The Trump factor
A convergence of factors appears to have shifted the geopolitical landscape in the Persian Gulf. The Trump administration signaledthat it intends to follow a set of regional policies that are aligned far closer to those of Abu Dhabi and Riyadh than Doha. Both Mohammed bin Zayed and Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were high-profile visitors to Washington in the run-up to the Riyadh summit with Arab and Islamic leaders.
Further, the policy inexperience of many within Trump’s inner circle has presented an opportunity for both the Saudis and the Emiratis to shape the administration’s thinking on critical regional issues such as Iran and Islamism, both of which were evident during the Riyadh visit.
Whereas the Obama administration sought to enhance U.S. engagement with the GCC as a bloc, Trump focused instead on Saudi Arabia and the UAE as the twin pillars of its regional approach. Strong bonds reportedly have formed between Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia as well as Yusuf al-Otaiba, the influential UAE ambassador in Washington.
Key principals within the Trump administration, such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, hold viewson Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood that are virtually indistinguishable from those in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are emerging as the two spearheads around which U.S. regional policies are realigning, including a set of hawkish defense and security interests; the joint raid conducted by U.S. and UAE Special Forces in Yemen in January may well be only the first of numerous joint initiatives across regional conflict zones in the months and years ahead.
Whatever signals may (or may not) have been passed in private, there has been a noticeable increase in domestic and regional assertiveness in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s Saudi trip. In Bahrain, the deadliest raid by security forces on opposition forces since 2011 resulted in five deaths just two days after Trump assured the Bahraini king of a new era in bilateral relations.
The Saudi-Emirati media campaign against Qatar happened to coincide with a high-profile event in Washington, where analysts and former senior U.S. officials cast doubt on Qatar’s reliability as a regional security partner. Ruling circles in Persian Gulf capitals may feel emboldened by the new political climate to see how far they can go in pursuit of hawkish domestic and regional policies and what, if any, pushback they encounter.
There are differences between this latest disagreement and the past — not least in the way the current standoff is being played out in the media rather than behind the closed doors of leaders’ meetings — and no act equivalent to the withdrawal of the ambassadors. In fact, few officials have publicly joined the feeding frenzy and have been careful not to single Qatar out by name in calling for brotherly unity against the Iranian “menace.”
The carefully controlled public spaces in GCC states mean it is inconceivable that such attacks on a fellow member state could have been made without, at the very least, a degree of official sanction behind the scenes. By allowing the media campaign to run into a second week with no apparent letup, policymakers in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi may be hoping to pressure the leadership in Doha into making concessions or watching to see whether figures within the Trump administration take the bait without having to resort to official threats or sanctions. Where this leaves the GCC as an entity in the age of Trump is anyone’s guess.