Oil-rich Saudi Arabia wants to rule the Persian Gulf and the United Arab Emirates wants to rule Riyadh, indirectly, at least. Both states desire to impose their will on neighboring Qatar, whose independent foreign policy irritates entitled elites not used to criticism let alone opposition. But so far the two nations’ efforts have done little more than strengthen Qatar’s independence and expose their own hypocrisy. Washington should continue to mediate, while making clear that the fault mostly lies with the aggressive and repressive Saudi-Emirati axis.
In June Abu Dhabi and Riyadh imposed a quasi-blockade on the small sheikdom of Qatar and demanded that it accept the status of vassal. They were joined by two countries which previously sold their sovereignty: Egypt, whose unpopular al-Sisi dictatorship was on both the Saudi and Emirati payrolls, and Bahrain, whose Sunni monarch crushed democracy protests by the Shia majority with the help of Saudi troops. (The Maldives and one of Libya’s contending “governments” also joined in, while Kuwait and Oman remained neutral.) UAE and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia presented 13 “non-negotiable” demands, which included accepting foreign oversight of Doha’s policies.
In the Middle East, an artifact of geography, the existence of vast pools of oil and natural gas, enriched otherwise unimportant nations ruled by small, sheltered families. “There are no clean hands here,” observed one unidentified State Department official. In dispute is support for terrorism, status of human rights, and relations with Iran.
The KSA and UAE royals long have been frustrated with Qatar. Not over supporting terrorism, however. After all, 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudis and two were Emiratis. Moreover, both countries earned a dubious reputation in Washington as sources of money for al-Qaeda and other groups targeting the U.S.
Indeed, State Department officials complained in a long cable dated December 30, 2009: “it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority.” This matters because “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, the Taliban, LeT [Lashkar-e-Tayyiba], and other terrorist groups, including Hamas.”
State went on to observe that Emirati citizens “have provided financial support to a variety of terrorist groups.” Moreover, “UAE’s role as a growing global financial center, coupled with weak regulatory oversight, makes it vulnerable to abuse by terrorist financiers and facilitation networks.” The recent hacking of UAE ambassador to America Yousef al-Otaiba’s emails led to circulation of an online report compiling evidence of his government’s support for the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan, Islamist radicals in Libya, and similar violent groups elsewhere.
Three years ago former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton advocated bringing “pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistical support for ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.” Last year Donald Trump complained that the Saudis were “the world’s biggest funders of terrorism.” Recently Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker observed that “The amount of support for terrorism by Saudi Arabia dwarfs what Qatar is doing.