ISTANBUL – Some of America’s closest Middle East allies, viewing U.S. policy as adrift, are competing for influence in the region’s trouble spots, producing discord that might get in the way of stable outcomes and take decades to put right, experts in the region say.
Analysts blame the Obama administration, which they say still doesn’t have a strategy to deal with the aftershocks of the 2011 Arab Spring, in particular the war in Syria and Egypt’s latest political upheaval. Instead, the U.S. aim appears to be to “contain” the crises and manage them at the margins, they say.
“We are in a situation where the United States doesn’t want to lead. It has quite an effect on the region,” said Salman Shaikh, of the Brookings Institution in Doha, Qatar. In its place, regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar are devising their own policies, but without coordination and often with different aims, he said.
The discord is on display in both Syria and Egypt. Saudi Arabia recently upstaged Qatar and helped force a shakeup in the leadership of the internationally recognized Syrian Opposition Coalition, displacing the power of delegates from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood by adding liberal secular Syrians. The coalition was created last year at the behest of the United States to become a government in exile, prepared to step in should President Bashar Assad fall. But the U.S. has provided no funds to the group – State Department officials have told McClatchy they think the coalition is too unstable to be counted on to spend the money wisely – and senior members of the coalition say the United States gives widely inconsistent advice and doesn’t follow through on its pledges of support.
And it’s still a question whether Qatar will defer to the Saudis or go its own way, as it has in the past, including allowing military supplies to flow to al-Qaida-affiliated groups that the United States has designated as international terrorist organizations.
Qatar has a new ruler after Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani handed over power last month to his son Sheik Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, and it’s undergoing a review of the effectiveness of its enormous foreign-policy investment throughout the past decade, which included taking a major role in the NATO-led intervention in Libya in 2011.
The Saudis and the Qataris have pursued distinctly different approaches to the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and Egypt; the Saudis fear the Brotherhood as a pan-Arab movement determined to undermine the region’s monarchies, whereas Qatar sees the Brotherhood as a force that will bring results, Hokayem said.