Middle East

Qatar Crisis Shows Risk of Trump's Saudi Reset

The kingdom took Trump's full-throated support to quickly act against U.S. interests.

Careful where you point that thing.

Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump feels his recent trip to the Middle East was a great success, and the actions by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies to isolate and punish Qatar this week were the first fruits of his new policy. In reality, the schism between Gulf Cooperation Council allies is a setback for U.S. interests, and the reset between Washington and Riyadh, heralded by the administration and many observers, if not a farce, is clearly far from complete.

Trump made a good move in choosing Saudi Arabia as the destination of his first foreign visit.  The kingdom remains the most powerful country in the region, and the partnership has long been a pillar of regional U.S. policy.  The bilateral relationship suffered significantly under the Barack Obama administration, which sought to position the U.S. as a neutral broker in the feud between the Arab Gulf states and Iran. The Saudis increasingly felt disrespected, questioned the U.S. commitment to the Middle East, and lost confidence in America’s ability or willingness to work with them to address regional challenges. 

Moreover, the Saudis were more eager for a reset with the U.S. than nearly any other country.  During my trips to Saudi Arabia over the past three years, I was repeatedly asked whether recent U.S. disinterest was merely indicative of the Obama administration, or whether it suggested a larger U.S. trend.  So keen were the Saudis to find out the answer that they were willing quickly to look beyond Trump’s negative rhetoric about Saudi Arabia on the campaign trail to see what sort of relationship could be established in the early days of the new administration.

That said, the focus of Trump’s visit was surprisingly narrow and, as a result, involved some missed opportunities.  Saudi Arabia is in what could be an existential struggle to reform its economy to meet the new realities of global energy markets.  This will not only require economic changes, but social and possibly political ones, as the royal family seeks to build and maintain support for what inevitably will be austerity measures affecting the whole population. 

It is squarely in America’s interest that Saudi Arabia succeeds in these efforts, for the alternative -- a failed kingdom or a much more repressive one -- will generate more terrorism and regional instability.  But instead of seeing these critical connections, the message Trump delivered during the visit was that Saudi Arabia’s internal matters are of no real interest to the U.S.; it is terrorism -- and largely the use of hard power to combat it -- that matters to America.

However, even if you disagree with me about the wisdom of having a broader conversation with Riyadh, you are likely to concur that the most important thing that should arise from a Washington-Riyadh reset is much closer coordination on how to handle regional issues. One of the most detrimental outgrowths of the drift that occurred between the Obama administration and Saudi Arabia was the loss of close coordination on matters of mutual import. 

For example, in March 2015, Saudi Arabia declared it would lead a coalition of Arab countries in a military operation to restore Yemeni President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi to office after he had been overthrown by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.  General Lloyd Austin, the head of U.S. Central Command, later told Congress that he had been informed of the operation just one hour before it was initiated.  Later that year, Riyadh announced the formation of a 34-member military alliance of Muslim countries to fight terrorism, causing then-Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to say he looked forward “to learning more about what Saudi Arabia had in mind.” 

The fact that the Saudis -- alongside the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain and others -- would cut off diplomatic, economic and other ties with Qatar without any real consultation with the U.S. raises real red flags. America has significant interests in Qatar, many of which could be jeopardized by the recent actions.  The lack of coordination was apparent from the beginning; one hopes the president would have not boosted forthcoming arms sales to Qatar if he was part of an imminent effort to isolate it economically. 

The awkward reaction by the administration -- with Trump supporting it and Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson simultaneously calling for dialogue and emphasizing the need for Gulf unity -- was another indication that the U.S. had been taken by surprise.

Under a true reset of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, the two nations and other Gulf states would have worked together to formulate a joint strategy to get Qatar to move away from its support for terrorist groups that destabilize the region.  The U.S. could have brought considerable assets to this effort.  On the side of carrots, Washington would have brought its economic weight, prospective arms sales, and its ability to influence other members of the GCC.  On the side of sticks, the U.S. could have raised the prospect of moving its air base and Central Command forward headquarters out of Qatar, and even threaten sanctions. (Of course, this would complicate the relationship between Qatar and American oil and gas companies that are vital to the export of Qatar’s liquefied natural gas.)

Most importantly, the U.S. could have been the ideal mediator between Qatar and the other Gulf states. Tillerson, the former chief executive officer of Exxon/Mobil, has close personal ties to the emirate -- its astounding development and growth came in no small part thanks to that company's help in developing its natural gas. Instead, the U.S. finds itself on the periphery, caught flat-footed, in no small part because of Trump’s irrepressible and impulsive desire to take credit for all developments. 

The U.S. and the Saudis need not -- and will not -- have identical interests in order for the partnership to be robust, meaningful and a net contributor to regional stability.  But tight communication and coordination are essential if this  partnership is to be anything more than an occasional photo opportunity and a lavish state visit. 

When it comes time to approve the large arms-sales package to Saudi Arabia, Congress should measure the health of the new partnership in large part by the extent to which the two nations are working together in both the formulation and execution of strategy.  Moreover, while this week’s developments should not dissuade the Trump administration from seeking a closer relationship with Riyadh, it should be a wake-up call that a lot more work needs to be done to ensure that the reset is real, not just a façade for more aggressive Saudi action, uncoordinated with the U.S., and potentially endangering American interests in the broader Middle East.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Meghan L. O'Sullivan at Meghan_OSullivan@hks.harvard.edu

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

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