- Qatar is appealing to Washington for help ending the Saudi-led blockade
- Jordan has been forced into an uncomfortable position by Saudi Arabia over Palestine
- A united effort to undermine Saudi sway over Trump by America’s other Arab allies, including Qatar, Jordan and Turkey is increasingly likely
By Eleanor Beevor
Qatar is on a charm offensive, seeking to lift the blockade imposed on it by the Saudi-led coalition in mid-2017. This has been at its most evident in the early months of 2018, as the embattled emirate has hosted a series of American right-wing pro-Israeli figures, including the chair of the Zionist Organisation of America, Mort Klein.
Unlikely though this might seem for a nation that has a history of supporting Islamist movements, including Hamas, it is part of a strategic PR campaign to drive a wedge between Saudi Arabia and its allies, and Washington.
Jordan and Qatar have never had a very easy relationship. But they both have an interest in preventing Donald Trump from giving Saudi Arabia’s upstart power-broker Mohammed Bin Salman sole control of American Middle East policy.
“Because the Trump White House has abdicated the traditional American role of working to align allies in the Arab World with one another, we have a new situation where local powers are increasing competitive and sometimes confrontational. Trump’s Jerusalem announcement inserts another such division within the Arab world that Jordan will have to navigate”, Hady Amr, a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings in Washington, told Al Bawaba.
Jordan needs to collect supporters in the wake of Trump’s Jerusalem announcement if it is to resist Saudi Arabia’s attempts to pressure it into ceding ground on Palestine. It cannot afford to alienate Saudi Arabia too much. “Jordan needs financial support from the Saudis, and they both need each other in the continuing struggle against ISIS”, David Ottoway, a Middle East Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told us. Whilst Jordan has failed to secure a reliable stream of aid from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries since early 2017, it is still trying to court GCC investment and a restoration of that aid to shore up its ailing economy.
But nor can Jordan afford to look soft on Trump, given its huge Palestinian population and the historical responsibility of the Hashemite monarchy towards Palestine. Saudi Arabia, keen to court Trump’s support above all else, has tried to rein in Jordanian resistance to both the Jerusalem decision and a forthcoming American-led peace proposal, and so far Jordan has resisted. It has grown closer to Turkey, whose President Erdogan is keen to fashion an image as a leading defender of the Muslim world.
For that, Qatar could prove useful company. True, there have been tensions between the two countries, and there are plenty of points over which new ones could develop. Qatar, for better or for worse, has bet on Islamist movements winning eventual control of the Middle East, which led to the blockade itself, and may complicate its chances of finding allies to help it out of it.
This goes for Jordan too. The Jordanian monarchy is deeply mistrusting of the Muslim Brotherhood, not least because the Jordanian branch of the organisation is the backbone of the main opposition party. Qatar, on the other hand, has broadly supported the movement, and attracted Egyptian ire in doing so, which was manifested in the blockade. Likewise, Qatar’s past support of Hamas clashes with Jordan’s better relations with Fatah.
That said, Jordan’s cautious foreign policy has shown Qatar some leniency in the past. Whilst it did join the Qatari blockade under Saudi pressure, it did so moderately. It downgraded relations with it, but did not expel Qatari citizens. It did revoke Qatar’s Al Jazeera network broadcasting licence, but did not prevent consumption of the online site. That may have been partly to protect the Jordanians living in Qatar, or the $2 billion dollars-worth of Qatari investments in Jordan.
Jordan now has more contemporary reasons to try and help Qatar. Prior to the blockade Qatar bought 11% of Jordanian agricultural exports, but the closure of the Saudi land border has hampered their trade enormously. But more importantly, Jordan needs to be able to mediate American policy in the Middle East by tempering Saudi influence. That can best be accomplished if a broader range of voices that are credible to America express their objections to Saudi unilateralism.
Despite Saudi Arabia’s best efforts, Qatar has retained a working relationship with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis, who both agree that feud in the GCC accomplishes little save for pushing Qatar towards Iran. Tillerson has already stated that the blockade’s instigators’ demands are unreasonable, and has praised it as an American ally.
Qatar also has the staunch backing of Turkey, who sent troops to defend the Emirate when they suspected there was a risk of a full-scale invasion. President Erdogan and Jordanian King Abdullah have also grown closer since the Jerusalem announcement, presenting a united front against the decision and an American-led peace deal that would be unfavourable to Palestine. Whilst Erdogan has a tricky relationship with Washington at the moment, he remains necessary to the American strategy in Syria.
As a result, an increasingly united effort to mitigate Saudi Arabia’s hold on Trump’s Middle Eastern policy is likely to emerge. The best chance that states opposed to Trump’s decision have of influencing the coming events is for America’s other Arab allies to present a united front. Whether they will be able to contain the effects of the last few months remains to be seen, but they certainly cannot do it alone.
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