Former official warns of upheaval in Persian Gulf

Former Treasury Department official Michael Greenwald discusses the Middle East at American University. Photo by Jared Foretek.

A former Treasury Department attache to Qatar and Kuwait painted for a Washington audience a picture of an increasingly unstable Persian Gulf region, a situation that has allowed Israel to forge covert relations with several of the countries in the area.

Michael Greenwald discussed the personal and geopolitical at American University’s Center for Israeli Studies on March 1. He said that growing fractures — like those that led to five Arab nations to isolate Qatar — are destabilizing the region and increasing Iran’s influence and undermining U.S. interests. Here are four takeaways:

Arab-Israeli relations are improving — slowly

Greenwald said that Israel’s regional diplomacy with countries that officially don’t recognize its existence is often opaque.

“In my view, Israel does some of its best work behind the scenes,” he said.

Back channel negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Israel recently culminated in an agreement to allow Air India to fly to Tel Aviv over Saudi airspace. And as Arab nations find themselves more fearful of rogue terror groups and rebellions following the Arab Spring, Greenwald said they’re actually envious of Israel and its counterterrorism apparatus, which may ultimately lead to less-hostile relations.

Yet Arab states like Saudi Arabia are not interested in changing this new status quo, he said. They will continue to negotiate with Israel out of sight, while continuing to galvanize anti-Israeli sentiment among their citizens.

“We have a long way to go and I think the Gulf states would rather have a distraction [in Israel] than focus on their own countries,” Greenwald said.

Regional tension is aiding Iran

“The lack of unity in the Gulf only creates opportunity for Iran,” Greenwald said. “Unfortunately the trust between the Gulf states has been broken.”

Last June, Greenwald was in Egypt and was the last American diplomat to fly to Doha, Qatar, from Cairo before Egypt, the Saudis and four other Gulf states announced a travel blockade to Qatar. For the Qatari officials Greenwald had come to know well, the changing environment was pushing them closer to Iran.

“’We just can’t rely on our neighbors anymore,’” Greenwald recalled a Qatari telling him. “Now we must rely on Turkey and, yes, Iran.”

Progress on terror financing is painstaking, but it’s happening

Greenwald’s main assignment was to pressure the Qatari and Kuwaiti governments to crack down on terror financiers. Gulf states are increasingly fearful of terror groups which are aided by the emergence of crypto-currencies.

During his time in the Gulf, it was easier to galvanize anti-Hamas enforcement than for action against the Muslim Brotherhood.

“The Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas are both destructive and horrific terrorist organizations,” Greenwald said. “We’ve made progress privately on Hamas, but on the Muslim Brotherhood we’re farther back. We need to continue to pressure them.”

The United States has not helped its own position

Greenwald cited two recent U.S. decisions as “low points” in his time there. The first was in 2013, when the United States decided against a military attack on Syria, even after the Syrian regime crossed President Barack Obama’s red line by launching a chemical attack on rebels and civilians.

“I think when the U.S. says something, it has to back it up,” Greenwald said. “People in the Middle East thought we let down that community. When we did strike Syria [in 2017] there was support for that.”

But relations also soured when the Trump administration issued its travel restrictions, initially against seven Muslim-majority nations. Greenwald became emotional as he spoke about an economic specialist from Syria who he worked with. She had planned to visit here for the first time.

After the travel ban, Greenwald had to inform her she wouldn’t be allowed in.

“That was a hard morning.”

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