Saudi carves path out of US partisan politics with Qatar detente | Enterprise and Economic system Information
The sight of President Donald Trump’s supporters storming the United States Capitol on Wednesday exposed an American political landscape that has become destructively partisan.
President-elect Joe Biden has crushed no words on the maddening crowds that besieged the Capitol. “They were a seditious mob, insurgent, domestic terrorist,” he said on Thursday.
Most nations in the past four years have managed to bypass this sharp dumpster fire largely by avoiding the appearance of preferring 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 a very close relationship with the Trump administration.
During his presidency, Trump has almost steadfastly supported Riyadh over the objections of some members of Congress who were not nearly as willing to ignore Saudi Arabia’s miserable human rights record.
MBS is reportedly very friends with Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser, Jared Kushner.
Riyadh was delighted with Trump’s 2018 decision to unilaterally withdraw the US from the Iranian nuclear deal with the world powers and impose a torrent of sanctions to cripple the Iranian economy.
And when US shale producers faced an existential threat during the crude oil price crash last year, Saudi Arabia, at Trump’s insistence, agreed to sign a ceasefire in the oil price war he initiated.
But this week, as Trump prepares to leave the Oval Office, Riyadh seized the moment to resolve at least one foreign policy issue for the future Democratic administration by taking a significant step towards healing its divide with Qatar.
“Ending the divide with Qatar is not a big problem for either Congress or the Biden administration. However, it removes one from the list of problems the future government would have with Saudi Arabia, ”Gregory Gause, professor of international relations at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, told Al Jazeera .
This is really the first time that the Saudi-American relationship has been anchored in partisan politics.
A narrow window to reset
Relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia are not based on shared values, but on mutual security and business interests.
For three quarters of a century this has been enough to convince both the Democratic and Republican governments to uphold the marriage of convenience and Riyadh to play ball with whoever settles at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
But the perceived agnosticism towards major US political parties that has traditionally shaped Riyad’s commitment to Washington dissipated on Trump’s watch.
“This is really the first time that the Saudi-American relationship is anchored in partisan politics,” said Gause. “A large number of Democratic politicians in Congress and in the democratic foreign policy elite see Saudi Arabia not only as a problematic partner, but as one who has chosen the Republican Party.”
Saudi Arabia has few easy ways to put its relationship with a new democratic government on a friendlier footing.
Improving women’s rights would have helped. But Riyadh showed no inclination to do so 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 terrorist court.
At the very beginning. We’re like, OK, how are they going to get out of this?
Ending the war in Yemen would require significant diplomatic efforts. This also applies to the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and other MENA countries in normalizing relations with Israel.
By comparison, mending relations with Qatar is a low hanging fruit.
For one, the three-and-a-half-year Saudi-led air, land and sea blockade of Qatar failed to submit Doha to the will of Riyadh and its partners – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt – including calling for Qatar to close down Al Jazeera Media Network (full disclosure: I am employed by the Al Jazeera Media Network).
The blockade has undoubtedly caused economic pain to Doha. That is what sanctions do. But with one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, Qatar has deep pockets to weather an economic attack.
This was not the only weakness in a policy that turned out to be poorly crafted. The blocking nations could not secure full international support for their actions, giving Doha the opportunity to find new trading partners and develop new supply chains. What it did.
Riyadh and its partners also made the critical mistake of underestimating Qatar’s strategic importance to the US.
“America’s largest air force base in the Middle East is in Qatar, and Qatar had arguably the best lobbyist in America, namely the Pentagon,” said Gause.
An Air Force F-22 raptor from Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar [File: Staff Sgt. Chris Drzazgowski/US Air Force via AP]”Both the Emirates and the Saudis had over-believing and false belief in the Trump administration’s ability to hunt down the Qataris and I think that was their fundamental mistake,” he added.
Another crucial design flaw: The blockade lacked an obvious diversion for the nations that initiated it.
“It’s pretty clear they haven’t thought this through,” Jim Krane, an Energy Fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute, told Al Jazeera. “At the very beginning. We’re like, OK, how are you going to get out of this?”
However, a changing of the guard in Washington is an opportunity for Saudi Arabia and its partners to undo a failed policy. But the window is narrow.
“Is it really wise for Saudi Arabia and the other three players if, if you really want to wait, the other instigators miss this opportunity and possibly wait another four or eight years for the stars to at least align? consider an approximation? “asked Krane.
If you reverse the blockade, Riyadh in Washington won’t be left with a clean slate. MBS made many mistakes on its way to power. Some, like the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, can never be reversed. Mending fences with Qatar, however, is a way to earn points with the new Biden administration and free your kingdom from the chaotic swamp of US partisan politics.