The Wheels Are Coming Off

Mike Pompeo meets with Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (State Department via Flickr)

by Gary Sick

A series of events, some of which got little attention in the media, suggest that the wheels may be coming off the Trump administration’s Middle East policy. Admittedly, that policy is not very well articulated, and many knowledgeable observers would regard it as dysfunctional. Yet even a random collection of actions constitute a policy, so let me offer my own interpretation of where we are.

The essential core of the Trump Middle East policy is the alliance with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The effort to bring the two Arab states into close association with Israel was the most innovative element of this policy, as was the blatantly transactional nature of the relationship with the two wealthy Arab states. President Trump defined it quite simply as “Just take the money.”

My understanding of the importance of this alliance was to promote and sustain the Deal of the Century, which was to resolve the Israel-Palestinian dispute once and for all. Israel was obviously an essential player in this process, but Arab cover and money was required to lend the process legitimacy and agency.

The one common interest that tied these parties together was fear and hatred of Iran. None of the Middle East countries could deal with Iran by itself. But the United States could take the lead in weakening and deterring Iran, and perhaps even fomenting regime change in Tehran.

So together, Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mohammad bin Salman (MbS, crown prince and effective ruler of Saudi Arabia), and Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and effective ruler of the UAE) were going to restructure the landscape of the Middle East.

Reality, of course, intruded.

Prime Minister Netanyahu found himself embroiled in a corruption scandal and was required to call early elections while trying to avoid indictment.

Mohammad bin Salman launched a war in Yemen that created the worst humanitarian disaster of modern times. This eventually attracted the attention of the U.S. Congress and other parliaments which began pushing to terminate arms sales to Saudi Arabia. MbS and MbZ, however doubled down on the war and Trump gave them unstinting support.

MbZ and MbS imposed a blockade of their neighbor and fellow Gulf Cooperation Council member, the fabulously wealthy tiny state of Qatar. Although Qatar was not a member of the Trump alliance, it was the home of Al-Udeid, the largest U.S. air base in Southwest Asia and a critical component of all U.S. military activities in the Middle East, including the fight against the Islamic State (IS or ISIS).

Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist and contributor to the Washington Post, was slaughtered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The CIA and a United Nations investigation concluded that MbS had been associated with the killing. Although President Trump resisted blaming MbS, congressional opposition to Saudi arms sales grew.

The United States did its part in the economic onslaught against Iran. Trump withdrew from the nuclear arms deal negotiated by his predecessor, restored all sanctions that had been removed, and imposed the most severe sanctions ever levied against a state during peacetime. Iran called it economic warfare.

The objective of this campaign, which was enforced by financial threats against every major country in the world, was never clear. President Trump said he just wanted negotiations; his advisors were on the record as favoring regime change. But whatever the outcome, Trump seemed determined to avoid another war in the Middle East.

Iran didn’t cooperate. As its oil markets were closed down, there were mysterious attacks against tankers in the Persian Gulf. Iran denied responsibility. Washington said it was Iran’s work. An Iranian tanker was impounded at Gibraltar; Iran reportedly took a UAE-based tanker in retaliation. Iran began exceeding the limits of the nuclear deal, and it warned it would depart the Non-Proliferation Treaty entirely unless it got relief from sanctions.

On June 20, an Iranian surface-to-air missile shot down an unmanned U.S. reconnaissance drone near the Strait of Hormuz. The vehicle had taken off from a U.S. base in the UAE. The two sides disagreed about whether or not it was in Iranian territorial waters. President Trump reportedly ordered a retaliatory strike against several Iranian military sites, but then he called off the strike at the last minute, reportedly to avoid casualties. On July 18, less than a month later, the U.S. Navy claimed that it shot down an Iranian drone after the aircraft allegedly approached the USS Boxer amphibious assault ship in the Strait of Hormuz.

We are not privy to the understandings that may have accompanied the informal U.S.-Israeli-Saudi-UAE alliance, but there is no evidence that any of the states hosting American bases in the Persian Gulf have any voice in Washington’s decision-making. Recent events have made it crystal clear that those host countries, especially the UAE and Qatar, will be regarded by Iran as accessories to U.S. military actions.

The UAE has conspicuously separated itself from Washington and Saudi Arabia. The UAE announced that it does not have sufficient evidence to determine what party was responsible for the tanker bombings. More significantly, the UAE has now announced that it is withdrawing its forces from the civil war in Yemen (though not from its anti-terrorist operations against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula). 

The “Saudi-led alliance” in Yemen today consists of the Saudi air force and a rag tag collection of local militias and mercenaries who are there for the money. This is the moment when MbS should declare victory and accept a UN-brokered peace settlement.

Yemen was supposed to yield to overwhelming power. Qatar was supposed to collapse under siege. Iran was supposed to fold when faced with maximum economic pressure. Even the presentation of the economic portion of the Deal of the Century in Bahrain failed to attract the level of investors that had been expected.

There are major shifts in the balance of power underway in the Persian Gulf. They are not what the Trump administration anticipated.

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Gary Sick

Gary Sick served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan. He was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis and is the author of two books on U.S.-Iran relations, in addition to several other edited books and articles dealing with U.S. Middle East policy. Mr. Sick is a captain (ret.) in the U.S. Navy, with service in the Persian Gulf, North Africa and the Mediterranean. He was the deputy director for International Affairs at the Ford Foundation from 1982 to 1987, where he was responsible for programs relating to U.S. foreign policy. Mr. Sick has a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University, where he is Adjunct Senior Research Scholar and former director of the Middle East Institute (2000-2003). He taught for 30 years in the School of International and Public Affairs. He is a member (emeritus) of the board of Human Rights Watch in New York and founding chair of its advisory committee on the Middle East and North Africa. He is the executive director of Gulf/2000, an international online research project on political, economic and security developments in the Persian Gulf, being conducted at Columbia University since 1993.

SHOW 21 COMMENTS

21 Comments

  1. So may we ask Mr. Sick to go further and identify who is advising MBZ and MBS on these policies? American Lobbyists? So many bad decisions…wars started. Khashoggi. How much of the disasters Mr. Sick cites are pre-Trump in origin? What have Trump and advisors (Kushner, Greenblatt and) done to help, or make matters worse? Iran policy is obviously central as Mr. Sick makes clear. Are these all internal Saudi/UAE decisions and if so what has US diplomacy been doing (no Ambassadors in Saudi or UAE under Trump) or neglecting? And maybe where this is all going? War with Iran? That surely seems imminent.

  2. CHARLES

    Quite right; Saudi and UAE leaders hate Iran and especially hate the Shia. They did not need American advice or encouragement.

  3. The Saudis hate Iran not because Iran is Shia but because Iran is now a Republic that overthrew a US-backed foreign-installed absolute monarchy just like theirs. If the US and Iran start to get along then what happens to all those Presidents for Life, Sultans and Majesties that rely on the US to stay in power, usually in the face of genuine and popular discontent at home? The US has built its regional security on a fundamentally insecure and unstable basis, and expends great amounts of capital and energy trying to artificially prop them up to make up for their fundamental lack of legitimacy, like trying to pump air in a tire with a big hole. Blaming Iran is just an excuse,

  4. CYRUS

    No, no, no.

    You are thinking like a person who has been educated within the pseudo-secularist ideology of the West.

    Saudi Wahabbis hate Shia Islam – it is in their culture (blood).

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