Middle East turmoil spreads
When one thinks about Middle East turmoil, one traditionally envisions the northern countries. Conflicts between Israel and Egypt were common until the 1979 peace agreement, and skirmishes between Israel and Lebanon occur all too frequently today.
The Iran/Iraq war raged in the 1980s, Iraq invaded Kuwait in the early 1990s, and today Syria, Iraq and Libya have all recently been subsumed by war.
Conversely, relations between the gulf monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have been relatively tranquil. However, Saudi Arabia’s struggle with Iran for regional hegemony has led to rising tensions between a Saudi-led group of nations and Qatar.
The origins of the IranianSaudi rivalry, like most of the region’s recent struggles, lie in the Shia/Sunni divide.
The two sects have constantly vied to dominate the other. Saudi Arabia is the preeminent Sunni nation in the region, while Iran is the preeminent Shia one, and both desire regional supremacy.
Over the summer, a group of primarily Persian Gulf nations led by Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed trade and travel bans, accusing it of supporting terrorism and interfering in their nation’s internal affairs. Qatar refuted these claims, emphasizing that they host the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East and have helped the U.S. fight ISIS. Some analysts believe the Saudi-led group are really trying to punish Qatar for its close relations with Iran and its attempt to create a relatively independent foreign policy free from Saudi influence.
Like most geopolitical conflicts, the issues are complex; rarely is one side completely in the right. Many of the Saudi-led group accusations have merit, yet Qatar has legitimate national self-interests in setting a more independent foreign policy.
Therefore, the U.S. must help tamp down this conflict lest it metastasize into a full-blown conflagration with Iran that could have global economic implications more severe than the ones wrought by the wars currently raging across the Middle East. To date, the adverse economic impact of the fighting in Syria, Iraq and Libya has largely been contained within the region; global economic growth has continued apace because the price of oil has remained quiescent.
But a shooting war with Iran, or any escalation that threatens crude oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz, the strategically import conduit for much of the gulf’s oil, would send shock waves through oil markets and the global economy.
On the geopolitical front, an Iranian-Saudi confrontation would reverberate further afield, much as the Syrian civil war has reverberated beyond its shores. The civil war has bled into the European Union by causing a mass exodus of refugees into the region, which has tested EU unity and boosted the electoral success of several right-wing, anti-EU parties. Discord in the Gulf that disrupted the world’s oil supplies would certainly risk dragging in China, Russia and the U.S.
Iran has stated that the conflict between the Saudi-led group and Qatar should be resolved peaceably, which makes President Trump’s behavior so maddening.
At the outset, President Trump tweeted that he approved of the Saudi moves and publicly vilified Qatar. In what is becoming all too common, both the Pentagon and the State Department later took more nuanced and diplomatic approaches as they tried to mediate the breach as honest brokers.
Yet on one occasion President Trump accused Qatar of funding terrorism on the same day Secretary of State Tillerson suggested the Saudi-led group ease its economic blockade against Qatar.
With luck, cooler heads than the president’s will prevail so U.S. policy can de-escalate the crisis. We certainly shouldn’t be escalating it, yet that is precisely what often follows President Trump’s clumsy forays into international relations. The Middle East can ill afford more turmoil.