SHAFAQNA- Exclusive Interview: Less than a month after Trump’s tumultuous visit to the Middle East, the Persian Gulf states who were his princely hosts suddenly turned against each other. Saudi Arabia, followed by UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt, announced severing their diplomatic ties with Qatar, placing a de facto embargo on the tiny Arab island monarchy. While Trump’s complaisant meeting with his Arab cohorts seemed to project an image of a unified, resolved Arab world, the recent development has left many observers astonished, pushing the already volatile region into a potentially perilous course.
To tackle these issues and others, Shafaqna talked to Jeffrey A. Lefebvre, associate professor of political science at University of Connecticut, in Mansfield, Connecticut, U.S. Prof. Lefebvre has researched and written extensively on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and Horn of Africa, international politics of the Middle East and Horn of Africa, and geopolitical economy of the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. His current research project revolves around the origins and evolution of the Iranian-Syrian ‘pragmatic’ alliance.
Beginning with the abrupt rift in the Persian Gulf region, Prof. Lefebvre explained that the decision by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, the UAE, Libya, and Yemen’s government-in-exile to break diplomatic relations with Qatar and to cut off land, sea, and, air access to the tiny emirate stems, in large part, from Riyadh’s desire to force Qatar to fall in line with Saudi-led efforts to isolate/confront Iran in the region as well as concerns (especially on the part of Egypt) over Qatar’s support for Islamist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, and HAMAS. He pointed out that Saudi difficulties with its neighbors on the Arabian Peninsula is nothing new, Oman being a precedent, but usually these disputes tend to get settled rather than escalated, realizing that escalation and a complete deterioration of relations would further expose the political and military vulnerabilities of the six GCC states.
Elaborating on the implication of Iran in this rift, Jeffrey Lefebvre emphasized that while Iran played no direct role in prompting this dispute beyond trying to forge more positive relations with Qatar, this dispute most definitely involves Iran and Saudi Arabia’s desire to prevent other Arab states from establishing closer political or economic ties with Tehran. Prof. Lefebvre points out to the Oman example whose positive political and economic relations with Iran has had to be reluctantly accepted by Saudis. “This may be,” he asserts, “the diplomatic model Iran and Qatar will seek to emulate, whereby, Oman has remained within the GCC since its founding in 1981 and has maintained a close political-military relationship with the United States since 1980, while preserving a positive/non-adversarial relationship with Iran.”
The Connecticut University political scientist contends that the rise of Trump to power and his strongly-worded anti-Iran rhetoric has certainly made the Saudis feel emboldened in their regional inroads. The presence of hawkish figures in Trump’s administration, particularly the Secretary of Defense James Mattis who served in the US Central Command (CENTCOM) and undoubtedly during that time developed close relations with the Saudi military and political establishment, adds fuel to the current fire. “So Riyadh may well be encouraged in this more politically aggressive behavior vis-à-vis Qatar not by Trump alone but high-ranking U.S. officials,” says Lefebvre.
He believes that this tension certainly does not serve or advance U.S. interests in the region. He would expect that if not publicly, behind the scenes, U.S. officials are pressing for a quick easing of tensions and return to normalcy between Qatar and other Arab states. Currently, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE serve as key players/components in U.S. CENTCOM strategic infrastructure in the Persian Gulf. Moreover, CENTCOM’s forward headquarters is located at Qatar’s al-Udeid air base and some 10,000 American military personnel are based in Qatar. Therefore, he infers, the Saudi-Qatari diplomatic rift threatens the U.S. ability to coordinate military maneuvers in the region.
This rift, Prof. Lefebvre continues, will have little to no impact on Saudi meddling in the region especially in Yemen. Qatar, unlike UAE, apparently was playing a very minor military role in the Saudi-led military campaign against the Houthis in Yemen. So the expulsion of Qatari forces by Saudi Arabia will be meaningless militarily. “Moreover,” he claims, “for Riyadh getting rid of the Assad regime in Syria remains a higher priority than defeating the Houthis in Yemen and would deal a bigger blow to Iranian influence in the region.” This could be one significant reason why Riyadh may want to quickly heal the rift with Qatar so not to jeopardize military operations in Syria.
When asked about the recent developments in Qatar’s role and influence in the region, the Connecticut University political scientist stated that Qatar for its energy resources (natural gas) and wealth can play a bank-roller role in the Middle East like that of the Saudis. So, he believes, Doha certainly is seeking to increase its regional influence using aid as a tool of bargain. But that does not mean that Qatar will be able to alter the political or strategic landscape in the Middle East in any significant way. On the other hand, there’s no possibility that Qatar will decrease its dependency on its American ‘protector,’ and therefore, would likely avoid doing anything that would jeopardize the U.S.-Qatar relationship. He expects that Qatar will move further towards the same position Oman has occupied since the 1980s: “offering to act as a mediator or go-between Washington and Tehran.”
Concluding his words, Prof. Lefebvre put that currently the Saudi-Iran Cold War has replaced the Arab Cold War (1958-1967), with Yemen (in the prior case North Yemen) becoming a proxy battleground and to an extent Syria. “But,” he says, “I am still optimistic that Saudi Arabia and Iran could in the future reach a rapprochement of sorts that would dampen tensions in the Persian Gulf region.” He hopes that despite aspirations for regional hegemony, perhaps Oman and now Qatar could act as mediators. Yet no good is expected to come from Trump’s administration for the Middle Eastern people. He also has lost his optimism upon the Palestinian issue. The rise of Bibi Netanyahu to power and his leadership of the most right-wing Israeli government in history, coupled with the ascent of Donald Trump and his prejudiced ignorance on Muslim/Arab issues, will leave the crisis locked in stalemate, while a phony peace process serves nothing but providing political cover to the Arab allies of the U.S. in the region.