Trump's Diplomatic Jujutsu in the Middle East
Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince, Muhammad Bin Salman, who has sought to transform the Kingdom from a status-quo power to one that seeks to shape regional events, is set to visit the White House on March 19. The crown prince, who is commonly referred to as MbS, will also seek to strengthen ties with the U.S. business community and present his so-called Vision 2030 for Saudi Arabia.
MbS’ visit will also seek to capitalize on President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy, which seeks to expand the eighty-year-old U.S.-Saudi strategic alliance through strengthening bilateral economic cooperation. The two leaders are also expected to discuss regional security issues pertaining to cooperation on Iran, Yemen, and the post-ISIS environment in Iraq and Syria. Additionally, Trump will likely try to secure Saudi support for his Israel/Palestine peace plan.
The Trump-MbS meeting, however, is expected to primarily focus on the Trump-administration’s push to resolve the Gulf crisis, which was triggered on May 24, 2017, when the official Qatar News Agency was hacked and attributed a fake statement to Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. U.S. officials have since attributed the hack to the United Arab Emirates, a charge that Abu Dhabi denies.
On June 5, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic ties with Qatar over allegations that it is supporting terrorism and embraces Iran and its regional agenda. The block also imposed an economic embargo on Qatar—which includes cutting off all food supplies and access to medicine—by closing off land and maritime borders. Qatar has denied the charges.
As part of a U.S. effort to resolve the GCC crisis, Washington hosted the inaugural U.S.-Qatar Strategic Dialogue on January 30.
The dialogue not only presents Doha with a diplomatic victory as it effectively demonstrates that the accusations leveled against it were false and politically motivated, but more broadly signals that Washington sees stability in the Gulf as a key national security interest.
Towards that end, Trump has also invited the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who is effectively the ruler of UAE, to visit the White House around March 27; the Emirati leader is widely seen in Washington as the protagonist of the crisis.
And some ten days later, Emir Tamim is expected to pay the White House a visit as well. Following the three consecutive U.S.-GCC bilateral meetings, the White House is planning to host a Camp David Summit for the GCC leadership to formally bring the crisis to an end.
For the time being, however, there are no indications of de-escalations of the GCC crisis as the harsh anti-Qatar rhetoric displayed by Emirati and Saudi officials continue unabated.
In parallel with resolving the Gulf crisis, Trump seeks to accelerate the Middle East peace process is meant to bring Israel closer to the GCC as part of a broader strategy toward isolating Iran regionally.
The upcoming Trump-MbS meeting is tied to the U.S. administration’s recently launched National Security Strategy, which identifies Saudi Arabia and Israel as the principal pillars of Washington’s regional agenda. The document also calls for GCC unity.
While Iran is identified in the document as Washington’s premier regional adversary, the strategy was published amid uncertainty over whether Trump will walk away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The U.S. administration has in parallel sought to provide the Kingdom with the necessary intelligence support to prevent Yemen’s Houthi rebels from securing strategic gains after they overran the Yemeni capital of Sanaa in September 2014 and subsequently forced President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi into exile in Saudi Arabia.
Escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran could potentially impact Riyadh, whose military is already fighting a costly war against the Houthis.
However, nearly three years into the Saudi-led coalition’s war against the Houthis, the conflict has turned into a stalemate. Despite the Coalition’s air supremacy, ability to launch airstrikes across Yemen and having imposed a maritime blockade on the Arab World’s most impoverished country, the Kingdom has failed to weaken the Houthis’ standing as Yemen’s strongest political actor.
These dynamics, along with the fact that the price of the stalemate between the two opposing parties has been nothing but catastrophic for Yemen’s population as it has unleashed the world’s most sever humanitarian disaster, are expected to top the Trump-Salman meeting agenda.
Leading up to the Trump-MbS meeting, the U.S. State Department has over the past couple of weeks engaged in behind-the-scenes diplomatic maneuvering to apply pressure on Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to open up Yemen’s port of Hodeidah for humanitarian supplies. The U.S. diplomatic pressure is directly tied to Yemen’s deepening humanitarian crisis, which has only been further exacerbated by a string of coalition airstrikes that have killed hundreds of civilians and injured thousands of others.