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Qatar: Did they Back The “Wrong” Insurgents?

Saudi Arabia and Qatar both support insurgencies, but the Saudis want to enforce a regional order they direct.

June 14, 2017

Saudi Arabia and Qatar both support insurgencies, but the Saudis want to enforce a regional order they direct.

A Saudi and UAE-led campaign to force Qatar to halt its support for Islamists and militants is little else than a struggle to establish a Saudi-dominated regional order in the Middle East and North Africa.

The dispute is about suppressing any challenge to the kingdom’s religiously cloaked form of autocratic monarchy.

The Saudi and UAE effort goes to the heart of key issues with which the international community has been grappling for years: the definition of what and who is a terrorist and what are the limits of sovereignty and the right of states to chart their own course.

It is a debate that has pockmarked the Middle East and North Africa since World War Two, but kicked into high gear with the 2011 popular Arab revolts.

Saudi Arabia and Little Sparta, a term used by some U.S. officials to describe the UAE, waged a concerted campaign to roll back achievements of the uprisings. The two states’ effort has projected Saudi Arabia and the UAE as leaders in the fight against extremism.

Yet, if successful, their campaign could empower a strand of supremacist Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism that advocates absolutist, non-democratic forms of governance, and threatens to perpetuate environments that potentially enable radicalism.

Political Islam as a destabilizer?

Saudi Arabia and the UAE still differ in their view of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism. But they agree on defining political Islam – any form of religious engagement in political processes – as terrorist because it advocates an alternative worldview or form of governance.

The outcome of the crisis in the Gulf, these differences notwithstanding, is impacting the larger Muslim world, rather than only the Middle East and North Africa.

A Saudi defeat of Qatar would cement the kingdom with its advocacy of ultra-conservatism, efforts to impose globally its anti-democratic values that make a mockery of basic human rights, and exploitation of the moral authority it derives as the custodian of Islam’s two most holy cities, Mecca and Medina.

The irony of the Saudi-led campaign against Qatar is that it pits against one another two autocratic monarchies that both adhere to different strands of Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative worldview that legitimizes the rule of Saudi Arabia’s governing Al Saud family.

Qatar, like Saudi Arabia, is governed by an absolute ruler, who keeps a tight rein on politics and freedoms of expression and the media. It is an unlikely candidate for advocacy of greater openness and pluralism.

Yet, in many ways, the two countries are mirror images of one another. Both see support for specific strands of Islam as crucial to their national security and the survival of their regimes.

Political Islam as a stabilizer?

Qatar, sandwiched between the Islamic republic of Iran and the Islamic kingdom of Saudi Arabia, both of which it views as potential threats, sees political Islam, the force that emerged strongest from the 2011 revolts, as the future of a region that is in turbulent transition.

By definition, any politically engaged form of religion is more participatory than the Saudis care for. Qatar sees stability in this ground-up participation (outside its own borders and small population), whereas the much more populous Saudi Arabia fears that.

Saudi Arabia is struggling with the fact that its four decade-long public diplomacy campaign, the largest in history, has let an ultra-conservative, often militant, inward-looking, intolerant genie out of the bottle that it no longer controls.

But it still sees apolitical Madkhalism, a strand of ultra-conservatism that advocates absolute obedience to the ruler, as the (top-down) solution.

Apolitical insurgents

Led by Saudi Salafi leader, Sheikh Rabi Ibn Hadi Umair al-Madkhali, a former dean of the study of the Prophet Mohammed’s deeds and sayings at the Islamic University of Medina, Madkhalists are Salafists who totally refuse to participate in politics.

They seek to marginalize more politically-involved Salafists or non-Salafist political Islamists, who are critical of Saudi Arabia.

Madkhalists project themselves as preachers of the authentic message in a world of false prophets and moral decay.

Madkhalists often are a divisive force in Muslim communities. They frequently blacklist and seek to isolate or repress those they accuse of deviating from the true faith.

Sheikh Al-Madkhali and his followers position Saudi Arabia as the ideal place for those who seek a pure Islam that has not been compromised by non-Muslim cultural practices and secularism.

A growing fallout from Saudi policy

In supporting them, Saudi Arabia is perpetuating the fallout – disintegration of democratization efforts in majority-Muslim societies – from its public diplomacy.

This has been a key factor in Muslim societies such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh becoming more conservative, more intolerant towards Muslim and non-Muslim minorities, less pluralistic and less democratic.

It is a strategy that risks nurturing the kind of anti-Shiite sectarianism that serves the kingdom’s purpose in its power struggle with Iran as well as creating an environment that potentially fosters radicalism.

Libya, a landscape of rival militias and governments, is an example of the Saudi strategy at work.

Libya as a case study

Much of the world’s focus on post-revolt Libya, torn apart by armed militias and ruled by rival governments, has focused on the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in the country.

Yet, equally devastating for the country has been the proxy war between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt that depends on handouts from the two Gulf states for its economic survival on the one hand and Qatar on the other.

Libya’s travails that created opportunity for IS are in many ways the product of battling Gulf states that support groups representing the rival strands of Islam they back.

As a result, Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s darling, renegade General Khalifa Haftar, rather than being a beacon of struggle against militant or jihadist Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism heads a force that is populated by Madkhalists, Saudi-backed ultra-conservatives that advocate a form of governance like ISIS.

General Haftar integrated the Madkhalists into his fighting force after Sheikh Al-Madkhali called on his followers in Libya to join him in the fight against Qatar-backed forces.

Madkhalist fighters, in their bid to enforce Saudi-backed Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism, have destroyed Sufi shrines and restricted Sufi religious activity in eastern Libya, Mr. Ali reported. Widely viewed as the mystical strand of Islam, Sufism is widespread in Libya.

There are many other examples of their overzealous theocratic activities in the civil war in areas under their control, including restrictions on the civil rights of women and opposition to environmentalists on hardline religious grounds.

No good actors

Ironically, General Haftar’s association with the Madkhalists spotlights the contradictions in the Saudi-UAE-Egyptian alliance against Qatar.

The UAE and Egypt share opposition to political Islam with the kingdom but see Saudi-inspired Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism as an equally potent threat. But for the moment, they are backing the kingdom against Qatar.

The long and short of this is that there are no truly good guys in the battle between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. But Saudi Arabia wants to prevent anyone in the so-called “Muslim World” from charting a course it does not approve of.


The Qatar crisis is about Saudi Arabia’s insistent definitions of who is a terrorist and who has sovereignty.

Libya, a landscape of rival militias and governments, is an example of Saudi strategy at work.

Saudi Arabia wants to prevent anyone in the so-called “Muslim World” from charting a course it does not approve of.