Officially, the narrative on the split among Gulf Arab nations, between Saudi Arabia and the tiny nation of Qatar, has centered around support for terrorism. The reality of the situation is far more nuanced, but that hasn’t stopped President Trump from immediately embracing the Saudi position, attacking the Qatari government for supporting “extremism” in the region.
Yet when we dig deeper into the details underpinning the split between the Saudis and Qatar, we find that the actual rift stems heavily from the Arab Spring, and the Qatari government’s support, both official and unofficial, for groups advocating democratic reform in the Middle East. While the Saudis and the other nations involved in directly in this split are more than comfortable to be overtly hostile to democracy in the Middle East, it is wildly dangerous for the United States to position itself in such a manner.
Understanding the Split
The hostility toward Qatar has its roots in the hostility of other Gulf Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, toward al-Jazeera, a highly influential media outlet in the Middle East which is funded heavily by the Qatari royal family, and whose positions often conflict with those of Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the GCC governments.
Al-Jazeera has its origin in dissent toward the Saudis. Founded in 1996, the network’s staff were heavily from the Arabic-language BBC news service, which had just been shut down because of mounting censorship demands by the Saudi government. The new network was given broad editorial discretion, though It has remained funded by, and subsequently loyal to, the Qatari government.
From the beginning, al-Jazeera was controversial, willingly broadcasting dissenting opinions on important issues at a level unheard of in the region. Israeli officials were interviewed, something which just didn’t happen on other networks there, and opposition figures who were silenced domestically in various nations often found a voice on al-Jazeera, enhancing the network’s credibility, and given it a broad reach indeed.
There were obviously backlashes against them from the beginning, but it was the Arab Spring in 2011 that dramatically changed its perception in many countries, as al-Jazeera aggressively covered successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and less successful ones across the Middle East, with a pro-democracy slant that, again, gave them great credibility with viewers, but was dramatically contrary to the norm among news broadcasters.
The Arab Spring saw the conflux of two major bogeymen of a lot of the region’s despots, calls for democratic reform and the Muslim Brotherhood, which virtually everywhere had a hand in organizing the protests, and was one of the big opposition factions, whether legally or illegally.
Qatar’s relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood is unusually positive for the region. The group has existed for nearly a century, initially a reaction to British colonialism, advocating a religiously conservative, but democratic, system of government that has given it great influence in the clergy, which in the Middle East has been where revolutions traditionally start, and a natural position in the Arab Spring as a big organizer.
Most importantly, it was very successful, with Tunisia’s Ennahda Movement greatly inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the party elected in Egypt’s first free election, the Freedom and Justice Party, being overtly the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. The group also found great influence in post-Gadhafi Libya, and had connections to the Arab Spring uprisings in both Yemen and Syria, the later of which turned into the still raging Syrian Civil War.
Few region-wide revolutions come and go successfully without some attempts at a counterrevolution, and this was true in the Arab Spring as well. Ennahda faced a political crisis in 2013 as it struggled to deal with Islamist groups more hostile to democracy, and was accused of being “too soft” on them as a moderate Islamist force themselves. By the summer of 2013 Egypt’s democracy fell outright, with a major military coup d’etat, marked by the ouster and continued imprisonment of the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi from the presidency. This was immediately and very publicly endorsed by several of the region’s royal families, Saudi Arabia in particular.
The fall of the Brotherhood in Egypt was a real turning point, as the new junta there under current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi quickly presented the Brotherhood and its Islamist supporters as “terrorists,” and much of the region embraced that story, primarily because they found the new junta more convenient to deal with than the Morsi government, which had lost the favor and confidence of the moderate non-Islamists that had first brought the democracy movement there to life.
In 2014 in Libya, General Khalifa Hifter, a long-time CIA asset, declared a coup of his own, complaining Libya’s parliament had too many Muslim Brotherhood members and that he was “saving” the nation. His coup was unsuccessful, but did split the nation into two separate parliaments, each vying for power to this day. Even within Syria, the Turkey-based rebel Syrian National Coalition saw internal upheaval, as the leadership backed by Turkey and Qatar was seen as too close to the Muslim Brotherhood, and quickly replaced with Saudi-backed Islamists with less of a commitment to democracy.
Since then, Qatar’s connections with the Muslim Brotherhood, and al-Jazeera’s unwillingness to vilify the only really successfully democratic revolutions in decades, has been a source of tensions between Qatar and its neighbors. This has at times led to diplomatic rows, but really boiled over this month in the wake of President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia.
President Trump’s visit came at an opportune time for those looking to move against Qatar, as his vague talk of ending “support for terror,” coupled with his cozy relationship with both the Saudi royal family and Egyptian military dictator Abdel Fattah El-Sisi made it easy to portray Qatar as being outside the regional norm.
A quote in one of Qatar’s state media outlets said the Emir had concerns about rushing into a military confrontation with Iran, and even though he denied saying it, that was all it took for everyone else to feign outrage and sever ties, presenting Qatar as an ally of Iran and a supporter of “terrorism.”
The regional powers orchestrating this split rightly predicted how President Trump would react, endorsing the moves against Qatar, and even personally taking credit for them. Trump’s often vague understanding of Middle Eastern affairs fit perfectly into the anti-Qatar narrative, with Trump having been keen to move against the Muslim Brotherhood himself after taking office, and likely would have done so but for advice to the contrary within the administration.
But while Trump’s anti-Brotherhood position rests more heavily on general hostility toward Islamism, the hostility by Saudi Arabia and others in the region stems from their aversion to democratic reform, something that is anathema to the royal families and their junta allies.
Directly insinuating America into this fight at all is unwise, but President Trump’s move to back the Saudis and the Egyptians against Qatar is incredibly dangerous in the long-term for US interests, because it positions America as backing an overtly anti-democracy movements in the region under the guise of the war on terror.
The regional backlash against Qatar for taking a position in support of democratic reform and freedom of the press may well be predictable and in keeping with the region’s long history of brutal tyrants, but it is wholly unacceptable for the United States, under any pretext, to take up sites against Qatar on these grounds, both presenting America in a calamitously bad light across the world, and raising concerns here at home about what the Trump Administration’s ideology actually boils down to.
Jason Ditz is news editor at Antiwar.com, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the cause of non-interventionism. His work has appeared in Forbes, Toronto Star, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Providence Journal, Daily Caller, the American Conservative, Washington Times and Detroit Free Press.