Americans tend to view the Arab world as, well, “the Arab world,” and not a differentiated group of countries sharing map space and vital waterways—this is a mistake. Sometimes, “Sunni and Shiite” make their way into conversation to try to explain things—this is a bigger mistake. “Jews and Muslims” doesn’t do it, either.
The still-tentative agreement between Qatar and Saudi Arabia to reopen political relations and closed borders after four years is part of the Trump administration’s priority to reduce friction among its allies. The goal is to decrease the possibility that American forces will waste time and capability putting out smaller fires, thus leaving them in a better position to deal with broader issues: cybersecurity, improving readiness, boosting NATO, countering China and not participating in civil wars in the Middle East, Southwest Asia, and Africa. Out of Syria. Out of Afghanistan. Out of Somalia. Out of Iraq?
Thwarted in some cases, shortsighted in others, the idea in the Middle East was to focus on Iran’s threats to freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, as well as its determination to build out nuclear weapons capability. The Abraham Accords were a huge win, in that regard.
Qatar/Saudi Arabia is much less a sure thing than the Israel-UAE-Bahrain pact because Qatar is not always a good neighbor or a good citizen, having spent billions of its own and Iranian money shoring up terror organizations—including the Muslim Brotherhood, the bane of American allies Egypt and Jordan. But even in its early stage, and especially if properly appreciated and managed, Saudi/Qatari rapprochement is a gift from the outgoing administration to the incoming one.
Both administrations believe that ending Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons capability is a priority, but how to achieve that desired end is most decidedly not agreed upon. Iran’s threats to navigation in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, however, have barely been discussed—and the latter has enormous implications for both regional and worldwide trade and security.
Since World War II, the United States has been the preeminent sea power in the face of two difficult and ongoing trends—the establishment of dozens of independent countries lining the waterways, rather than colonies with colonial troops, and the rise of Chinese and Russian fleets in waterways previously “reserved” for Western powers.
The Chinese Navy and Chinese shipping have both grown exponentially. As an adjunct to China’s overland Belt and Road Initiative, a series of ports gird the sea passages from the Persian Gulf to the Pacific, where China has built and fortified a chain of islands offshore of the Philippines and other American allies. This is the route for oil imports to China and to those allies, with the concomitant ability of Beijing to close shipping to others. China’s first overseas military base was established in Djibouti in the Red Sea, near the only permanent American base on the African continent. Russia has expanded its Mediterranean naval bases in Tartus and Latakia as a result of the Syrian civil war and has made an agreement for a base in Sudan. China and Russia, along with an Iranian military presence in Yemen, now line the Red Sea—the exit route for American allies Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. Both Russia and China also seek bases along the Persian Gulf, perhaps in Iran.
More than 90 percent Sunni, Qatar is nonetheless friendly with Iran’s Shiite mullahs; religion is not an overriding factor. Rather, Qatar challenges Saudi Arabia for economic and political primacy in the Gulf and throughout the Gulf Cooperation Council. Saudi Arabia previously withdrew its ambassador from Doha from 2002 to 2008. Qatar supports Shiite Hezbollah, as well as Sunni Hamas and Sunni Turkey’s increasingly repressive leadership. Qatar’s own leadership acknowledges that it has supported revolutions of various sorts and allowed the Taliban to open a diplomatic office in Doha.
On the other hand, Qatar has been a major American ally in the Persian Gulf and hosts the Al Udeid Air Base, the largest U.S. military facility in the Middle East. It has more or less open relations with Israel and manages aid for Gaza in coordination with the Israeli government. It has announced it will not take part in the Abraham Accords, but Israel’s national anthem has been played in Doha at sporting competitions that include Israelis.
How Qatar and Saudi Arabia manage, going forward, is the key question. If Qatar sees its future with the Gulf states and the U.S. and, in the future, Israel, then the new pact could rival the Abraham Accords as a positive step for American interests in the region. If, on the other hand, Qatari leadership sees its future with Iran’s mullahs, Saudi Arabia may have given away important leverage too soon. Clever American management of the deal in the new administration will be needed to make it work.
In the meantime, it gives Iran the jitters—and the value of that cannot be overstated.