You are either with us or against us, declared Ambassador Omar Saif Ghobash, who represents the United Arab Emirates in Russia. He said his nation and its allies are considering demanding that Western countries choose between them and their neighbor Qatar, against which they have imposed a quasi-blockade.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is off to the Persian Gulf this week to try to mediate. Yet the issue looks esoteric to Westerners. Wealthy and pampered Saudi Arabia and the UAE, along with their satellites, particularly Bahrain and Egypt, whose loyalty has been purchased with abundant cash and military support, have declared diplomatic war on Qatar. They blame the latter for supporting terrorism, but almost certainly more important to them, dictatorships all, is the desire to silence criticism of their own crimes.
Doha supports opposition groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the chief target of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s brutal rule in Egypt, and TV channel Al Jazeera, which speaks ill of most of the oppressive Gulf regimes. Qatar also maintains civil relations with Iran, contra Riyadh’s attempt to turn every conflict in the Middle East into a proxy Sunni-Shia war. If Doha gave in to its antagonists’ demands on these issues, denunciations of Qatar’s alleged dabbling with terrorism likely would disappear.
Indeed, under Saudi Arabia’s ruthless new Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman—who apparently has put his cousin and ousted predecessor under palace arrest—Riyadh has become the major threat to regional stability. Although U.S. officials blame Tehran for destabilizing the Gulf, it is the Saudi royals who supported radical insurgents in Syria, launched an aggressive war against Yemen, and sent troops to support Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy against the oppressed Shia majority. If the House of Saud ever loses its hold on power, the crash will be heard around the world.
At one level there isn’t much to choose between the assorted Gulf kingdoms. They are monarchies in a world which mostly abandoned that ancient form of government a century ago. They are largely dictatorships. Kuwait is the freest, with an elected assembly and robust media; otherwise the picture is bleak. Most sit atop sizeable energy reserves and hire foreigners to do their dirty work. Including Americans to defend them.
Saudi Arabia is the Gulf colossus and usually takes the lead. But Qatar, with the largest natural gas reserves in the world—and consequently the world’s wealthiest nation—long has followed a very different foreign policy. This rankled Riyadh’s royals, who were used to being obeyed. Worse was Doha’s creation of Al Jazeera, which promoted the Arab Spring and has attained wide viewership in a region where the media is highly controlled. (Confession: I’ve appeared on the channel.) Egypt’s al-Sisi, who in 2013 ousted a democratically elected president from the Muslim Brotherhood and imposed a reign of terror to crush all opposition, most objects to Qatar’s support for the MB.
After President Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh, where he apparently acknowledged, approved, or even encouraged his hosts’ plans, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and Maldives (!) announced they were breaking diplomatic relations with Doha, expelling Qatari citizens, requiring their citizens to leave the isolated emirate, imposing a land blockade, halting operations by Qatar Airways, and barring any use by a Qatari entity of their waters and airspace. It wasn’t until the U.S. State Department proclaimed itself “mystified” by the coalition’s behavior that the latter bothered to issue specific demands. The list of 13, which insisted on changes, expulsions, closures, reparations, and even regular “audits” to monitor compliance, seemed designed for rejection, since no serious nation could accept such limitations on its sovereignty. Qatar would be a puppet state. The ultimatum is set to expire on July 3, with the unspecified consequences for refusal.
Now UAE’s Ambassador Ghobash says the West might have to choose us or them. But he did his cause no good when he declared: “You’d be forced to choose between wanting to do business with an extremist agenda or wanting to do business with people who are interested in building an acceptable Middle East.” In fact, the country he represents and its allies are as if not more guilty of promoting an extremist agenda than is Qatar. If there is one country not interested in “building an acceptable Middle East” to anyone other than itself, it is Saudi Arabia.
There is much to criticize about the Saudi five (later supplemented by one of Libya’s contending governments). One is that they have divided the Gulf nations, with Kuwait and Oman remaining neutral; in fact, the latter opened up its ports to Qatar. Moreover, Riyadh & Co. has pushed Doha closer to Turkey and Iran, both of which offered emergency food shipments after Saudi Arabia cut Qatar’s land lifeline. If the Middle East’s political boundaries end up redrawn, the fault will not be Doha’s.
Moreover, the Saudis and their allies have appalling human rights records. Qatar is no liberal democracy, but Saudi Arabia is essentially a totalitarian state when it comes to politics and religion. Egypt’s al-Sisi is worse than long-serving dictator Hosni Mubarak let alone the ousted Mohamed Morsi. One of al-Sisi’s unique crimes: shutting down NGOs which attempted to hold the government accountable for its human rights abuses, many of which had survived Mubarak’s repressive rule. Bahrain’s monarchy relied on Saudi military backing to crush democracy protests. It’s no surprise that these governments’ prioritize eliminating opposition and maintaining power.
However, most outrageous is the fact that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and UAE, in particular, have been criticized for precisely the same behavior which they are blaming on Qatar — promoting extremism and terrorism. It is the proverbial pot calling the kettle black. Ambassador Ghobash asked whether Western nations wanted “Qatari money with blood on it?” Why would they instead want Saudi, Emirati, or Bahraini money with blood on it?
The complaints from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and their debtor allies are entirely self-serving. Although the Muslim Brotherhood is not and never has been a terrorist organization. It is the oldest form of political Islam and contains within it a range of extremist and more moderate thought. Americans have reason to be wary of the group, but should recognize its complexity. MB members serve in Bahrain’s, Tunisia’s, and Turkey’s governments and are well integrated into Kuwaiti society. Elements like these, admitted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, “have done so by renouncing violence and terrorism.”
What offends Riyadh, in particular, is the knowledge (and consequent fear) that its totalitarian monarchy, by which thousands of princes enjoy licentious lifestyles at their people’s expense, holds no popular appeal, especially for the large youth population. Similar is the perspective of Egypt’s simpler but more brutal military rule. Nothing is more frightening for these regimes than a movement which offers something to believe in. The MB provides no good answers, but still is far more appealing than its oppressive opponents in the battle for hearts and minds in the Muslim world.
Unfortunately, when it comes to genuine extremism and terrorism, there are few innocents in the Gulf. In Syria Qatar backed the al-Nusra Front, then formally affiliated with al-Qaeda, but even the Obama administration did little to target the group, since it was among the most effective in battling the Syria’s Assad-government. Moreover, observed Vice President Joe Biden: “Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. The Turks were great friends … [and] the Saudis, Emirates, etc. What were they doing? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad—except that the people who were being supplied, [they] were al-Nusra, and al-Qaeda, and the extremist elements of jihadis who were coming from other parts of the world.”
The U.S. government criticized Doha for allowing money to flow to extremist organizations. But Washington routinely said the same about Qatar’s critics. For instance, the most recent report by the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism said of Egypt: it “remained vulnerable by virtue of its large informal, cash-based economy.”
Bahrain, concluded State, “is an important regional financial hub, which makes it vulnerable to large amounts of money flowing through the Gulf region to support various terrorist groups.” Moreover, “there were concerns that the government sometimes used counterterrorism laws—specifically citizenship revocations—to prosecute or harass individuals for their criticism of the government.”
In language similar to that used regarding Qatar, State reported on Saudi Arabia: “Despite serious and effective efforts to counter the funding of terrorism originating within the Kingdom, some individuals and entities in Saudi Arabia continued to serve as sources of financial support for Sunni-based extremist groups, particularly regional al-Qaeda affiliates such as the Nusra Front.” Despite increased penalties, “funds are allegedly collected in secret and illicitly transferred out of the country in cash.”
Regarding the UAE, State said that the country’s “numerous free trade zones varied in their compliance with and supervision of anti-money laundering/counterterrorism financing international best practices. Exploitation by illicit actors of money transmitters included licensed exchange houses, hawalas, and trading firms acting as money transmitters, remained significant concerns.”
State discussed these problems in a lengthy cable dated December 30, 2009, released by Wikileaks. The authors criticized Qatar, but were tougher on Saudi Arabia: “it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority.” Despite Riyadh’s efforts, “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” Indeed, the KSA “remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaeda, the Taliban, LeT [Lashkar-e-Tayyiba], and other terrorist groups, including Hamas.” Even after reforms several large “groups continue to send money overseas and, at times, fund extremism overseas.”
UAE fared little better. Complained State, “UAE-based donors have provided financial support to a variety of terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, the Taliban, LeT and other terrorist groups, including Hamas.” The authors emphasized “that the UAE’s role as a growing global financial center, coupled with weak regulatory oversight, makes it vulnerable to abuse by terrorist financiers and facilitation networks.”
In 2014 former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton contended that “we need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistical support for ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.” She also complained that the two governments, along with that of Kuwait, failed “to stop their citizens from funding extremist organizations.” The 9/11 commission also cited possible connections between the 9/11 hijackers, 15 of 19 who were Saudi, and the KSA government.
Indeed, no less an authority than candidate Donald Trump declared last year that the Saudis were “the world’s biggest funders of terrorism.” Riyadh’s lavish welcome for him apparently caused an unfortunate case of amnesia, but he got it right originally.
Finally, there’s the estimated $100 billion spent by Riyadh over the last three decades to promote the fundamentalist Wahhabist strain of Islam. While it does not explicitly advocate terrorism, it demonizes people of other faiths and radicalizes youth, especially when propagated by Madrassahs around the world, including some in America. Dr. Yousaf Butt of the British Cultural Intelligence Institute argued that Wahhabism is “the fountainhead of Islamic extremism that promotes and legitimizes such violence.” The group Freedom House concluded that the Wahhabi curriculum “continues to propagate an ideology of hate toward the ‘unbeliever,’ which includes Christians, Jews, Shiites, Sufis, Sunni Muslims who do not follow Wahhabi doctrine, Hindus, atheists and others.” William McCants of the Brookings Institution warned that the Saudis “promote a very toxic form of Islam that draws sharp lines between a small number of true believers and everyone else, Muslim and non-Muslim.”
As practiced by Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism appears to produce a version of the Islamic State with slightly better public manners, where vicious intolerance enjoys the pretense of legal procedure. Indeed, the Islamic State adopted Saudi texts until it could write its own. In regions such as the Balkans Saudi subsidies have helped transform a relatively mild Islam into a much more confrontational creed. Norwegian anti-terrorism specialist Thomas Hegghammer argued “If there was going to be an Islamic reformation in the 20th century, the Saudis probably prevented it by pumping out literalism.”
Yet Saudi Arabia and its cohorts are blaming Qatar for funding terrorism!?
Certainly Doha should review its own actions: concerted effort is needed to cut off financing for terrorist groups everywhere. But its neighbors have the same responsibility. And where Qatar diverges from its neighbors it often is for the better.
The best Western policy towards Iran would be to build on the nuclear agreement and continue to try to draw it into the international system, weakening extremist forces and creating greater pressure for reform at home. With repression from nations like Egypt encouraging a turn toward extremism and violence by the MB, Qatar offers a moderating influence. No one gains from pushing political Islam underground. Even a group like Hamas, which is an effective government ruling over millions of Palestinians, must be dealt with, not ignored.
Although Secretary Tillerson has done his best to encourage the parties to resolve their differences—he just landed in Kuwait to make his latest attempt—he has a thankless task. President Trump has made the problem immeasurably worse by acting as the chief lobbyist for the Saudi royals. Yet they may be the most malign actors in the region today.
As for Ambassador Ghobash’s threat that other nations should choose between the contending Gulf States, Western governments should respond with contempt. When the UAE and Saudi Arabia stop funding terrorism, attacking their neighbors, and oppressing their peoples, they may presume to lecture others. Until then, they should look inward. And if they don’t want to deal with the prosperous West, they can go elsewhere.