The Arab Alliance Is a Circular Firing Squad
Two years ago, the Trump administration started a new era in Middle Eastern cooperation. It's been a disaster ever since.
In May 2017, Donald Trump picked Saudi Arabia as the destination for his first foreign visit as president of the United States. American allies in the Persian Gulf saw the trip as the opportunity of a lifetime to redraw the geopolitical map of the Middle East and North Africa after an era of popular uprisings in the region and tension with Trump’s predecessor over Iran. At the 2017 “Arab Islamic American Summit,” the attendees discussed an ambitious joint agenda for the years ahead under Saudi leadership, including a strategy to curb Iran’s overreach, roll back sectarian politics in countries like Iraq, combat extremism, revive the Arab-Israeli peace process, and contain raging conflicts.
Two years later, the cooperation of Washington’s regional allies has resulted in a shambles. Several of the region’s most pressing crises can be traced directly to the Trump summit, from the blockade of Qatar, which began two years ago this week, to the explosion of Libya’s “third civil war” in April. Far from collectively achieving its goals, the Saudi-led bloc forged two years ago has mostly just set itself back—and its members are increasingly turning against each other.
Most recently, Egypt withdrew from the proposed Middle East Strategic Alliance, widely dubbed the “Arab NATO,” after vehement disagreement with Saudi Arabia. According to an Arab diplomat familiar with high-level meetings that preceded the withdrawal, Cairo objected to Riyadh’s style of leadership: The Saudis would not define the role of each country and the specific purpose of the alliance, and “took for granted” the involvement of countries like Egypt. Saudi officials expected their Arab partners to sign off on a prepared document, without much discussion, before presenting it formally to Washington. More generally, Egyptian officials bristled at the way both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi treated Cairo as a junior partner, because of the financial aid they provided to Egypt after the coup that brought President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to power in 2013. But there are also substantive differences at issue: According to the Arab diplomat, the two sides disagree over how to deal with the wars in Yemen and Libya.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for their part, are not always on the same page with each other, notably over Yemen. Both Emirati and Saudi officials privately concede such differences: Abu Dhabi objected to Riyadh’s plan to work with militias affiliated with the Islamist-dominated Islah party, which has deep networks in Yemen, and instead formed a growing number of its own militias. Abu Dhabi also sought to push aside the president of the Saudi-backed government in Yemen, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who now resides in Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, Saudi officials often object to the compromises they feel they are required to make to keep the Emiratis on board. According to a Saudi source with access to powerful circles in Riyadh, there was a serious debate in Saudi Arabia last year about whether the kingdom’s regional policy—including Riyadh’s backing of the coup in Egypt in 2013, the instigation of the Qatar dispute in 2017, and the continuing proxy war in Libya—was overly shaped and led by narrow Emirati interests. The current Saudi approach is the reverse of one that emerged briefly in early 2015, when Saudi Arabia sought to build a broad-based alliance that involved mending ties with Turkey, before the Yemen war pulled Riyadh closer to Abu Dhabi.
Disagreement has also been growing within the countries in the Saudi-led bloc. Dubai, for instance, believes its economy has been directly hurt by the aggressive regional approach pursued by fellow emirate Abu Dhabi. Historically, Dubai’s priority has been to encourage tourism, trade, and foreign investment, while steering clear of regional conflicts. The persistent war in Yemen, the blockade of Qatar, and the internal security restrictions imposed across the United Arab Emirates by the increasingly dominant Abu Dhabi were bad for Dubai’s business. Experts estimate that Dubai loses $5 billion a year in trade with and shipping to and from Qatar, before even accounting for tourism, other trade activities, and losses incurred by the airline Emirates as a result of having to avoid Qatari airspace. “The effects of the Gulf crisis have been felt most severely in Dubai,” said Andreas Krieg, assistant professor at King’s College London. “Dubai might be economically hurting the most from the crisis, far more than Qatar.”
Dubai never publicized its discontent about the country’s foreign policy, but such divergence between the two emirates over how to deal with conflicts is easily discernable inside the region. Take a series of tweets published this past August by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the ruler of Dubai, which were interpreted across Arabic-language media as subtweets about the country’s approach in the region. The remarks, written under the title “Life Taught Me,” laid out Dubai’s strategy as one focusing on domestic policies rather than regional conflicts. Even if they were not intended as a dig at Abu Dhabi, they clearly showed an alternative vision for the region. “The real role of a politician is to ease the life of the economist, the academic, the businessman, the journalist, and others,” one of the tweets read. “The role of the politician is to ease the life of communities and to resolve crises, rather than start them, and build rather than dismantle achievements.”
Growing differences of this sort were evident last month in a phone call between the Bahraini prime minister and the emir of Qatar to mark the start of Ramadan. After news of the call spread, Bahrain’s state-run news agency confirmed the contact but quoted a cabinet affairs minister as saying—absurdly—that the prime minister’s call did not represent Bahrain’s official position toward Qatar and would not “affect [Bahrain’s] commitments with Saudi Arabia.”
In the case of Bahrain, many view its boycott of Qatar as mere subordination to Saudi will, rather than as reflecting grievances of its own. Bahrain is one of the countries most affected by the blockade, in terms of trade, tourism and investment, and some officials, such as the prime minister, were not on board with the move.
This dynamic speaks to a key flaw in the Arab alliance: the lack of belief in Saudi Arabia’s would-be leadership. As policy failures mount over time, the allies each increasingly want to assert their interests against the others. The only thing they tend to agree on is maintaining the nominal alliance itself, which has the perverse effect of allowing failed policies and stalemated conflicts to continue by inertia. The Arab diplomat described this dilemma as the “problem of multiple agitators,” where ending the conflict in Yemen must be agreed together between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and the latter cannot unilaterally find a compromise with Qatar without accounting for what some view as the United Arab Emirates’s more dogmatic demands for a change inside Qatar and the wider region.
This is a recipe for the sort of spiraling disorder evident in the region today, where division and fear are triumphing over unity and stability. It is also the sad legacy of Trump’s first foreign visit two years ago.