategic value in taking an extreme, short-term view toward political Islamists and Iran when both will remain an integral part of the regional fabric for the long term. Even as Iran will have to work hard to hold onto the gains it has made over the past 14 years in the face of rising regional competition, it remains a formidable competitor to the Sunni bloc and retains critical leverage over the Strait of Hormuz.
Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood did not disappear with the Egyptian military coup in 2013. Bulging youth demographics across much of the region, a lack of job opportunities pervading power vacuums in the heart of Mesopotamia and the Gulf, and the boomerang effect of heavy-handed political repression will continue driving large numbers of people toward Islamist organizations and other opposition groups demanding more open political systems. And with Turkey reasserting itself in the Islamic world, Islamist organizations will have a strong state sponsor, along with Qatar, to ensure their survival even as they face an uphill battle in the shorter term. Qatar and Turkey, in other words, are playing the long game in the Middle East, rather than trying to cling desperately to a 20th-century model of the region that is slowly coming apart at the seams. The Trump administration, however, appears more inclined to adopt the Saudi-Emirati short-term perspective in trying to manage the region. What will end up emerging out of this GCC imbroglio is not a viable Arab NATO for the United States to streamline its regional security policy, but a much messier reality for Washington to contend with as it tries to navigate the fractious geopolitics of the Gulf.

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