Saudi carves path out of US partisan politics with Qatar detente
The US-Saudi relationship became tied up in US partisan politics on Trump’s watch. Mending fences with Qatar is one way for Riyadh to signal it is ready to play ball with Biden.
The sight of President Donald Trump’s supporters storming the United States Capitol on Wednesday laid bare an American political landscape that has become destructively partisan.
President-elect Joe Biden didn’t mince words about the frenzied masses laying siege to the Capitol. “They were a riotous mob, insurrectionists, domestic terrorists,” he said on Thursday.
Most nations have managed to largely sidestep that acrimonious dumpster fire over the past four years by avoiding the appearance of seeming to favour one side of the US political divide over another.
Not Saudi Arabia.
The kingdom and its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), have enjoyed a very close relationship with the Trump administration.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has shown nearly unwavering support for Riyadh, over the objections of some members of Congress who have not been nearly as willing to turn a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human rights record.
MBS is reportedly very chummy with Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner.
Riyadh was delighted by Trump’s 2018 decision to unilaterally withdraw the US from the Iran nuclear deal with world powers and unleash a torrent of sanctions to cripple Iran’s economy.
And when US shale producers faced an existential threat to their existence during last year’s crude price crash, Saudi Arabia – at Trump’s urging – agreed to call a truce in the oil price war it initiated.
But this week, as Trump prepares to leave the Oval Office, Riyadh seized the moment to remove at least one foreign policy headache for the incoming Democratic administration by taking a significant step toward healing its rift with Qatar.
“Ending the rift with Qatar is not a major issue for either Congress or the Biden administration. But it does remove one thing on the list of problems that the incoming administration would have with Saudi Arabia,” Gregory Gause, a professor of international relations at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, told Al Jazeera.
You're at really the first time when the Saudi-American relationship has become tied up in partisan politics.
A narrow window to reset
US-Saudi ties are not built on shared values but mutual security and business interests.
For three-quarters of a century, that has been sufficient to persuade both Democratic and Republican US administrations to maintain the marriage of convenience, and Riyadh to play ball with whoever takes up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
But the perceived agnosticism toward the US’s main political parties that has traditionally characterised Riyadh’s engagement with Washington dissolved on Trump’s watch.
“You’re at really the first time when the Saudi-American relationship has become tied up in partisan politics,” said Gause. “A large number of Democratic politicians in Congress and the Democratic foreign policy elite sees Saudi Arabia as not just a problematic partner, but one that has chosen to embrace the Republican Party.”
Saudi Arabia has few easy options for putting its relationship with an incoming Democratic administration on more amicable footing.
Improving its record on women’s rights would have helped. But Riyadh showed no inclination of doing that when reports surfaced late last month that prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul had been sentenced to nearly six years in prison by a Saudi terrorism court.
At the very beginning. We're like, OK, how are they going to extricate themselves from this?
Ending the war in Yemen would take a significant diplomatic effort. So would following the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and other MENA nations in normalising relations with Israel.
Patching up relations with Qatar, by comparison, is low-hanging fruit.
For one, the three-and-a-half-year Saudi-led air, land and sea blockade of Qatar failed to bend Doha to the will of Riyadh and its partners – the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt – including demands that Qatar shut down the Al Jazeera Media Network (full disclosure: I am employed by the Al Jazeera Media Network).
The blockade undoubtedly inflicted economic pain on Doha. That’s what sanctions do. But with one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, Qatar has deep pockets to weather an economic assault.
That was not the only weakness in what proved to be a poorly crafted policy. The blockading nations failed to secure comprehensive international backing for their actions, leaving Doha the option to find new trading partners and develop new supply chains. Which it did.
Riyadh and its partners also made the crucial mistake of underestimating Qatar’s strategic importance to the US.
“America’s largest airbase in the Middle East is in Qatar, and Qatar had what is arguably the best lobbyist in America on its side, which is the Pentagon,” said Gause.
“Both the Emirates and the Saudis had an outsized belief and an incorrect belief in the ability of the Trump administration to force the Qataris to come to heel, and I think that that was their fundamental mistake,” he added.
Another crucial design flaw: the blockade lacked an obvious off-ramp for the nations that initiated it.
“It’s pretty clear that they didn’t think this thing through,” Jim Krane, energy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute, told Al Jazeera. “At the very beginning. We’re like, OK, how are they going to extricate themselves from this?”
A changing of the guard in Washington, though, is an opportunity for Saudi Arabia and its partners to undo a failed policy. But the window is a narrow one.
“Is it really smart for Saudi Arabia and the other three players in this, the other instigators, if you will to actually wait, pass up this opportunity and wait potentially another four years or another eight years for the stars to align for to at least consider a rapprochement?” asked Krane.
Walking back the blockade will not leave Riyadh with a clean slate in Washington. MBS has made many mistakes on his march to power. Some, like the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, can never be undone. But mending fences with Qatar is one way to score points with the incoming Biden administration and start extricating his kingdom from the messy quagmire of US partisan politics.