June 10th 2017
AMERICA’S president got on so well last month with King Salman of Saudi Arabia that he has embraced the monarch’s foreign-policy goals. Sunni Saudi Arabia detests Shia Iran, its chief regional rival. So does Donald Trump. He also appears to share the Saudi view that the most egregious bankroller of terrorism in the Middle East is the tiny sheikhdom of Qatar. He applauded when, on June 5th, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, as well as land, sea and air links. The Gulf states gave Qatari citizens 14 days to leave. Ludicrously, the UAE declared that anyone publishing expressions of support for Qatar can be jailed for up to 15 years. Mr Trump tweeted: “Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”
Though tiny, Qatar matters. It is the world’s largest producer of liquefied natural gas and an airline hub. It is also host to Al Jazeera, the nearest the Middle East has to an uncensored broadcaster (so long as it does not criticise the Qatari monarchy). It has good ties with Iran, with which it exploits a vast gas field. It is supportive, too, of the (Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood, the most popular face of political Islam. All this makes Saudi Arabia hate it. The Saudi regime has tried in the past to bend Qatar to its will, but failed. Qatar hosts a large American airbase, which until now has made it feel safe. But with Mr Trump in the White House, nobody is now so sure.
No concrete reasons have been given for the blacklisting of Qatar. There is lots of chatter that wealthy Qataris fund terrorism. This accusation, which is also levelled at rich Saudis, is unproven, though the Financial Times reports that Qatar paid $1bn to Iran and an al-Qaeda affiliate for the release of Qatari royals who were taken hostage while on a falcon-hunting trip to Iraq. A billion-dollar ransom would buy a lot of explosives.
The spat has split the Gulf Co-operation Council, hitherto a force for stability in an unstable region. It may drive Qatar, as well as Kuwait and Oman, the other two members of the GCC, who pointedly declined to support the Saudi move, further into the arms of Iran. Tempers may eventually cool, but some observers worry that the price of Saudi Arabia backing down will be the muzzling of those pesky Al Jazeera journalists.
Mr Trump’s support for Saudi actions also damages America’s credibility. It suggests that, under him, the superpower can abandon its allies after a brief chat with their enemies. “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar—look!” tweeted Mr Trump on June 6th. The sober foreign-policy types who cling on in his administration are scrambling to downplay such undiplomatic words and calm tempers. Perhaps recognising his error, Mr Trump offered his services as a mediator the following day.
Now Anything Goes
Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s autocratic president, has also decided that Mr Trump is an American leader who will let him persecute his enemies without hindrance. On May 23rd, two days after the two men met and praised each other in Riyadh; Mr Sisi had a potential opponent arrested for allegedly making an indecent hand gesture at a rally five months earlier. On May 25th the government blocked access to the websites of Mada Masr, Egypt’s leading liberal newspaper, and those of 20 other media outlets, including Al Jazeera and Huffpost Arabic. In Bahrain the authorities killed five people and arrested 286 more in a raid on the home of a Shia cleric; shortly after that, they dissolved the main secular opposition party. America would once have objected to all this. No longer—and that is a recipe for a less stable Middle East.