The ‘Trump factor’ and the implosion of the Gulf union

The US-aggravated Qatar-Gulf rift will result in the Iranian and Turkish winds blowing closer over the Gulf sand.

Trump prepares for family photo with heads of state at the GCC leaders summit in Riyadh
US President Donald Trump prepares for a family photo with other heads of state in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

The current escalation in the Gulf derives its animosity from a collision between two doctrines: the Emirati-Saudi-Bahraini push for realpolitik and alleged pragmatism versus Qatar’s commitment to conflict transformation and moral politics.

Unlike the impact of the 1991 Gulf War in solidifying the six-nation unity, the new rift between the US-Gulf block and Qatar showcases three dilemmas, which may suffocate the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and have other ramifications:

First, a tendency towards groupthink in seeking a “unified” approach vis-a-vis Tehran, whereas Qatar remains sceptical about the purpose of further demonising Iran, as an ill-informed strategy perpetuated by Donald Trump‘s electoral rhetoric against the Nuclear Deal of July 2015. Trump’s speech in Riyadh played well to the Gulf leaders’ frustration with the Obama administration’s Iran policies and their irrational fear of the Iranians. Trump’s presence was instrumental in emboldening the reconstructivism of a “common” enemy in the region.

Second, the risk of being encapsulated in a hyper counterterrorism paradigm as a myopic generalisation of various oppositional, resistant, radical, and violent groups in the Middle East. The emphasis on eliminating Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and condemning Qatar by association, represents a marriage of political convenience between Trump and a number of regional leaders including Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Egypt’s Abdel Fatah el-Sisi.

The new US-Gulf alliance against certain political players, in several Arab protracted conflicts, does not address the unsettled interconnectedness between the political, the civic, and the religious in Arab societies. Neither will it pave the way for the long-awaited democratisation in the region.

READ MORE: Israel, Saudi, UAE team up in anti-Qatar lobbying move

Third, the battle over whose political discourse should reign supreme in the region and beyond. Qatar’s mediatised public diplomacy has outperformed its Saudi and Emirati rivals. So, when you cannot kill the message, you try to silence the messenger. Most Arab governments have been annoyed by Al Jazeera’s influence in their public sphere even before the Arab Spring uprisings. 

The Symbolism of Riyadh Hospitality

Trump’s decision to make his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia, before Israel and the Vatican, has nurtured some hopeful interpretations and wishful projections. Some Gulf leaders assumed it was an ideal opportunity to affirm Trump’s intended policy towards Iran and political Islam. They embraced the fantasy of possibly converting his rhetoric against the Persian elephant in the room into action soon.

Qatar will pursue its own means of surviving the isolation; the GCC may be collateral damage of the escalating conflict; and the Iranian and Turkish winds will blow closer over the entire Gulf sand.


Bruce O Riedel, senior fellow at Brookings Institution, points out that “The Saudis played Donald Trump like a fiddle. He unwittingly encouraged their worst instincts toward their neighbours.” 

In recent years, Gulf governments have been frustrated with Barack Obama’s policy of striking a balance of power between an Arab Gulf and a Persian Gulf within the new Sunni-Shia bipolarity of the Middle East. This political malaise has served as a point of re-entry for Trump to signal that the Gulf governments can regain their prominence in the US foreign policy. Robert Malley, former coordinator of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy, argues that “clearly, the Saudis and the Emiratis felt they had someone in the White House who would take their side.”

Within his advocacy of transactionalism, Trump sought some naturalisation of his discourse of “radical Islamic terrorism”, a main pillar of his electoral campaign, in a public forum near Mecca and Medina, the two holly sites of Islam. He stated that “perhaps this [the Arab-Islamic-American Summit] will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!” 

With the exception of Qatar, the Gulf dominant groupthink has lead to an overcapitalisation in Trump’s ego and future policies. The mutual fear of Iran and political Islam, energised by a hard-power-based framework of counterterrorism, seems to have blocked critical thinking about the feasibility of Trump’s grandiose promise of eradicating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, known as ISIS) group and other forces of extremism in the region.

This begs the question about the true outcome of the 16-year “War on Terror“, initiated by the Bush-Cheney administration in 2001, through the use of military force in formulating a nuanced approach towards political violence now, by the Trump administration. 

OPINION: Qatar-Gulf rift: Can Riyadh be triumphant?

By the way, we have not yet reached a global definition of terrorism out of the 109 classifications that are circulating at the United Nations, NATO, various US government agencies, the European Union, and other global institutions.

Trump’s Sense of the Middle East Diplomacy

At the height of the escalation, Trump decided to put his thumb on the scale in Saudi Arabia’s favour. He wrote in a recent tweet, “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!”.

Consequently, Trump’s offer of mediation was not well-received both in Riyadh and Doha. From a conflict resolution perspective, it would not have succeeded given his vested interest with the Saudis and Emiratis and lack of impartiality vis-a-vis the Qataris.

On Capitol Hill, several congressmen expressed concern over Trump’s position vis-a-vis the Gulf conflict. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, sharply criticised Trump’s statement; “This situation is complex, like many diplomatic situations, and showcases how uniquely unqualified Donald Trump is in securing the best interests of the United States when it comes to foreign policy and national security.”

READ MORE: Donald Trump seeks increased ‘anti-terror efforts’

A growing number of Republican and Democratic Senators intend to block Trump from selling more than $500m in offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia by mid-June. 

By the same token, Trump’s Gulf trip has received an increasingly negative evaluation. Ilan Goldenberg of the Centre for a New American Security believes “the president has thrown fuel on the fire. If we are going to build a coalition to fight extremism you have to smooth over differences and this is going to inflame them.”

Throughout the Middle East, there has been widespread argument that Trump’s attendance of the US-Gulf summit served as a trigger event in pushing for the fragmentation of the Gulf. While there is an open-ended Sunni-Shia showdown in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, Trump’s visit has emboldened a new Sunni-Sunni divide in the name of counterterrorism and anti-Iran sentiment.

Saudi Version of the Melos Scenario

Readers of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War may recognise an ironic similarity between Athens and Melos in 416 BC and the current Emirati-Saudi-Bahrain exercise of realpolitik vis-a-vis Qatar now. Saudi official statements have echoed a rigid tone in trying to twist Qataris’ arm to “change their policies” regarding Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and to reconsider their less-aggressive position towards Iran.

As Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir stated in a news conference in Germany, punitive steps against Qatar were a well-intentioned effort to stop its support for “extremism”, and that it was “with great pain” that the measures against Qatar were taken.

Another aspect of the reincarnation of the Melos negotiation textbook was illustrated when Jubeir indicated that “we have taken these steps in the interest of Qatar … and in the interest of security and stability in the region”. He also shut the door against any possible Arab or international third-party intervention to end the conflict: “I don’t believe there is a mediation. This is an internal GCC issue,” he asserted.

Professor James Piscatori, deputy director of the Australian National University Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies notices that “They [Emirati-Saudi-Bahraini alliance] are flexing their muscles and it is even more irritating to them that Qatar is not falling in line.”

READ MORE: Qatar-Gulf crisis: All the latest updates

The Arab public opinion remains divided on whether the economic measures and border closure will convince the Qataris to change their regional policies. This could be a moment of political ingenuity for Doha to formulate a strategy of moderation and rational politics to help navigate through the rough sea of the neighbouring fear-based realpolitik.

Other nations in the region have already indicated their willingness to assist Qatar. Iranian ships are eager to make deliveries of food and other goods at a moment’s notice into Qatari ports. Turkey’s parliament has expedited a new law to deploy Turkish force in Qatar if needed.

In short, the current Emirati-Saudi-Bahraini policy may turn into a short-term-gain/long-term-loss proposition. Qatar will pursue its own means of surviving the isolation; the GCC may be collateral damage of the escalating conflict; and the Iranian and Turkish winds will blow closer over the entire Gulf sand.

Mohammed Cherkaoui is Professor of Conflict Resolution at George Mason University in Washington, and author of What is Enlightenment? Continuity or Rupture in the Wake of the Arab Uprisings.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.