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For all the high drama, the worsening rift in the Gulf between Qatar and the gang of four—Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—is more intrigue than a real threat to either regional stability or to American interests. In siding with the Saudis, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump hasn’t helped matters or the United States, since it has now injected itself into the middle of a nasty dispute among its close security partners in the Gulf, which is bound to antagonize one side or the other. Unless the parties want Trump to get involved, in order to close or cover a deal they’ve agreed to, Washington should steer clear of the crisis.
The latest development in this conflict are reports from U.S. intelligence sources that seem to confirm Qatar’s accusations that the UAE orchestrated the entire crisis by hacking into Qatari government websites and planting false and provocative statements attributed to the Qatari Emir, which the Saudis and others then used to begin the pressure campaign against Doha. An organization called Global Leaks made the revelation by hacking into the e-mail account of the UAE Ambassador to Washington and has exposed messages that purport to show the UAE making arrangements to hack the Qatari government.
The gang of four has of course denied all allegations. All parties have instead portrayed themselves as objects of the other sides’ nefarious machinations in an effort to win greater U.S. support for their positions. And Trump, who was clearly enchanted by the royal treatment that the Saudis offered him during his first official visit, initially appeared to buy Riyadh’s line that it cut ties with Qatar because the country was supporting terrorism. But in reality, the gang of four, led by the impetuous and imperious new Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, hoped to coerce Qatar into weakening its ties with Iran and Turkey, which are fellow supporters of Islamists throughout the region, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
The move, however, did not isolate Qatar as the Saudis had hoped. Unsurprisingly, both the Iranians and the Turks came to Qatar’s aid by helping it break the boycott on trade and travel. (Qatar leans heavily on Saudi Arabia for food imports, for example, and Qatari airlines had to take longer, more expensive routes due to the airspace ban.) Qatar’s ties with the two countries are now stronger than ever, and Doha shows no signs of throwing Hamas and other Islamist groups under the bus. But Washington, which has essentially given the Saudis and company a blank check in agreeing to underwrite the risks of confronting Qatar, is encouraging them to take risks that they might not have otherwise taken. This is also the case in Yemen, where the United States continues to provide critical logistical and intelligence support for the Saudis in their brutal campaign to defeat the Houthi rebels, a group that dislodged the Yemeni government from power in 2014, and this has thus eased the pressure on Riyadh to pursue a negotiated end to the conflict. The Trump administration’s hostility toward Iran has also emboldened the Saudis against Iran.
Washington has also exaggerated the stakes involved, leading to self-inflicted pressure to dive into the middle of this messy dispute. The core U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf are to maintain the free flow of oil, to prevent terrorist attacks emanating from the region against the United States and its European allies, and to prevent Iran from establishing its hegemony over the region. None of these interests are jeopardized by the dispute. There is no threat to freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf and none is likely to materialize as a result of this crisis. Neither Qatar nor Bahrain is going to boot U.S. forces out of its bases. The Saudis are not going to cut off counterterrorism cooperation with the United States. And although Iran has increased its influence in Qatar thanks to the Saudis, Doha is not about to join Iran’s Shiite crescent.
There has been much gnashing of teeth by the Trump administration over how the crisis might have undermined its dream of forming a unified Sunni Arab coalition to roll back Iran and fight jihadist terrorism. And yet the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), ever since it was formed in 1981 to counter Iran, have been anything but a model of unity. Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar have much less alarmist and hawkish views of Iran than Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. In addition to their divisions over Iran, there is also a considerable and long-standing mistrust of Saudi’s push for Gulf unity, which some saw as a Trojan Horse for Saudi domination of the Arab Gulf.
These intramural divisions help to explain why the GCC has made so little progress toward collective defense. For example, defeating the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and fighting global jihadists are simply not high priorities for the United States’ Sunni Arab friends (with the notable exception of Egypt, which faces its own Islamist insurgency in the Sinai). On the contrary, they would much rather pursue their own sectarian and geopolitical agendas—as we have seen with the Saudi-Qatar dispute—and drag the United States into taking their side in these regional fights by playing on the West’s fears of Iran and ISIS. It’s one thing to be played by your adversaries; it’s quite another to get manipulated by your friends.
What’s more, there is no comprehensive solution to the current standoff against Qatar. There will likely be periods of accommodation and tension. But the underlying conflict—a test of wills between Qatar, which is determined to maintain its independence in choosing its allies, and Saudi Arabia and UAE, who are bent on punishing Doha for making choices that harm their interests—won’t be resolved anytime soon. Mohammed bin Salman could rule Saudi Arabia for decades to come, and as the architect of the get-tough-on-Qatar policy he’s likely to pursue any opportunity in the future to cut the Qataris down to size.
To further complicate matters, Qatar’s support for Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood—one of the Saudis’ and Emiratis’ main complaints—isn’t just a local problem but a region-wide ideological issue that’s likely to continue for many years. The region is in the process of sorting itself out on so many homegrown issues and conflicts—Sunnis versus Shia, Persians versus Arabs, and even Sunnis versus other Sunnis—that it’s hard to see Washington playing a central role in defusing, let alone resolving, any of them.
The best piece of advice for Washington is not to engage, particularly in a way that forces it to choose sides and add yet another layer of complexity to the ongoing fissures. That’s likely to increase tensions, not diminish them, and drag the United States into the tangled internal affairs of the Arabs, which it cannot possibly disentangle. Whatever band-aid ultimately emerges to patch up the dispute, it will probably only be a temporary fix. And given the importance of these security partners the United States cannot afford to get caught up in a wash, rinse, and repeat cycle, which is likely to be the never-ending story of ongoing relations between Qatar and the gang of four.