Saudi Arabia holds the Trump card
7 Jun 2017|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Daniel Coomber.

Since President Trump’s visit to Riyadh last month, the events that have played out on the ground in the Gulf have exposed long-standing rifts between powerful Sunni monarchies that belie the simplistic logic of sectarianism that’s been used to analyse Middle Eastern conflicts.

Addressing the Muslim world on the threat of extremism, Trump made the decision to divide and conquer by shrouding his message in the cloak of sectarianism—an oversimplified analysis of the complex conflicts taking place in the Middle East. He made no apologies for singling out Iran as the government that fuels ‘the fires of sectarian conflict and terror’, yet chose to wilfully ignore the human rights violations, indiscriminate bombing of innocent civilians and unreserved disregard for democracy by some of the region’s most powerful Sunni despotic rulers—with Saudi Arabia at the helm.

The sectarian conflicts that plague the region are not as deep-rooted and innate as have been claimed; nor are they beyond political resolution. Rather, contemporary sectarianism has become the focus of international proxy wars between nations competing for regional power and influence. External influencers—such as the US—have been central to fuelling rather than quelling those conflicts by supplying arms and funds in the interest of brokering trade deals and promoting economic stability, at the expense of human life.

Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Bahrain have all experienced ‘Sunni–Shia’ conflicts; however, what happens on the ground is tied in to a much larger geopolitical power struggle involving an extension of old Cold War anxieties between the US and Russia, played out through Saudi Arabia and Iran. The proxy wars that are being fought in the region require a much more nuanced and in-depth understanding of the local socio-cultural histories that have paved the way for current manifestations of conflict to take root.

For example, while Iran has helped coordinate local military coalitions in the fight against ISIS in Iraq, its support for President Assad has undermined the coalition’s preference to unseat the regime. In addition, Iran’s role in maintaining the presence of Hezbollah in Lebanon has helped to create the strongest non-state military force in the country.

On the other hand, the Saudi bombing campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen created an atmosphere that enabled al-Qaeda to proliferate in the Arabian Peninsula. The Saudis’ support for the military-led coup to oust democratically elected Egyptian President Morsi, and subsequent support of President Sisi’s military regime, demonstrated their fear of ideological competition as vanguards of the Muslim world, at the hands of the Brotherhood.

Furthermore, the Saudis’ longstanding ideological and financial relationship with Hamas deteriorated in the late 2000s following US scrutiny of their funding of terrorist groups. The curtailment of Saudi funding of Hamas paved the way for increased Iranian support for the group—an unlikely alliance, in theory—demonstrating that the Sunni–Shia sectarian narrative doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. An analysis by the Brookings Doha Center (PDF) detailed the multifaceted forces at play: ‘Sunni versus Shia makes for a simple headline, but does not do justice to the complexities of the new Middle East cold war.’

Qatar’s bold support for both the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas reveals deep tensions between the two monarchies, but former emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani’s public pursuit of relationships with Israel and Iran demonstrated a rejection of the status quo across the regional GCC monarchies. Those actions further challenge the idea that Sunni regimes will stick together, and that sectarian disagreements are at the foundation of issues in the region.

The regional disputes are in fact clearly based on geopolitical ties of power and influence, which are playing out both regionally and internationally. For example, Saudi Arabia’s cessation of diplomatic relations with Qatar over accusations of terrorist funding was part of its broader campaign to ‘discredit Doha in the eyes of the Trump administration’ and to reassert itself as the sole regional Sunni power by isolating the nation ideologically and physically.

The return to the status quo was reinforced by President Trump’s address in Riyadh. The US$400 billion worth of deals signed, and Trump’s firm commitment to isolate Iran, have bolstered the Kingdom’s confidence, which was severely weakened during the Obama era. Trump’s speech openly toed the Saudi line of playing the blame game with Iran, framing the nation as the ‘source of all evil in the region’. That approach ignores Saudi-endorsed extremism across the world, and reinforces a sectarian rhetoric that’s fundamentally flawed. Saudi Arabia is a known theocracy that has funded and exported extremism from Indonesia to South Korea.

The reignited Saudi–US alliance demonstrates a shift back to old comforts and relationships in the Middle East. During the Obama era, traditional foreign policy conventions that dictated a tacit alliance with Saudi Arabia were undermined. The administration’s sincere attempts to bring Iran to the negotiating table, topped off with the nuclear disarmament deal, fuelled domestic anxiety and reproach among Saudis. With Trump in the White House, it appears as though the Kingdom can resume order as normal and return to being the primary regional powerhouse.

Beyond the public display of extravagant hospitality, sword dances and glowing orbs, a more sinister message of autocracy and regional influence can be discerned: Saudi Arabia is trying to reshape US priorities and relationships in the region.