How Saudi Arabia has slowly realised it can't play the Trump card on Qatar

The Saudis thought they had the Trump administration, especially the Republicans, on their side

Arabic women walk alongside the skyline of the West Bay area in DohaChristof Koepsel/Getty Images

Like all good backhanded compliments you come away remembering the criticism, not the praise.

The casual remark by a senior US politician will have left the Saudi Crown prince enraged but the point was well made.

Talking about how the isolation of Qatar has been dominated by accusations from a Saudi-led alliance that the tiny Gulf state was world's biggest supporter of terrorism, the Republican senator Bob Corker noted: "The amount of support for terrorism by Saudi Arabia dwarfs what Qatar is doing."

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Now, Bob Corker isn't just anybody on Capitol Hill. He is the Chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, so is as qualified as anyone to speak about the current Middle East crisis.

But it's what he said next which is more telling, when he addressed the decision by Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, to launch a diplomatic and transport blockade of Qatar last month.

"I think this is quite possibly a rookie mistake by a crown prince who I think could be the future for Saudi Arabia."

So there is implicit praise for the new young leader who represents 'the future of Saudi Arabia', a reformer who could set his country on a more modern and stable path.

But it's the patronising putdown that you remember, this 'rookie' crown prince who it's suggested has blundered into potentially the biggest Middle East crisis in years.

On June 5<sup>th Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut off all ties to Qatar, including food supplies, accusing it if cosying up to Iran and supporting terrorism.

It's not the first time that the impulsive 'Prince Hal' behaviour of the new Saudi ruler has been identified as a potential source of trouble.

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As David Ignatius in the Washington Post put it: "A half-dozen prominent Saudi watchers who have met MBS told me they think he has the potential to re-build Saudi Arabia into a more dynamic country that's much more able to protect its security and that of its neighbours.

"But many worry that he's also capable of driving his country off a cliff with his headstrong, sometimes reckless behaviour."

Some observers have depicted the tussle between Saudi Arabia and Qatar as battle of wills, or egos, between the countries' two new young leaders.

At 31, MBS is six years younger that the 37-year-old Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

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But as the attacks from Saudi Arabia have increased so has the popularity of the Emir whose people have rallied round their leader in the face of hostility.

So incensed was he by the aggression displayed towards Qatar at the outset of the crisis last month that Mr Corker announced he would stop all arms sales to the countries caught up in the dispute while it continued.

The country that stood to lose most from this action was Saudi Arabia which had just signed a deal to buy £100bn of weapons from the US.

Corker is a close ally of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is returning home empty-handed from a week's shuttle diplomacy in the region trying to broker a deal.

There was no real expectation of a breakthrough but it was clear where Mr Tillerson's sympathies lie.

"I think Qatar has been quite clear in its positions and I think those have been very reasonable," he said.

Corker's remark that Saudi terrorism support "dwarfs" Qatar's echoed a report earlier this month which called for an inquiry into "Saudi Arabia's funding of Islamist extremism in the UK".

The Henry Jackson Society said: "While entities from across the Gulf and Iran have been guilty of advancing extremism, those in Saudi Arabia are undoubtedly at the top of the list."

This week's decision by the British government not to publish its own investigation into terrorist funding in the UK also led to accusations that the ministers wanted to avoid criticising Saudi Arabia.

Prime Minister Theresa May, who visited the kingdom in April, has been accused of "kowtowing" by suppressing the report because she needs to secure post-Brexit investment from the UK's biggest trading partner in the Arab world.

But with Qatar just announcing it is to invest £5bn in the UK Mrs May won't want to alienate Doha either.

In its bullishness towards its much smaller Arab rival the Saudi-led alliance has threatened to escalate the situation by stopping all trade with countries which continue to do business with Qatar.

"One possibility would be to impose conditions on our own trading partners and say you want to work with us then you have got to make a commercial choice,2 said Omar Ghobash, the UAE's ambassador to Moscow.

But it has since emerged that any American businesses that do this might fall foul of US anti-boycott laws.

Under rules drawn up decades ago to protect Israel, US companies can be punished if they accept a foreign country's demand to comply with a blockade that is not supported by America.

So not to trade with North Korea is allowed, but you cannot just stop trading with a country like Qatar which Washington does not have any issue with.

All in all, this leaves the 'rookie' crown prince with little room for manoeuvre if Qatar does not back down, which it shows no signs of doing given its huge reserves of wealth.

The more troops Turkey pours into the tiny Gulf state and the more Qatar and the US co-operate on anti-terrorism funding the less likely the risk of a violent resolution to the crisis.

As the chief architect of the blockade, all eyes are on the Saudi crown prince to bring about a solution.

But, as Andreas Krieg, a political risk analyst at King's College London, pointed out this could involve substantial loss of face which the new young leader may not be prepared to countenance.

"Saudi Arabia actually thought they had the Trump administration, especially the Republicans, on their side," he said.

"That's why they escalated so quickly and now they realise they actually don't and the Trump administration has actually rolled back from earlier comments, and that is quite something to swallow for the UAE and Saudi Arabia."

Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor at the Daily Mail.

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