The Saudi-Qatar Rift: The Cat Calling the Kettle a Terrorist Financier
Last week, a host of mostly Gulf Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia cut ties with Qatar citing via the Saudi Press Agency “the dangers of terrorism and extremism,” and specifically it’s funding of such terrorist groups. Some, including U.S. President Donald Trump, praised the move as a sign that the Gulf states are finally taking the covert funding of terrorist groups seriously. The reality however is that the rift has more to do with regional power struggles, both between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the threat that autocratic Arab states fear from Islamist populism. Moreover, that Saudi Arabia is cutting off ties with a neighbor over ties to terrorism is perhaps the richest example of hypocrisy pertaining to international politics one can find in recent memory. Saudi Arabia, after all, has long been known to be the epicenter of ideological inspiration, covert support, and private donor financing of extremist groups. Far from being a step in the right direction, the Saudi-Qatar schism shows how disinterested the Gulf states are in combating terrorism.
The rift between Qatar and Saudi Arabia has long been simmering but it came to a boil in recent weeks. On May 23, the Qatar News Agency posted comments attributed to Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Haman Al Thani, which blasted President Trump and praised Iran, Israel, and Hamas. After a preliminary investigation Qatar claimed the statements were false and put online as the result of a cyber attack, which U.S. officials claimed was perpetrated by Russian hackers. Over a week later hackers linked to Russia, or impersonating Russians, released emails they had stolen from the UAE’s ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al-Otaiba. The emails showed a close working relationship between the UAE government and the Washington D.C.-based neo-conservative and pro-Israel think tank, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD).
The tensions over the back and forth hacking seemed to have sparked this diplomatic impasse with both sides clearly embarrassed. Yet in none of these emails was there a word mentioned about al-Qaeda or ISIL, the groups which the United States and the West has been pushing Arab states to do more to combat. That’s because while Saudi Arabia claimed support for terrorism as justification for the split, the real motives had more to do with Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and comparatively friendly relationship with Iran. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir confirmed as much when he claimed Qatar could restore its ties to the nations in question by ending support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
As I have argued previously in Charged Affairs, the Muslim Brotherhood engrains itself in the existing political cultures of every country in which it operates, including Sudan, Yemen, and Jordan. When the Arab Spring empowered citizens across the region to oppose tyrants and kleptocrats it seemed that the Muslim Brotherhood was best positioned to lead the charge and reap the rewards. As a result, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states feared for their hold on power and quickly launched a counter-revolution, crushing dissidents and branding the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
The United States, rightly and at least for now, does not consider the Muslim Brotherhood to be a terrorist organization. Al-Qaeda, ISIL, and their offshoots are the real targets. Yet when Saudi Arabia and other nations talk about counter-terrorism they really mean “counter-Brotherhood” and turn a blind eye to the true radical threats.
When ISIL and al-Qaeda do come up the fingers are often pointed at Qatar. Qatar, both the government and private citizens, has long been suspected of harboring and covertly supporting terrorist groups. In 2014 the controversy became so intense that the emir of Qatar appeared on CNN to dispute any claims of wrongdoing. A few months later he was rebuked when the United States revealed that two senior al-Qaeda financiers under U.S. sanctions were living freely in Qatar.
Qatar’s hands are by no means clean in regard to the funding of terrorism, but then neither are the Saudis. Links between Saudi elites and extremist groups range from ISIL, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in Syria, Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan, and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton went so far in a 2009 memo to call Saudi Arabia “the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”
In 1979, faced with the founding of an Islamic Republic in Iran and a revolt by religious fanatics in Mecca, Saudi Arabia began a program of covert support for extremist groups fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. The fanaticism festering in Saudi Arabia is spawned through Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative form of Sunni Islam that tolerates no other sects of the religion. The explosion of extremist groups in the Muslim groups coincides with decades of the Saudi’s pouring billions of dollars to propagate Wahhabism from Marrakech to Manila.
That Saudi Arabia has cut off relations with Qatar for the latter’s alleged funding of terrorism is the policy equivalent of the cat calling the kettle black. At best counterterrorism is not a priority for the Saudis, at worst the financing of terror groups is a tactic of Saudi foreign policy. Before pointing fingers at its rivals, Saudi Arabia needs to clean house and rethink its strategy of playing with fire in the form of extremists like al-Qaeda and ISIL.