by Graham E. Fuller
The tiny Gulf state of Qatar is today under harsh siege from nearly everybody in the Middle East, and portrayed as a “supporter of terrorism.” The US has bought into the mantra. What’s really going on here?
Back in the 1990s the joke in the Arab world was, “Qatar is a small country in the Persian Gulf and al-Jazeera is its capital.”
In one sense, the quip is quite revealing, even today. It was the appearance in 1996 of a new satellite channel, al-Jazeera, that pushed Qatar’s real capital, Doha, to the forefront of Middle East political consciousness; Arab media would never be the same again. Al-Jazeera devastated tedious rigid state-controlled media across the region. It astonished, wooed and won Arab viewers with riveting, free-swinging programs in which a broad range of once taboo topics were now shockingly aired. Viewers remained glued to their screens in the face of this astonishing new phenomenon of exciting professional television in the Arab world, and in Arabic. It offered heated live debates and new perspectives on themes that were on everyone’s minds: Islam, Islamism, democracy, Arab nationalism, women’s rights, freedom of speech, western radical thinking, western imperialism, the plight of Palestinians, and close-in coverage of western wars waged in the Arab world. Al-Jazeera even offered periodic Israeli commentators on major issues. It sponsored hugely popular call-in programs where popular religious sheikhs dispensed practical daily advice on the real problems of daily life and love.
Maybe more significantly, al-Jazeera broke the exclusive BBC-VOA monopoly on news in Arabic; now Arabs had news presented from a Muslim world perspective.The reaction of the leadership across the Arab world was predictably apoplectic. Traditional authoritarian regimes lost control of their state-controlled, self-serving news coverage to this upstart new news channel out of Qatar. Perhaps the ultimate tribute to al-Jazeera was that it was condemned by virtually every single Arab regime. Outside the Middle East Washington was particularly angry because al-Jazeera covered in detail US wars in the region, including images of carnage and destruction that US media deemed too upsetting for their own citizens to see. Indeed, al-Jazeera offices were “mistakenly” bombed twice by the US, first in Afghanistan, then in Baghdad.
Indeed, al-Jazeera was highly critical of US policies, reflecting widely held public opinion across the region. It was in turn accused of being a propaganda outlet for the Muslim Brotherhood—and certainly a number of broadcasters had ties with the Brotherhood—although they never advocated violence. At they same time al-Jazeera was accused of promoting Arab nationalist, secular, even Marxist views. These critiques all contained elements of truth, again reflecting a variety of outlook and popular opinion in the Arab world.
Al-Jazeera’s one unwritten rule was—no coverage of Qatar itself. Certainly this was a form of domestic censorship but few viewers cared when all the rest of the world was fair game.
The al-Jazeera phenomenon provides important background to understanding the current and harsh official backlash against Qatar by so many Arab regimes—not by Arab citizens. Today, muzzling al-Jazeera is among the key demands of the Saudi-led Arab coalition against Qatar.
Qatari state support to al-Jazeera is just one indicator of the feisty independence of this diminutive Gulf state. Qatar also exercises its outsize influence through its immense wealth: it shares half of the massive South Pars gas fields in the Gulf with Iran—giving Qatar the third biggest natural gas reserves in the world.
Qatar’s diplomatic outreach is also astonishingly diverse, starting with Israel. Qatar has had numerous high level meetings with Israeli officials over the years and maintained an Israeli trade office in Doha for some 13 years until tensions over Israel’s destructive war in Gaza in 2008. Qatar has worked to mediate between Israel and the elected government of Hamas in Gaza, and has spent generously to improve conditions in Gaza. It works closely with Hamas—a successful political party as well as a resistance movement against Israel.
Far more important, Qatar has consistently enjoyed good relations with Iran—partly a function of shared gas fields. Yet Qatar is not Shi’ite; it follows Wahhabi Islam, the dominant sect in Saudi Arabia. But Qatar’s version of Wahhabism is more relaxed—still theologically austere but in practice more flexible, open to cinemas, some mixing of sexes; women drive cars and run for local offices, Christian churches are open, alcohol is available in some public places, and modern art galleries help contribute to a lively public life. Qatar hosts over a dozen western-based US universities that have opened campuses in Doha—including Georgetown, Carnegie Mellon and Texas A&M. All this contrasts sharply with the general rigid cultural aridity of Riyadh.
Yet it is Qatar’s good relations with Iran that constitute the most serious no-no from the Saudi perspective. While Qatar is no democracy, as a monarchy it is politically a good bit freer than Saudi Arabia, Bahrain or the UAE. (Both Oman and Kuwait enjoy still greater political freedom than Qatar—and both also enjoy good relations with Iran and have not joined the Saudi alliance against Qatar.)
And to complete this contradictory picture, Doha is home to the biggest US military base in the Middle East at al-‘Udayd, while enjoying good relations with Russia.
Why is Qatar engaged in all these diverse outreach initiatives? Partly to put the country on the map—for vital existential reasons. Qatar is a tiny peninsula attached to the Saudi mainland on the Arabian Peninsula; physically its security situation is vulnerable. Riyadh could probably overrun the country militarily in a day. Thus Qatar is determined to establish a strong network of international ties, enabling the country to rally international support to protect its independence against Saudi domination or expansionism. And right now is one moment when Qatar is drawing down on those ties.
We should not forget that Saudi Arabia is the regional hegemon on the Peninsula. It has twice in two centuries seen Wahhabi religious forces sweep across the Peninsula all along the Gulf; it could quite conceivably seek to assert eventual strategic control over the entire Peninsula as part of Wahhabi/Saudi manifest destiny. Of course for Gulfis to publicly express such anxieties is clearly impolitic, but the awareness is no less real.
Indeed, Qatar is not the only state with such fears. Bahrain to all intents and purposes has now already become a Saudi province, as Riyadh backs its repressive Sunni monarchy that is trying to hang onto power through harsh repression of its Shi’ite majority population. Even the UAE—surprisingly supportive of Riyadh in this Qatari crisis—normally seeks to avoid being pressured into Saudi regional security schemes that threaten its own sovereignty. Yet one of the UAE’s own emirates, Dubai, enjoys a quiet but cordial working relationship with Iran. And two other Gulf states, Oman and Kuwait, are far more outspokenly independent of Saudi pressures.
These are some of the multiple reasons why Riyadh early this month finally declared a sweeping and punitive blockade against Qatar, sealing its land, sea and air borders in opposition to Qatar’s unacceptably independent ways.
A number of other regimes back the Saudi coalition, mostly because they are paid off: Egypt (that doesn’t like the Muslim Brotherhood anyway), Libya, the Yemeni government in exile and others— all beholden to Riyadh.
The harshness of these moves against Qatar is unusual for the Gulf but particularly reflect the ambitious and impulsive young Muhammad bin Salman, son of the Saudi King. The Saudi mantra is of course to blame all regional ills on Iran and Shi’ism. In reality, however, religion has almost nothing to do with the Saudi-Iranian standoff, while geopolitics has everything to do with it.
But yet there is also a kind of struggle over Islam. No, it’s not about Shi’ite vs Sunni. Qatar is very Sunni, as is Saudi Arabia. So is Hamas. But Qatar essentially perceives the Muslim Brotherhood as a key representative of the future of moderate political Islam in the region. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood is a relatively modern Islamist movement. It is essentially non-violent, is not jihadi, avoids Sunni-Shi’ite sectarianism, and accepts the principles of democratic politics and political parties; it has modernist and traditionalist wings. Yet reading the US MSM you’d scarcely hear of any of this, since Israel does not like the Brotherhood.
There is much realism in Qatar’s view. Movements in political Islam in fact cover a spectrum: autocratic vs democratic, traditionalist vs modernist, tolerant vs intolerant, violent vs non-violent, pragmatic vs ideological. They are in a state of constant evolution depending on local conditions. One thing is for sure—political Islam is not going away anytime soon. It is too deeply imbedded in Muslim culture not to have impact on political thinking. The key question is what form it will take and the lessons it will draw from today’s world. Unfortunately, Western liberalism has only shallow roots in the Muslim world.
Qatar has essentially opted for progressive Islamism in the future of the region. It has thus lent support to the Muslim Brotherhood movement because it sees it as an authentic, democratic, essentially non-violent way towards entering the political and electoral order. Qatar was sympathetic to the Arab Spring which Saudi Arabia and the UAE abhorred. The mildly Islamist AKP government in Turkey shares a similar sympathy for the Brotherhood. Their hope was that if the Asad regime in Syria had been overthrown, the Brotherhood, as a member of the Syrian opposition over long decades, might well have come to the fore. Yet far more radical and violent movements like al-Qaeda and ISIS instead gained the military upper hand in the Syrian chaos.
Regrettably, lots of states in the region—Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Turkey among others— have all flirted with aid to these more violent—and effective—jihadi groups in order to overthrow Asad. The Saudi charge that “Qatar supports terrorism” is fundamentally hypocritical; the charge applies equally well to all these states, above all to the Saudis themselves who globally sponsor extremely intolerant Islam. It is Qatar’s support to the (essentially) non-violent more democratic Brotherhood that infuriates autocrats who fear the introduction of any democratic practice will cost them their thrones. Egypt joins them in this fear. Iran, interestingly, is also sympathetic to the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood as a relatively progressive political force for change in the region.
The UAE invokes one other longstanding territorial issue here: three small islands in Gulf now in Iranian possession. Actually this is virtually the only territorial issue involving Iran anywhere. As the British pulled its troops out of the Gulf, and before the UAE came into existence, in 1971 the Shah of Iran seized the three islands for Iran; today’s UAE still argues its claim. Whatever the virtues of the case, it does not suggest a pattern of Iranian territorial aggression, that has been virtually unknown for over two hundred years.
Saudi Arabia will not achieve its goal of establishing a “Middle Eastern NATO” against Iran; it will not even succeed in forging an enduring regional alliance. But the implications of this rash attempt to isolate and crush Qatar are serious with many external consequences. In the end all three states will probably back down in some face-saving formula compromise—as usually happens in Gulf spats.
But nobody should think the drama over Qatar represents “fighting terrorism” or “fighting Shi’ism.” The self-preservation of autocratic rulers is what is at stake here. But Washington too, seems to have bought into the Saudi view of Middle East politics. Qatar somehow sees a different future for the Gulf—and perhaps a slightly more enlightened one.
It would behoove the US to avoid sides in this complex struggle that has mainly been provoked by Saudi Arabia’s new muscle-flexing. Washington should also not allow Qatar to be subdued. Crushing Qatar is an exceedingly poor and retrogressive instrument by which to pursue the dubious game of intimidating Iran.
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle). Republished, with permission, from grahamefuller.com. Photo of Al Jazeera by Sarah Mirk via Flickr.