American grand strategy: Qatar and Saudi Arabia

The truth is the time has come for the US to downgrade Saudi Arabia as its main strategic partner. To fill the gap, the US can reinforce its relations with Qatar.

SAUDI ARABIA’S Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shakes hands with US President Donald Trump at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, in June. (photo credit: BANDAR ALGALOUD/COURTESY OF SAUDI ROYAL COURT/REUTERS)
SAUDI ARABIA’S Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shakes hands with US President Donald Trump at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, in June.
The US Department of Justice is expected to announce that the Pensacola shooting in Florida by a Saudi military member training in the United States was an act of terrorism. CNN has reported that more than 12 Saudi military members will be expelled from the US due to concerns about extremism.
The alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia has been one of the main characteristics of American foreign relations in the Middle East for the past six decades. Various presidential administrations, both Democratic and Republican, have supported this alliance unconditionally. In recent memory, it has survived the neoconservative movement, which called for the ouster of tyrannical regimes; the September 11 attacks, whose perpetrators had deep connections to Saudi Arabia; and the Arab Spring, where people across the Islamic world protested against local governments.
From policy circles, the image of Saudi Arabia has been projected into our imaginations in the same way Col. William Eddy, translator to president Franklin D. Roosevelt, viewed Saudi Arabia’s King Ibn Saud, as an epic hero who had united the different tribes. For us, in the 21st century, Saudi Arabia has been portrayed as this vital nation for American and Middle Eastern security, and we have been taught that a Middle East without Saudi Arabia is inconceivable.
The treaty between FDR and Ibn Saud, signed on February 15, 1945, launched an alliance that has had four main reasons: to assure American hegemony in the Middle East; to ensure access to oil; to facilitate the policy of containment; and most recently to provide assistance in the Global War on Terrorism. Over the years, analysts have argued that these reasons make the alliance with Saudi Arabia indispensable.
But the truth is that the United States does not need Saudi Arabia to maintain its hegemony. The United States does not need Saudi Arabia’s oil. The United States does not need to contain Iraq, as it did under Saddam Hussein, and the Obama administration was dealing successfully with Iran. And the United States does not need Saudi Arabia as a partner in the War against Terrorism, because Saudi Arabia exports Wahhabism around the world, fueling extremism and sectarianism.
The truth is the time has come for the US to downgrade Saudi Arabia as its main strategic partner. To fill the gap, the US can reinforce its relations with Qatar. Gas-rich Qatar can replace Saudi Arabia for a number of different reasons. The Salafi movement is important in Qatar, as it is in Saudi Arabia. But Qatar has been able to coalesce a tolerant version of this religious ideology, one that largely avoids the inspiration of hatred and violence.
Historically, Qatari livelihood came from the sea and from trade. Before the boom of the oil industry, Qatar’s economy depended on pearl fishing, and it was exposed to Persian merchants who were allowed to have a presence in Qatar. In fact, some of the most prominent Qatari merchant families are Shia and important supporters of the ruling family.
The Shia living in Qatar are treated with respect, some have held positions in government, and they are also permitted their own religious system for family law. It is much different in Saudi Arabia, where the Shia in the eastern provinces are oppressed and labeled as Iranian proxies. In fact, the Saudi Shia are notable families that trace their historical descent to Karbala and Najaf in Iraq, not Qom in Iran.
In Qatar, Christian churches are given legal status, and Christians are allowed to worship their religion. Churches are banned in Saudi Arabia, and worshipers have actually been arrested for holding private prayer groups in their homes. In Saudi Arabia teenage students are taught that “the Shia have tails, the Jews have horns, and if you shake the hands of a Christian you become one of them.”
Qatar has proven to be a pragmatic state when it comes to security and foreign relations. When the United States needed a military base after US troops withdrew from Saudi Arabia, following Iraq’s aggression, it was Qatar that authorized its territory for the headquarters of the US Central Command. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, was not willing to permanently host Western troops, because it deemed its land to be holy ground.
Qatar did not need a common enemy like Saudi Arabia with Iran, to make diplomatic overtures to Israel. In fact, even in the background of the Israeli-Lebanese conflict, Qatar opened a commercial interest section for Israel. While it closed down in 2009, this was an action without precedent from a Gulf nation toward the Israelis.
In Lebanon, with its political instability and war, Qatar has been more impartial in its mediation efforts. While Saudi Arabia and Syria have aligned themselves with certain political factions in the conflict, Qatar chose to bring the various parties together and succeeded in the Doha Agreement of 2008, which formed a government of national unity. Even if the Doha Agreement failed to solve the structural instability of Lebanon, Qatar’s pragmatism cannot be brushed aside.
Qatar tried to use its aid in Lebanon as a tool for reconciliation among the different factions, rather than to solely back the government or Hezbollah. Qatar’s reconstruction efforts in south Lebanon were also aimed at both Christian and Muslim homes, and dealt directly with the homeowners to make sure the aid was spent transparently.
Qatar is the only country in the region that has had direct contact with all of the factions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its peace efforts of 2006-2007 included a two-state solution and recognition of the State of Israel.
Israel is the region’s most important partner, as the only democracy and because of its collaboration with counterterrorism, intelligence sharing and missile defense.
Qatar’s experience in dealing with both Hezbollah and Iran might help reach a deal that eliminates the threats against Israel. In the aftermath of a peace treaty with the Palestinians and in return for development efforts in south Lebanon, Qatar might push Hezbollah to begin a process in the recognition of Israel. While Egypt opposed Qatar’s involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a decade ago, it might accept it, if Qatar stops supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.
It is essential that Qatar drop its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, because Egypt assists the movement of the US military across the region, and as the largest Arab population and distributor of media, it can play a significant role in moderating the religious discourse exported by Saudi Arabia.
KING ABDULLAH II of Jordan is a great ally in the fight against extremism and has not been afraid to confront the Muslim Brotherhood, which has played a long-lasting political role in Jordan. Despite the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood supported King Hussein in the 1950s, and in 1970 supported the monarchy in the war against the PLO, pressure has been placed on the Islamists, leading the movement to fracture into smaller, splinter groups and weakening its influence in the process.
Under Jared Kushner the US has mistakenly threatened to squeeze aid to Amman. Instead, the US government needs to increase its aid to Jordan with the assistance of Qatar, and reduce Saudi influence in Jordan.
It was in Jordan that the CIA first starting arming and training personnel to fight against Bashar Assad in Syria. Qatar took part in financing and arming many militias in Syria. This means that, like Saudi Arabia, Qatar has contacts and channels of communication with the militant movements in Syria. Any information to protect Western national security can thus derive from Qatar, not from Saudi Arabia.
If the US were to replace Saudi Arabia with Qatar as its main Arab partner, Qatar might withdraw its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and thus ease tensions with Egypt. Egypt might then help broker peace in Israel that is acceptable to the Israelis. If the US were to increase aid to Jordan, Jordanians might accept changes to the status of Jerusalem.
The writer researches US Foreign Relations and Terrorism. He holds postgraduate degrees in Security Studies and Islamic Studies, from Columbia University.