Analysis

How the Middle East Is Letting Saudi Arabia Impose Its Ground Rules

Is it desirable for one Arab power to have a monopoly on the agenda in this part of the world - especially if that country has the ability to dictate Washington's policy?

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sits during an allegiance pledging ceremony in Mecca, Saudi Arabia June 21, 2017.
HANDOUT/REUTERS

Suppose U.S. President Donald Trump had awakened from a nightmare and issued one of those foreign-policy tweets that he uses to run the world. In this tweet, he ordered that “Israel must sever its relations with Turkey because of Turkey’s relations with Iran and Qatar, and it must shut down Haaretz and Channel 10 television” – the latter both being media outlets whose reporters criticize his policies night and day, and of course are also supporters of terror.

Then let's suppose that a few hours later, he remembered that Israel also has excellent relations with Russia, and that the two countries are coordinating their military activities in Syria. So in the next tweet, he threatened that if the Jewish state didn’t freeze its military ties with Russia, a U.S. enemy that’s also an ally of Iran – America would impose a blockade on it.

Anyone who considers the above scenario fantastic should consider the sanctions that Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt have imposed on a fellow Arab country, Qatar. Moreover, they have presented 13 conditions for lifting these sanctions.

Inter alia, Qatar must shut down its Al Jazeera television network, “because it’s a mouthpiece for the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorist organizations,” in the words of the UAE’s foreign minister. It must also sever its relations with Iran, close the Turkish military base located in its territory, and extradite or deport 59 officials affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.

In addition, Qatar must allow outside officials to monitor its compliance with the demands once a month, pay compensation to the Gulf states that have been hurt by its policies – albeit with no mention of the amount or what the compensation is for – and fall into line with the Gulf states’ foreign, economic and defense policies (thereby effectively ceasing to have an independent foreign policy).

Not surprisingly, the government in Doha quickly made it clear that these conditions were neither “reasonable” nor “actionable.” The British government agreed with that conclusion, and its foreign minister, Boris Johnson, said the crisis would be resolved only “when all countries involved are willing to discuss terms that are measured and realistic.” In other words, the demands presented to date are neither of those things.

For its part, the U.S. State Department issued a similar statement. In contrast to Trump, who accused Qatar of being a haven for terror, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has wondered about the real reasons behind the decision spearheaded by Saudi Arabia.

Tillerson’s question is a good one, given the relationship that has developed over the past year between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, which is Iran’s most important partner. Riyadh hasn’t said a word about this partnership, nor has it said anything against the good relations the sultanate of Oman maintains with Tehran.

Moreover, if Saudi Arabia is demanding that Turkey close its military base in Qatar – a base established under a 2014 agreement between the two countries – why isn’t it making a similar demand of America, whose largest air force base in the Middle East is located in Qatar? And why hasn’t Riyadh (or Trump) demanded of Ankara what they are demanding of Doha in terms of ties with Iran?

Turkey has already announced that it has no intention of closing down the base, and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has called the blockade of Qatar “a step that contradicts the principles of Islam and is like a death sentence for the country.” Still, Erdogan faces a serious dilemma on this issue.

Turkey and Qatar both support the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and they see eye to eye on the desired outcome of the Syrian civil war. But the Turkish president may have to choose which he prefers: Qatar, which has given him an important foothold in the Arab Middle East, or the Saudi kingdom, which has brought his country into the Arab fold as part of its Sunni coalition.

The members of the chorus who are echoing Riyadh, and Trump above all, must also contend with its demand to stop Al Jazeera from broadcasting. After all, anyone who supports this demand is effectively granting legitimacy to Erdogan’s media policy, which entails riding roughshod over every opposition outlet.

Nor is it superfluous to note that anyone enthusiastic about imposing a boycott on Qatar is effectively lending support to the blockade of Gaza. After all, if the Arabs are effectively imposing a closure on a fellow Arab country, Israel can surely take similar measures.

But the internal contradictions that the Qatar crisis has revealed in Saudi and American foreign policy are a secondary issue. The more important question is whether imposing sanctions has become a tool that Saudi Arabia will also use against other countries. Is this part of a new strategy being dictated by the new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to impose Saudi ground rules on the Middle East?

Is there a connection between the sanctions on Qatar and the partial sanctions Riyadh imposed on Cairo, after the latter supported a Russian proposal regarding Syria? Or a connection to last year’s cessation of aid to Jordan by both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, because of Amman’s refusal to take an active part in the Syrian civil war? Or to the economic boycott Riyadh imposed on Lebanon because Hezbollah was participating in the fighting in Syria (on the opposite side from Riyadh), while also serving in the government in Beirut?

At first glance, Saudi Arabia’s policy is in line with that of both Trump and Israel with regard to Iran and the war on terror. But is it desirable for one Arab power to have a monopoly on setting the agenda in the Middle East – especially when that country is also able to dictate Washington’s policy?