Trump doctrine’s first casualty

The American president’s foray into West Asia, a fortnight ago, has emboldened Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen to snap ties with Qatar

Written by Talmiz Ahmad | Updated: June 7, 2017 5:57 am
Donald Trump, Qatar, Saudi Arabia C R Sasikumar

Two weeks after President Donald Trump left Riyadh, the first reverberations of the “doctrine” articulated by him are being felt across West Asia. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen have snapped diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing the island nation of supporting terrorist groups, including the al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and those backed by Iran, and destabilising the region. Qatar’s partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have also blocked all transport and communication links with Qatar and asked its nationals to leave within two weeks.

Qatar has alienated some of its Arab neighbours, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, in the past due to its close links with the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members are hate-figures in many authoritarian Arab countries, and for espousing an engagement with Iran. Thus, Qatar was the only GCC country that backed the resurgence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the wake of the Arab Spring, and then supported the Mohamed Morsi government in Egypt. Later, in the early days of the Syrian conflict, when Saudi Arabia was backing the “secular” Free Syrian Army, Qatar, allied with Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, was promoting Brotherhood- affiliated militia. In 2014, Qatar was accused of giving sanctuary to Brotherhood  members, which led to the withdrawal of the Saudi, UAE and Bahraini ambassadors from Doha for eight months.

The origins of the current discord and the harsh Saudi response may be traced to the Trump foray in the region a fortnight ago. The president, in deep trouble at home, sailed into the turbulent waters of West Asia and firmly placed the US as the political and military ally of Saudi Arabia and its allies, who together constitute a “Sunni” Arab NATO against Iran. Trump has reversed Barack Obama’s insistence on avoiding entanglements in West Asian conflicts. He has unleashed US military force in Mosul, where a few hundred civilians were killed in one bombardment; in Syria, where it bombed a Syrian airfield in retaliation for an alleged chemical attack by the Assad government, and then in Afghanistan, where this wounded nation experienced the “mother of all bombs” as a demonstration of US prowess.

The Saudi-US alliance has been lubricated with some lucrative defence deals valued at $110 billion, with the promise that they could go up to $350 billion over the next ten years. These were supplemented by energy and industry contracts of about $40 billion, and an investment in US infrastructure of $20 billion. These deals will create a million jobs in the US directly, the White House has gloated, with “millions” others indirectly.

For Saudi Arabia, the Trump presidency has brought an end to the nightmare of the Obama era, when the US had failed to back the kingdom to effect regime change in Syria, and had been reluctant to support Saudi military action in Yemen, both theatres where Saudi Arabia saw Iranian attempts to expand its influence in Arab lands through its Shia surrogates. Above all, Obama had vigorously pushed the nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic, opening the possibility of Iran seeking to play a high- profile role in regional affairs.

With the US now firmly on its side, Saudi Arabia is prepared to flex its muscles both against recalcitrant Qatar as also Iran, with its hegemonic aspirations in West Asia. Qatar provoked Saudi Arabia within two days of Trump’s departure from Riyadh. Speaking at a military parade, on May 25, Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, articulated his views on several matters that seriously undercut Saudi positions. He said that the kingdom had become much too dependent on Trump, who was facing  serious political difficulties at home. He criticised the demonisation of Iran, which he described as a major regional and Islamic power, and called for engagement and dialogue.

He also praised Hamas and Hezbollah as legitimate resistance movements. This was particularly galling for the kingdom which sees the latter as an Iran-sponsored terrorist group, that, among its other sins, is also robustly backing the Assad regime against Saudi-supported militia.While Qatar denied the veracity of these remarks, saying that its sites had been hacked, Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies immediately unleashed a well-orchestrated campaign against Qatar. Besides vilification in the media, this included a letter signed by 200 descendants of the 18th century cleric, Sheikh Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, whose doctrines constitute the basis of the Saudi (and Qatari) doctrinal belief system, where it was asserted that the claim of the Qatari royal family to descend from their revered ancestor was fabricated, thus  questioning the right of the Al Thani royal family to rule their island nation.

The virulence of the latest Saudi attacks on Qatar is quite different from the relatively low-key approach of the kingdom towards its maverick neighbour and reflects its ties not just with the Trump presidency but also with pro-Israel groups in the US. Thus, in the attacks on Qatar after the emir’s remarks, a lead role was played by the Foundation for Defence of Democracies (FDD), a hardcore anti-Iran organisation, with close ties to right-wing elements in Israel. This fits in with the Trump “doctrine” which encourages an affiliation of Sunni Arabs with Israel against Iran.

In fact, unnamed GCC officials have briefed friendly commentators about the plans being put in place by Saudi Arabia to foment unrest in Iran by inciting ethnic minorities and encourage regime change; the other part of the plan being mentioned is to effect a change in Qatar’s posture and bring it in line with that of the kingdom and its  allies. The US appears to be backing these plans by appointing a veteran intelligence official to promote the US-Saudi agenda in Iran and possibly Qatar. Given the fraught environment prevailing in the region and the strong coalition ranged against it, Qatar needs to review its positions, or change will be enforced from outside.

The writer is the former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia and the UAE

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  1. S
    Sankaran Krishnan
    Jun 8, 2017 at 5:06 pm
    As an Former Indian Diplomat and worked in Saudi and UAE he might have in depth knowledge about the happenings and as ell full details based on that he might have done good analysis of the present crisis but he had dealt by giving the briefings which we already know through the media coverage. The query is what US President Trump had done is right or wrong and why he is not bold enough to say this is the query ???
    Reply
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      Bharat
      Jun 7, 2017 at 9:30 pm
      Muslim nations must come out from the clutches of west and have independent democratic set up with self reliant in every field. This will satisfy its subjects and may control terrorism effectively. Aspirations of people have been suppressed causing unrest. Unrest in subjects is cause of all troubles. USA uses Muslim nations for its control by dividing them and creating dissidents by supply arms against legitimate governments. West created jihadis, supplied arms to Shia and Kurds against Saddam. Now w Iraq is weeping for Saddam.
      Reply
      1. E
        Employ Ment
        Jun 7, 2017 at 9:28 pm
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        Reply
        1. S
          Seshubabu Kilambi
          Jun 7, 2017 at 7:54 pm
          Trump visit to west asia made the arab world in tatters
          Reply
          1. S
            S Ramesh
            Jun 7, 2017 at 4:07 pm
            An insipid article ; only already known things are articulated; What about the gas price fluctuations and oil price fluctuations and their correlation. And the sovereign wealth of these nations.
            Reply
            1. S
              SP
              Jun 7, 2017 at 2:17 pm
              What is Trump going to do about double game pla by stan? What are India, Afghanistan and Iran going to do?
              Reply
              1. M
                M. Kapil
                Jun 7, 2017 at 10:44 am
                The writer conveniently forgets the fact that Qatar royal family gave refuge to M F Hussain. He talks about distant West Asia, but does not mention Hussain who irked Hindu sensibilities. Perhaps, for that reason, he was a secular hero.
                Reply
                1. G
                  Ghulam Muhammed
                  Jun 7, 2017 at 10:03 am
                  The writer being a diplomat, possibly he avoided the more drastic blame on Trump and Israel to force boycott of Qatar, unless Qatar stops it's aid to Hamas and it's soft corner for Muslim Brotherhood, championed by Shaikh Qardawi. In fact, it is quite possible that the entire Trump Doctrine was prepared by Israel, to give it a free hand over Arab States. This further fits Trump's current Anti-Muslim image.
                  Reply
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