Trump’s foreign policy in the Middle East and the response of Turkey to the Doha isolation

The latest events in the Middle East, which saw the isolation of Qatar from its neighbouring countries (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain[1], are directly linked to the American foreign policy in the Persian Gulf. More precisely, they represent the attempt of the current US President, Donald J. Trump, to isolate Iran.

Since its earliest stages, Donald Trump’s campaign was criticized by an aggressive rhetoric towards Teheran, calling for its isolation and the demolishing of the 2015 Lausanne agreement. The latter is often considered to be one of the milestones of Obama’s “new policy” towards the Middle East, especially with regards to the country of Ayatollahs, and which closed a 30-year-long dispute over Iran’s attempt to obtain nuclear capabilities. However, as months passed, it seemed like Donald Trump had taken a step back on the matter, also considering the future repercussions the dismantling of such a treaty could lead to; not least a possible nuclear arm race in the Middle East[2]. The isolation of Iran, although still one of the current administration’s top foreign objectives, took a secondary place, also in light of the situation in the Asian Continent, and the internal and domestic problems of the White House.

The issue gradually regained international attention after Trump’s first visit as President of the United States to the Persian Gulf. A presidential tour which yet attracted considerable criticism, considering the fact that by the time president Trump had its first visit abroad, Nixon, Reagan, Obama and Bush had already paid visit to numerous European chancelleries[3]. This is, according to many, the umpteenth evidence of the renewed American isolationism under the Trump’s administration.

The Persian Gulf Cold War

The visit of Donald J. Trump to Saudi Arabia is of extreme importance to understand the successive events on the Middle Eastern arena.

Riyadh and Teheran have for years been trapped in a regional Cold War, which aimed to establish a final geopolitical superiority in one of the most crucial areas in the world. The two found themselves at the opposite sides of the table in different occasions and, since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, they have had different kinds of relations with Washington. The Saudi Royal family is considered to be one of America’s most important allies in the region, whilst Teheran has suffered decades of international and economical isolation. Riyadh has a strong alliance with the United States and Iran is considered a strategic partner in the Russian’s foreign chessboard.

Since the late 1980s, Republicans and Democrats have struggled to find common ground towards Teheran and opposing foreign policies have characterised US’ national strategies. Barack Obama’s attempt to re-establish working relations with the Ayatollah’s country was seen as an important step towards reconciliation in the Middle East. Obama’s attitude towards Iran seemed to put an end of a thirty-year-long dispute over the nuclear dilemma (Lausanne Agreement).

However, the recent events have arguably deteriorated the situation. According to many, Trump’s diplomatic tour in the region and his anti-Iranian rhetoric, incentivised the Gulf states to take steps against Teheran. Among the immediate consequences, there are the closing of boarders and air space to traffic and financial routes, as well as the expulsion of Qatari citizens.

Turkey

Turkey, in this scenario, plays a crucial role and its intentions are twofold. First, Qatar is fundamental for the Turkish economy. One of the most important regional pipelines, which bring oil into Europe, connects Turkish and Qatari financial assets. Turkey’s lack of petrol is well known and is a threat to the NATO’s second largest army.

Middle East pipeline towards Europe (Source: Zerohedge)

Moreover, the isolation of Doha can also represent a huge backlash for Ankara’s foreign policy, considering the cooperation between the two countries on the Syrian crisis and their stance on the Egyptian situation[4]. Erdogan would lose an important ally and international legitimization and this would further minimalize the influence of Erdogan’s government on the Middle Eastern framework. The Turkish new-Ottomanism strategy, which sees the attempt of Ankara to regain the role of key player in the area, would be posed under threat, after the loss of a strategic asset at the heart of the Persian Gulf.

These two main reasons could explain Ankara’s instantaneous response on the matter. The relevance of the Qatari’s economy for Ankara, which finds itself more and more isolated after the Syrian Civil War, the Arab Springs and the 2017 Constitutional Referendum, is undeniable. Moreover, the importance of Doha for Erdogan in terms of military assets and geopolitical alliances can also justify why the Turkish administration is even collaborating with Iran on the matter, although the two states are supporting opposing coalitions in Syria.

In order not to lose ground in the Middle East, considering the current tense relations with Europe, Ankara has to get back to having a relevant role in the area. The disastrous Turkish strategy of “zero problems neighbourhood” has collapsed under the events of the last few years. Ankara will surely continue to collaborate with Doha, also under the possibility of military interventions and actions, because its foreign policy and nation strategy are at stake. It is possible, over time , to foresee a more involved role of Turkey in the issue.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it can be said that the latest events in the Middle East can be linked to Trump’s foreign policy in the area. Since the earliest stages of his campaign, the President-elect has put forward his foreign policy against Teheran, using a strong anti-Iranian rhetoric and calling for an overhaul of Barack Obama’s attitude towards the region. Isolating Iran is a geopolitical aim of utmost importance for Riyadh and other GCC countries, which see in it the opportunity to finally take step in enhancing their influence in the area. Riyadh’s decision to cut diplomatic ties with Doha is, therefore, not an isolated and disconnected event, but is highly linked to national interests and security priorities.

However, these events will most likely alter the already difficult assets in the region. Turkey and Iran have already backed the small monarchy, but providing Doha with necessary military assets and supplies, considering their geopolitical and financial interests on protecting Qatar. This situation will therefore further complicate the on-going talks between the Middle Eastern actors and threaten the stability of the area, also in light of a possible forthcoming fall of the Islamic State.

Notes

[1] Kerr. S (2017), Four Arab nations cut ties with Qatar, Financial Times (retrieved at https://www.ft.com/content/dc24473c-499e-11e7-a3f4-c742b9791d43)

[2] For further information see Pisanò. F (2017), Iranian Nuclear Deal: The Iranian Nuclear Deal in the Trump’s Administration Foreign Policy, ASRIE Associazione [retrieved the 24th of June 2017 at http://www.asrie.org/2017/05/report-iranian-nuclear-deal-in-the-trump-administrations-foreign-policy/]

[3] Collinson. S (2017), Besieged at home , Trump setts off for ‘do or die’ foreign trip, CNN

[4] Özdemir C (2017), Why Turkey is standing behind Qatar in the Gulf crisis, Deutsche Welle


AUTHOR

Francesco Pisanò. Postgraduate Student at the University of Glasgow in International Security, Intelligence, and Strategic Studies, graduated at the Catholic University of Milan with a dissertation in the role of the Islamic State in the Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry. With a strong interest and academic background in Geopolitics and International Relations, he has been collaborating since 2017 with the Alpha Institute of Geopolitics and Intelligence and the Intelligence Fusion group.