Brull crop
The Middle East

Saudi Arabia, Qatar & us

On 5 June, a kind of mini-crisis struck the Middle East: Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), broke ties with Qatar. Saudi Arabia, the only country to share a land border with Qatar, announced they were closing the border. Other Arab countries declared that they would expel their Qatari inhabitants and diplomats and blockade Qatar until it submitted to their demands; delivered a few weeks later, the demands included shutting down the Doha-based news organisation Al Jazeera, severing ties with Iran, limiting ties with Turkey and ‘ending interference in sovereign countries’ internal affairs’.

To some, this seemed dramatic. To many on the left, it was less engaging. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE are all members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). ‘This bloc of states,’ Adam Hanieh observed in Jacobin, ‘is fully integrated into a US-aligned regional power structure, has massively benefited from neoliberal reforms in the Arab world, and has become more and more intertwined with the region’s political dynamics.’ Put more bluntly, this is a squabble between a collection of American client states. Qatar is a more heterodox client. Al Jazeera’s critical coverage of the wars and occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq offended the US sufficiently that the organisation has been bombed repeatedly, while one of their journalists, Sami al-Hajj, was held in Guantanamo Bay for six and a half years. Recently, Hamas’s leadership-in-exile, who have adopted a mostly awkwardly quiet position on the war in Syria, has relocated to the country. (Lebanese-American political scientist As’ad AbuKhalil observed that Hamas announced it was for sale, and was ‘purchased by Qatar’.) This development has had a moderating effect on Hamas, but Israel does not appreciate refuge being given to an organisation it publicly characterises as a terrorist entity. Despite these deviations, Qatar remains a crucial hub of American imperialism in the region.

As Niall McCarthy reports in Forbes, Qatar hosts the largest US base in the Middle East, a key facility in the fight against ISIS. Al Udeid Air Base is located thirty kilometres southwest of Doha and hosts an estimated 10,000 US military personnel. Qatar invested over $1 billion to construct the base, which has a 1200-foot long runway and is capable of accommodating up to 120 aircraft. The US Combined Air Operations Center is located there, providing command and control of US and allied air power throughout the region, especially over Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

All of this makes Qatar one of the most important bases for American military power in the Middle East. Bahrain hosts the US Fifth Fleet, leaving them with just 7000 US troops. Otherwise, Kuwait has the most, with 15,000; then there are the UAE and Iraq, with about 5000 each; and lastly Jordan, with only 1500.

The constant American presence does not, of course, preclude disagreements between these states on some issues – but as they rely on the same overseas protector, there are limits to the kinds of policies they can pursue. That is to say, within an American imperial framework, disagreements between Arab puppets will be relatively minor. To the arrogant despots running their countries with Western weapons and backing, these disagreements may seem of great moment. But the whims of dictators should not be confused with high-minded principles, even if each side has dressed up its narrow interests as something more grand and noble.

Saudi Arabia offers the kind of rhetoric that is calculated to appeal to Donald Trump and right-wing sentiment in the West more generally. The media-friendly case is: Qatar backs anti-Western Islamist groups, which are responsible for instability in the region. In a sense, this is reasonable: Saudi Arabia has invested as much in regional order as the US; the two nations simply disagree on tactics. (For example, during the uprising in Egypt, the Saudi government urged the US to support Hosni Mubarak against the protesting masses.)

Because the crisis involves an array of larger countries facing off against tiny Qatar, which has only about two and a half million inhabitants (the vast majority of whom are exploited foreign workers), it may appear as if they are flexing their regional muscles. Yet Qatar is not quite so vulnerable as it first appears. The country is one of the richest in the world, with considerable oil and gas wealth and reserves. As for the blockade, Oliver Miles notes in London Review of Books online that ‘it will be a relatively simple matter for Qatar to import from elsewhere, including Iran and Turkey; the main losers would be merchants in Saudi Arabia and Dubai.’ The demands put to Qatar, helpfully published by The Guardian, can be summarised as follows. Firstly, the country is to cut ties with Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, political opposition in Egypt, Bahrain, UAE and Saudi Arabia. There is also a call to shut down Al Jazeera, and all other news outlets that the country funds ‘directly and indirectly’, while a further demand reads that Qatar must ‘align itself with the other Gulf and Arab countries militarily, politically, socially and economically’.

That this conflict would escalate to outright war on Qatar has always seemed unlikely. Even under Trump, the US has little reason to support one group of clients invading another, a notion that AbuKhalil has ridiculed on his Angry Arab blog: ‘What if the US forces in Qatar clash with the US forces in Saudi Arabia? If that occurs, I count on the US forces in Kuwait to mediate.’

That is, the coalition of governments do not have the means or leverage to force Qatar to capitulate – so why the brouhaha? Before we get to that, let us discuss the Australian dimension.


In late June, ran two stories about the terrible treatment of detainees in Yemen at the hands of the UAE, which, acting as a lead ally of the United States’ counterterrorism operations in the region, is running a network of black-site prisons. Based on a lengthy Associated Press investigation, the reports cited condemnation by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, while carefully exonerating the invasion itself, and its Western enablers, of any particular wrongdoing. It was interesting timing. The torture reported is, without a doubt, real and horrendous. But the stories’ appearance was unexpected, given how careful the Western media have been to avoid discussing the horrors in Yemen and our contributions to them.

After all, Australia is helping to arm the UAE and Saudi Arabia, two countries that have pushed the already impoverished Yemen to a terrible cholera outbreak, and the brink of famine for almost 7 million people. A survey by the aid organisation Caritas found that only 32 per cent of Australians were aware of a humanitarian crisis unfolding across the Middle East and North Africa. This lack of awareness is due to the Australian media, which has abstained from applying meaningful scrutiny to our support for the war on Yemen. It is hard to imagine a well-informed public would support Australia sending military exports to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, just as it is hard to imagine Australian support for Saudi Arabia would be bipartisan if said support were subjected to honest political debate.

Yet that is the thing about the GCC squabble. Like Captain Renault in Casablanca, various media figures and pundits have suddenly found themselves shocked at the iniquity of this or that side in the crisis. While some of their criticism is richly warranted, it is also opportunistic, selective and hypocritical.

Just two days after the Qatar blockade was announced and ties to the country were cut, the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council’s (AIJAC) Colin Rubenstein made an appearance on The Bolt Report. The ABC and SBS had both run content by Al Jazeera, Rubenstein complained; and, he observed, the station was run by the rulers of Qatar – ‘Who sponsor Hamas, who sponsor the Muslim Brotherhood,’ host Andrew Bolt jumped in. Rubenstein continued, accusing Al Jazeera of supporting ‘Islamism’ and ‘terrorism’, and of being anti-Western and anti-Israel. ‘They’re attacking the Saudi and Egyptian and Gulf leaders in the region as lackeys of American imperialism,’ he finished.

Israel has not officially taken a side in the conflict. But some of its less cautious officials – such as its Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and its Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren – have claimed the crisis shows that the danger to the region is not Israel, but ‘Qatar-financed terror’. Of course, the Arab countries would all be tarnished in the regional court of public opinion if they were associated with Israel in this dispute. Yet the fact is that Qatar has given some support to Hamas, and the country does have friendly relations with Iran. The Saudi camp, on the other hand, is aggressively anti-Iranian, and sectarianism is a key component of its foreign policy. In part, this flows from the official Saudi-sponsored and -exported brand of Islam, Wahhabism, which is viciously anti-Shia. Mostly, though, sectarianism is a tool for trying to isolate the governments of Iran and Syria from the rest of the Muslim world.

Thus, AIJAC finds itself in the Saudi camp. It has previously hailed the ‘moderate Arab governments’ of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. It is possible that the leading lobby for the Israeli government in Australia happens to think oppressive Arab governments are not so bad. A more plausible reading is that, just as there is an alliance in the Middle East between oppressive dictatorships and Israel, the same dynamic plays out domestically.


Most countries of the GCC act under the shadow of the Saudis. Thus, this recent conflict can be thought of primarily as Saudi Arabia being tired of Qatar operating independently, as though it is a competing power in the region. The Saudi government has essentially co-opted the Trump Administration. When President Trump gave his speech in Saudi Arabia about driving out extremists and terrorists from the Middle East, it was hard not to be incredulous. The Saudi government spends a fortune exporting its brand of fanatical, sectarian and misogynistic Islam to countries around the world, and has institutionalised the most oppressive of all Islamic governments (with the possible exception of ISIS, for those who recognise its jurisdiction). Even in the case of ISIS, the parallels are there: its punishments – and even methods of execution – are mostly interchangeable with those inflicted in Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, ISIS uses Saudi textbooks in the schools it runs. As Emile Nakhleh, a research professor at the University of New Mexico, has written, ‘some of the key elements in [the] IS educational program are similar to what one finds in Saudi textbooks, especially those that are taught in Saudi public middle and high schools. The ideological foundations of Saudi public school education are based on Wahhabi-Salafi-Hanbali theology.’

There are differences – ISIS does not recognise the legitimacy of nation-states, whereas Saudi education does. Yet the religious framework is basically the same: As Nakhleh points out, Wahhabi fanaticism is used to guide not just how students study theology, but also the sciences, as well as ‘Arabic, literature, history, civic education, cultural values, and norms of behaviour – whether in a home or societal setting’. In describing how ISIS has borrowed from Saudi Arabia’s ‘ultraconservative Salafi curriculum’, jihadism expert Fawaz A Gerges recounts the testimony of an activist from Raqqa, who reported that ISIS withdrew music, arts, history and philosophy from the curriculum, and segregated the classrooms by gender.

Or take the question of funding jihadi terrorist groups around the world. If we are to believe the US government, Saudi Arabia has much to answer for. In 2014, Hillary Clinton sent an email based on intelligence sources that observed that ‘the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia … are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.’ Likewise, Joe Biden complained that our allies ‘were so determined to take down Assad, and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war [that] 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 … were al-Nusra, and al-Qaeda, and the extremist elements of jihadis who were coming from other parts of the world.’ The recognition of this fact predates ISIS. In 2009, Clinton wrote in an email that ‘donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.’

All of these might be considered good reasons to criticise the Saudi Kingdom. Yet, strangely, Bolt elected to criticise Qatar during the conflict, whilst praising Saudi and UAE officials for how they supposedly address ‘hate preachers’. The alignment is striking. I suspect that Pauline Hanson’s Islamophobia would not be complicated by any geopolitical kowtowing to oppressive governments. More respectable Islamophobia, however, has to allow not just for ‘moderate’ Muslims, but also for ‘moderate’ Muslim governments. Each are ultimately measured by their commitment to Western interests.

Another member of Australia’s Islamo­phobic elite has expressed affection for Saudi tyranny: when Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz died, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott flew the flags at half-mast. He offered his ‘deepest condolences’ to the Saudi people, claiming the dead tyrant had ‘many achievements’, ‘was a key architect of Saudi Arabia’s economic and political development’ and ‘was also a strong proponent of international interfaith dialogue’. Abbott has also claimed that there is an urgent need for Islam to reform. It seems he regards the brand of Islam imposed on the people of Saudi Arabia as an exception to the rule.

Abbott also admires Egypt’s General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Since Sisi’s military coup in 2013, an estimated 1,400 protesters have been killed, along with the detention of tens of thousands of political prisoners. Abbott, in his own words, congratulated Sisi ‘on the work that the new government of Egypt had done to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood’, and went on to say that ‘this is someone that you can have a reasonable discussion with, this is someone who does get it when it comes to the ordinary norms of justice and decency.’ When Abbott later looked to cite someone to support his call for Islam to reform, he naturally cited General Sisi.

If Abbott – or Bolt, for that matter – were simple Islamophobes, one might expect them to be fiercely opposed to the oppressive Saudi Kingdom. Yet their calls for Islam to reform do not target the Saudi theocracy; rather, they target Australian Muslims. This is significant, and worth highlighting. There is plenty of Islamophobia in Australia that would target all Muslims, all Islam and all Muslim states. Yet the more potent and well-connected Islamophobia is supposed to serve Empire. Such an Islamophobia – a Connected Islamophobia – cannot demonise ‘moderate’ Muslims (those Muslims the West needs to secure its interests). Rather, it demonises ‘radical’ Muslims – the ones who impede or resist Empire. If it also happens to target Muslims outside both camps, the right-wing of Connected Islamophobia will simply regard that as irrelevant collateral damage. The left-wing of Connected Islamophobia, however, will deplore Islamophobia that targets the ‘radicals’ too loosely: they hope to expand the class of Muslim collaborators, who are regarded as vital both to Empire and in countering terrorism domestically.


In Jadaliyya, in the best overview of the Qatar crisis, veteran Middle East analyst Mouin Rabbani writes that ‘unless Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have an ace up their sleeve or are reckless enough to directly intervene in Qatar, it is difficult to see how they can prevail in view of growing international impatience with the persistence of this crisis and the instability it is producing in a corner of the world critical to the global economy.’

Qatar and Saudi Arabia have both used their wealth to project influence internationally. At its peak of influence, Qatar did so through offering foreign policy support to otherwise isolated groups, and through Al Jazeera – which, in recent years, has declined in prestige and viewership, and has come to be seen as merely reflecting Qatar’s stances on various conflicts, such as in Syria. Qatar has also supported the Muslim Brotherhood: when the Arab uprisings broke out, Qatar was jubilant at the prospect of Muslim Brotherhood governments possibly sweeping Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria. While the US has been ambivalent about the organisation, the Saudi government has loathed them for some time. Al Jazeera has also been the host of the influential tele-Islamist, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a sort of unofficial leading theologian of the Brotherhood (though he claims to be independent). If the Arab uprisings had gone as planned, Qatar would be in a very strong position indeed.

Then came the military coup in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood was banned, and its members were imprisoned and subjected to repeated massacres. Seeing the writing on the wall, the Tunisian Islamists backed down to domestic secularists. In Libya, the victory of Gadaffi’s ouster soon gave way to the chaos that the country is presently in. As for Syria, the countries that banked on an early defeat for Assad miscalculated badly; having poured more and more money into the cause – throwing bad money after worse money, to paraphrase Biden – their efforts have only resulted in the country’s utter destruction.

The Saudis, on the other hand, are looking stronger than they did in 2011. Sisi is a more pliant dictator than they could have hoped for. Syria may have become a disaster, but that is not their problem. Of the various factions of the insurgency against Bashar al-Assad, the only one that has been openly hostile to the Saudis appears to be ISIS. While they have not yet been defeated, Saudi Arabia is in the convenient position in which many of its enemies – Hezbollah, Iran, Shia militias, Russia, Assad – are fighting the group instead. Meanwhile, when the protests got too threatening in Bahrain, Saudi troops invaded and brutally put down the uprising. Saudi hegemony was restored.

Saudi efforts to assert hegemony over Qatar and Yemen, on the other hand, have been blundering and foolish. In Yemen, the Saudi democracy transition plan – Yemen held an election in 2012 with one candidate, who got 99.8% of the vote – has effectively been derailed by a catastrophic war, with no end in sight. Much of this failure can be slated to Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), who has just been appointed Saudi Crown Prince; as Patrick Cockburn notes, he has ‘won a reputation for impulsiveness, aggression and poor judgement in the two-and-half years he has held power.’ Cockburn compared MBS to Trump, but Trump was at least shrewd enough to win an election.

While Trump has responded to the squabble by reading from the Saudi script, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has repeatedly offered support to Qatar; it seems Trump’s team is determined to shield American foreign policy from the president. As for Australia, we have essentially sat out the conflict. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop appears to have entirely avoided commenting on the GCC fight. ALP foreign affairs spokesperson Penny Wong has shown similarly little interest.

For groups like One Nation and Reclaim Australia, there is little interest in such disputes, because all Muslims are ‘the enemy’. The more dangerous ideologues – the Bolts, the Abbotts and so on – are able to distinguish between Muslim political groups, but that does not make their motives more innocent. While there will always be mindless bigots, the real function of Islamophobia is to serve as an ideological justification for empire.




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Michael Brull is a columnist at New Matilda. He’s written for other publications including Fairfax, the Guardian, Crikey, Tracker and the Indigenous Law Bulletin.

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