Checkbook diplomacy? How Qatar’s renewed US ties reshape the Gulf.

Why We Wrote This

Shared values? Or shared interests? The principle guiding President Trump’s “transactional” diplomacy has been more the latter. Among Gulf Arabs, that’s created competition for good U.S. relations.

Evan Vucci/AP
President Donald Trump shakes hands with Qatar's emir, Sheikh Tamim al-Thani, in the Oval Office in Washington, July 9, 2019.

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President Donald Trump’s about-face on Qatar – receiving the emir, Sheikh Tamim al-Thani, at the White House in July as an “old friend” two years after condemning the Gulf Arab state as a “funder of terrorism” – was telling.

It potentially shifted the balance of power in the Gulf, opening a door to a resurgence of multilateralism in the region. And, say observers and officials there, it exposed the limits of influence achieved by Qatar’s rivals, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in a transactional White House.

Just as Mr. Trump touted Saudi Arabia’s billions in arms deals during a March 2018 visit by the crown prince, in the recent visit by the emir, Qatar inked tens of billions of dollars in deals with Raytheon, Boeing, and Chevron. It was a case of Qatar beating Saudi Arabia and the UAE at their own game.

Says Andreas Krieg, a lecturer in security studies at King’s College London: “The Qataris understood that Trump is very much a transactional president – as much as the Saudis and the UAE understand – you need to pour money into the country in order to win his favor.”

President Donald Trump’s recent embrace of Qatar marked a significant turnaround for an administration that for most of its tenure had accused the Gulf state of financing terrorism.

But perhaps more importantly, it has exposed the limits of influence achieved by Qatar’s rivals, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in the White House. And that is potentially shifting the power balance in the Arab world and opening the door to a resurgence of multilateralism in the Gulf.

In 2017, as Saudi Arabia and the UAE launched a blockade and isolation of Qatar, forcing 10 of its allies to cut off or downgrade ties with Doha – President Trump took the rare move of stepping in and supporting the blockade against Qatar – for years a U.S. ally as well.

In a June 2017 press conference in the Rose Garden, Mr. Trump said “the nation of Qatar, unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level,” repeating the talking point of Saudi Arabia. Experts say that was an extreme exaggeration of Doha’s support for political Islamist groups during the Arab Spring.

Yet two years later, President Trump received the Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim al-Thani, in the White House, referring to him as an “old friend” and signing billions of dollars in arms deals – and delivering a reality check to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

Observers and officials in the region say the Trump pivot on Qatar proved the limits of the support one can count on from a transactional White House: a higher bidder can always come along.

Just as Mr. Trump touted Saudi Arabia’s billions in arms deals during a visit by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in March 2018, in the recent visit by the emir, Qatar inked tens of billions of dollars in deals with Raytheon, Boeing, and Chevron. It also pledged to increase its investments in American companies by $15 billion over the next two years.

Crucially, Sheikh al-Thani agreed not only to expand the American Al Udeid Air Base outside Doha ­– long a request from Washington and a priority for containing nearby Iran – but that Qatar would completely fund the expensive expansion itself.

It was a case of Qatar beating Saudi Arabia and the UAE at their own game.

“The Qataris understood that Trump is very much a transactional president – as much as the Saudis and the UAE understand – you need to pour money into the country in order to win his favor,” says Andreas Krieg, a lecturer in security studies at King’s College London.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters
Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper greets Qatar's emir, Sheikh Tamim al-Thani, at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, July 8, 2019.

Observers say Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have learned another hard lesson in investing so heavily in Mr. Trump to deliver on their regional goals: In the United States, institutions still matter.

By entrusting everything to President Trump, the observers say, the two Gulf states failed to calculate how much the Pentagon, State Department, Congress, and advisers can affect, shape, and even undo policy decisions.

In the case of Qatar, then-Defense Secretary James Mattis, the military, and the State Department prevented the president’s quick drop of Qatar and slowly convinced Mr. Trump to change his mind.

U.S. frustrations

According to U.S. diplomatic sources, a similar process led the president to shift his position against the Saudi and UAE interests in Sudan and even Libya.

The pivot on Qatar also marks rising frustration within the White House over Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s misadventures.

The blockade of Qatar, which Riyadh and Abu Dhabi pitched as central to cutting off terrorism and confronting Iran, only served to fracture and divide the Gulf and the wider Arab world, undermining Washington’s efforts to oppose Tehran.

“The administration has lost patience with the blockade, which has harmed U.S. interests in containing Iran,” says Kristian Ulrichsen, a fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston. “They now seem to blame the Saudis and Emiratis instead.”

It also comes off a series of mishaps by the Saudi-UAE alliance: the ongoing war in Yemen, backing the military junta that massacred protesters in Sudan, their inability to deliver the Palestinians at the recent peace conference in Bahrain, and the PR fallout over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The question remains how Saudi Arabia and the UAE will handle the U.S. relationship going forward.

Re-orientation

Those close to Riyadh say Saudi Arabia is feeling increasingly “betrayed” and “exposed” after investing in the Trump administration, politicizing a Saudi-U.S. relationship that was previously rooted in strong ties with both parties in Congress.  

There is a growing sense in Riyadh that the next administration after Mr. Trump – whether in 2020 or 2024 – and next Congress will be more hostile to Saudi Arabia, meaning U.S. arms supplies could dry up.

As a result, Saudi Arabia has been actively diversifying its military ties, working closer with Russia and even studying the purchase of Moscow’s S-400 air defense systems – the very system whose adoption by Turkey led to a diplomatic spat between Washington and Ankara and the suspension of sales of F-35s to the NATO ally.

Riyadh too has been increasing its economic dependence on China, raising its oil output to America’s geopolitical rival by nearly 50% over the past year, making Beijing the number one importer of Saudi crude.

Should Mr. Trump fail to realize a controversial U.S.-Saudi nuclear cooperation agreement, Riyadh has issued several signals it is ready to turn to Russia to purchase nuclear technology. Russia’s state-owned Rosatom opened a subsidiary in the kingdom last month as talks over reactors progressed.

“The Saudis are signaling to the U.S. that ‘we have options and don’t take our relationship for granted,’” says Mr. Ulrichsen. “Now, will that sway a Congress that has been suspicious of Saudi in the past? That remains to be seen.”

While Saudi Arabia is looking beyond the U.S., the UAE is looking beyond Mr. Trump himself, going on an all-out PR campaign to rebuild its own bipartisan ties within Congress.

Key to this campaign is Abu Dhabi’s much-billed “drawdown” from the Yemen conflict last month – in reality a tactical redeployment that removes Emirati forces from the front lines and further distances the UAE from the disastrous conflict both functionally and in the media.

Intra-Gulf politics

In the wake of the U.S. pivot back to Qatar, multilateralism in the Gulf is once again a reality, Western and Arab diplomats say.

Feeling increasingly isolated, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, at Washington’s behest, are working once again with other Gulf Cooperation Council states outside its allies Bahrain and Kuwait on security and energy issues.

Perhaps the greatest hit has been to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s authority across the Arab world, where they have been the top powers since the Arab Spring, bolstered by their funds and military power.

Morocco and Jordan have publicly re-engaged and upgraded ties to Qatar without fear of Saudi retribution.

And Arab states, which have long chafed at the Saudi-UAE “with us or against us” posturing, now feel freer to pursue independent policies in their national interests.

“After years of being dictated to, we can pursue what we think is right and maintain our alliances as we see fit,” says an Arab official, who asked to remain unidentified.  

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