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Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates Pay High Price for Botched Attack on Qatar

Doug Bandow

The pampered petro-states of Saudi Arabia and United Arab
Emirates expected a quick victory after imposing a quasi-blockade
on neighboring Qatar. Past crises in relations had been peacefully
resolved, but this time Qatar’s antagonists demanded its
virtual surrender, particularly abandonment of an independent
foreign policy. They believed they had Washington behind them.

Alas, the intervening weeks have not been kind to Riyadh and
UAE. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim
Mattis signaled their support for Doha. Tillerson demonstrated
obvious impatience with demands he viewed as extreme and not even
worth negotiating, and called Qatar’s positions “very
reasonable.”

More than a few critics observed that Riyadh and Dubai are even
guiltier than Qatar in funding terrorism. One of them was Senate
Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, who complained
that “The amount of support for terrorism by Saudi Arabia
dwarfs what Qatar is doing.” Doha took the opportunity to
ink an agreement with the U.S. on targeting terrorist financing,
which none of Qatar’s accusers had done.

Moreover, George Washington University Professor Marc Lynch
observed that “The extremist and sectarian rhetoric which
external forces brought to the Syrian insurgency was a problem
extending far beyond Qatar.” The demand to shut Al Jazeera by
nations which have no free press and even criminalized the simple
expression of sympathy for Qatar was denounced globally.

Riyadh and Dubai have
sown the wind. Now they will reap the whirlwind.

Then came reports that U.S. intelligence concluded the UAE had
hacked the official Qatar website a couple months ago, creating the
incendiary posts allegedly quoting Qatar’s emir which helped
trigger the crisis. In contrast, Bahrain and Egypt, which joined
the anti-Doha bandwagon, looked like mere hirelings, doing as they
have been told by states which provided financial and military aid.
Having initiated hostilities without a back-up plan, the anti-Qatar
coalition cannot easily escalate against U.S. wishes or retreat
without a huge loss of face. But staying the course looks little
better. Saudi Arabia and UAE caused Qataris to rally behind their
royal family, wrecked the Gulf Cooperation Council, eased
Iran’s isolation, pulled Turkey directly into Gulf affairs,
and challenged Washington. Quite an achievement.

The experience has yielded several important lessons.

President Donald Trump huffs and puffs, but
doesn’t have much to do with U.S. foreign policy.

Despite having criticized Saudi Arabia in the past, he flip-flopped
to become Riyadh’s de facto lobbyists in Washington. However,
his very public preferences have had little impact on U.S. policy,
which ended up tilting strongly against UAE and Saudi Arabia. He
recently acknowledged that he and Secretary Tillerson “had a
little bit of a difference, only in terms of tone.”

Saudi Arabia proved to be more paper tiger than regional
leader.
It spent lavishly on weapons, subsidized other
Muslim states, sought to overthrow of Syria’s Assad regime,
and launched a brutal war against Yemen, but had no response
prepared when Qatar dismissed Riyadh’s demands. Then
Secretary Tillerson effectively blocked any escalation. With the
expiration of the Saudi-UAE ultimatum two weeks ago some observers
feared that Saudi Arabia and UAE would impose additional sanctions,
expel Qatar from the GCC, or even invade their independent
neighbor. But all of those steps now would be more difficult if not
impossible in practice.

Indeed, the secretary’s shuttle diplomacy last week to
support the Kuwaiti mediation attempt even forced Qatar’s
accusers to effectively negotiate what they had termed
nonnegotiable. UAE Minister of State Noura al-Kaabi said “We
need a diplomatic solution. We are not looking for an
escalation.” No wonder Saudis, who once believed they had
coopted America’s president, now complain that
America’s secretary of state is backing Doha.

Saudi Arabia’s expensive overseas diplomacy has
been of dubious value, gaining the Kingdom few friends.

Riyadh and Dubai organized an inconsequential coalition featuring
dependents Bahrain and Egypt, international nullity Maldives, and
one of the contending governments in fractured Libya. Since then
the group has failed to win meaningful support from any other
state. The problem? The real issue isn’t terrorism, but far
more selfish concerns, such as support for domestic political
opponents.

The reputation of the accusers has tanked.
Discussion of the controversy almost inevitably resulted in more
attention to the misbehavior of Riyadh and Dubai, particularly
their brutal repression of any political and religious dissent at
home, Saudi Arabia’s lavish funding for the extremist and
intolerant Wahhabist strain of Islam, and UAE’s initiation of
cyber-hostilities against Doha. Tom Wilson of the London-based
Henry Jackson Society published a report calling Riyadh the
“foremost” funder of terrorism in the United Kingdom
and citing concerns that “the amount of funding for religious
extremism coming out of countries such as Saudi Arabia has actually
increased in recent years.” While Qatar was vulnerable to
criticism over its backing for some radical groups, Riyadh and
Dubai had been subject to even harsher U.S. attacks for the same
reason.

Iran continued to gain more from the actions of its
antagonists than its own efforts.
Doha and Tehran are
linked by a shared natural gas field. Their relationship is one of
Saudi Arabia’s chief complaints. Iran is a malign actor, but
Riyadh, a totalitarian Sunni dictatorship, is worse. Saudi Arabia
intervened militarily in Bahrain to sustain the Sunni monarchy
against the Shia majority and backed radical insurgents to oust
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The reckless new Crown Prince,
Mohammed bin Salman, orchestrated the murderous, counterproductive
war in Yemen and diplomatic/economic attack on Qatar in order to
achieve Gulf hegemony. Now, without firing a shot, Iran helped
thwart Riyadh’s latest scheme, won the gratitude of Qataris,
and put a reasonable face on the Islamist regime.

Secretaries Tillerson and Mattis deserve special credit. By
ignoring President Trump’s misdirected enthusiasm for the
Saudi monarchy, they helped shift public attention back to Riyadh
and Dubai. Neither has demonstrated sufficient interest in cutting
terrorist funding.

For instance, in a lengthy cable dated December 30, 2009,
released by Wikileaks, the State Department criticized Qatar and
UAE, but was toughest on Saudi Arabia: “it has been an
ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist
financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic
priority.” Moreover, “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute
the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups
worldwide.” The kingdom “remains a critical financial
support base for al-Qaeda” and other terrorist organizations.
Despite Riyadh’s policies, “groups continue to send
money overseas and, at times, fund extremism overseas.”

If Saudi Arabia and UAE cared about terrorism, they would look
inward first. And Riyadh would stop funding Wahhabism, an
intolerant Islamic teaching which demonizes those who believe
differently. Wilson charged that “a growing body of evidence
has emerged that points to the considerable impact that foreign
funding has had on advancing Islamist extremism in Britain and
other Western countries.” The consequences of this funding
may be more long-lasting than payments to the terrorist group du
jour. Norwegian anti-terrorism analyst Thomas Hegghammer observed
“If there was going to be an Islamic reformation in the 20th
century, the Saudis probably prevented it by pumping out
literalism.”

What really bothers Saudi Arabia and the UAE is Doha’s
support for opposition groups. For instance, both Riyadh and Egypt
fear the Muslim Brotherhood, which challenges their ruling regimes
with a flawed but serious political philosophy—and,
incidentally, does not promote terrorism. The Saudi royals are
insecure because a kleptocratic, totalitarian monarchy holds little
appeal to anyone other than the few thousand princes who live
lavishly at everyone else’s expense. Saudi Arabia and the
Emirates similarly despise the TV channel Al Jazeera, which has
criticized both regimes.

Riyadh also wants to conscript Qatar in its campaign to isolate
Iran. Ironically, the Kingdom so far has applied no pressure on UAE
which, like Qatar, has maintained ties with the Islamist regime.
Anyway, it would be far better to promote long-term change by
continuing to draw Iran’s population westward in opposition
to Islamist elites. By playing host to groups as diverse as the
Taliban and Hamas, Doha actually has drawn controversial
organizations away from more radical governments, such as
Iran’s, and enabled the West to have unofficial contact with
groups with which it is officially at odds, such as the
Taliban.

Riyadh and Dubai have sown the wind. Now they will reap the
whirlwind. Their attack on Qatar further destabilized the Middle
East, unsettling several of Washington’s closest allies. The
Saudis and Emiratis ended up in a global cul-de-sac, isolating
themselves more than Qatar. The latter has little incentive to
yield, while the former face humiliation if they abandon their
claims. Other governments increasingly expect a lengthy stand-off.
Secretary Tillerson predicted that the “ultimate resolution
may take quite a while.”

That will benefit no one, other than Iran, perhaps. Not Qatar.
Not America. And certainly not Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The U.S. can’t impose a settlement on its dubious allies.
But Washington can recognize that “there are no clean hands
here,” as a State Department spokesman recently observed. The
Trump administration should place full responsibility for the
current stand-off where it belongs, on Riyadh and Dubai.

Doug Bandow is
a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, former Special Assistant to
President Ronald Reagan, and a Senior Fellow in International
Religious Persecution with the Institute on Religion and Public
Policy.