Since June, a Saudi Arabian-led coalition of Arab states that includes Egypt and Jordan have initiated a blockade against the small Arab state of Qatar. This is a strange state of affairs, since the dividing line in the Middle East today is between the Sunni Muslim and Shia Muslim community. Qatar is predominantly Sunni Muslim and it is nestled on the edge of the Arabian Peninsula. For all intents and purposes—at least at first glance—Qatar should be closely aligned with the Sunni faction, as led by Saudi Arabia. Instead, however, Qatar is at once a close ally of Shiite-dominated Iran and is also a notorious (self-admitted) state sponsor of terrorism.
Of course, Saudi Arabia is also a critical source of jihadism in the Mideast. The upper echelon of the ruling House of Saud remains pro-American, however, and is generally supportive of the West. Indeed, Saudi security forces are often instrumental in the ongoing intelligence war against jihadist networks globally.
The Qatari government, on the other hand, supports pernicious Islamist parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. It pours millions of dollars into the Muslim Brotherhood yearly, and are critical supporters for the Brotherhood’s efforts to influence Western governments into denying that Islamism—a radical, revolutionary, political movement based on Islam—is a real threat to the West.
As noted counterterrorism expert Stephen Coughlin, documented in his magnificent book on the subject, Catastrophic Failure: Blindfolding America in the Face of Jihad:
The Muslim Brotherhood is not a moderate alternative to more radical groups like al-Qaeda, but rather the gateway entity from which these ‘radical’ groups spring and gain momentum. Far from ‘moderate,’ the Brotherhood is the most dangerous player in the War on Terror—not least because of its demonstrated ability to penetrate and subvert [Western governments].
Coughlin continues, “The public face of Islam in America is framed by the Muslim Brotherhood and that, in effect, Islam in America takes the form favored by the Muslim Brotherhood.” Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood, Coughlin says, “manages the ocean in which fish like al-Qaeda swim.”
In a way, it’s similar to how the old Soviet fifth columnists operated in the United States during the Cold War.
The Muslim Brotherhood began as a movement opposed to the British and secular pan-Arab Socialist movements that dominated in Egypt in the 1920s. It quickly expanded into a full-fledged revolutionary movement intent on reinstituting Sharia Law as the governing principle for the entire Muslim world. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al Qaeda Prime operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan, began his “career” as a committed Islamic insurgent in his homeland of Egypt, fighting for the Brotherhood. After spending years in an Egyptian prison, he was released, and ultimately joined up with the mujahideen fighting in the Soviet-Afghan War (where he eventually fought beside Osama Bin Laden, his future boss).
Since then, the Muslim Brotherhood has mutated into an international umbrella group aimed at managing the perceptions in non-Muslim (mostly Western) countries and serving as the political and intellectual force driving the Islamist revolution throughout the Muslim World. Major Muslim lobbying groups, such as the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), have long-standing ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. Remember, in 2014, the United Arab Emirates and much of the Arab states labeled CAIR as a terror network.
Meanwhile, after the 2011 Egyptian Revolution that toppled long-time American client, Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian people voted for the Muslim Brotherhood to replace him. Overnight, Egypt was no longer a stable, status quo power obviously allied with America.. Soon, anti-Semitic and anti-American rhetoric were on the rise, and Egypt was at risk of becoming a key source of instability in an-already chaotic Mideast. If not for the Egyptian military’s coup in 2013, it is likely that the Muslim Brotherhood would have completed its rise to ultimate power and become a Sunni-version of the Islamist regime that governs Iran. Egypt would have become an American adversary.
Qatar has long supported the Muslim Brotherhood and refuses to step back from its support. Then, of course, there is Qatar’s friendly relationship with Iran. Of course, this is a sensible policy that they’ve taken toward Iran. After all, Iran and Qatar are linked together economically: Iran and Qatar are jointly developing one of the region’s largest natural gas fields. So, despite the fact that Qatar is an overtly Sunni state, economics links it to the majority-Shiite state of Iran. Also, Turkey, a country that stands to gain from the Iranian-Qatari natural gas development deal, has come down on the side of Iran and Qatar (color me surprised).
Many may be asking why the Qataris are so intent on turning their backs on their fellow Sunni Arab states? We cannot discount the role that nationalism plays in this.
Despite sharing a land border with Saudi Arabia; despite existing as part of the Sunni Arab world—which has historically been led by Saudi Arabia—the Qataris are fiercely independent. While they share a common faith, history, and geography, the human foible of stubbornness is in play here. Qatar does not like having its sovereignty threatened by its neighbors.
Plus, Qatar’s cushy economic relationship with Iran is threatened by Saudi Arabia’s insistence that the Arab Sunni states create a unified front against Iran. And, as a leading Salafi Sunni state, Qatar is religiously committed to backing Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Since at least 2014, the Arab states have decried Qatar’s persistent support of both the Muslim Brotherhood and revolutionary Iran. However, the Obama Administration always opposed taking decisive action to put Qatar in line with the rest of the region. This was partly because the U.S. Air Force depends on Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. It is from this base that U.S. forces routinely conduct decisive strikes against ISIS militants and other terrorists operating in the Mideast (and former President Obama feared that America’s position in Qatar would be threatened should his administration come down too hard on Qatar). More troubling, though, was the fact that the Obama Administration relied heavily on Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated individuals, such as Louay Safi, a Syrian-American Muslim, to help craft its policies for the Mideast.
Now, however, things are different.
Beginning with his first trip to the Mideast, President Donald Trump went about laying the groundwork for a reinvigoration of the old balance-of-power scheme that the United States relied upon from 1945-1991 in the Mideast. Of course, there is a slight difference: it is no longer nationalism that the United States is relying upon in the Mideast to act as a balancing force.
Instead, as Trump indicated, he’s accepting the Sunni-Shiite divide as irrevocable and is building a new balancing system based on the ethno-religious and national divisions of the region. Part of this strategy means that the United States needs to trust its friends on the ground—the Egyptians, Saudis, Jordanians, and Israelis, for instance—to identify potential shared threats and neutralize them according to their own methods.
While many Western observers of the situation in Qatar fret over the decisions of the Saudis and our Arab partners–and while we should be cautious in pushing the Qataris too hard, out of fear of losing access to our base in Qatar–America must look at the bigger picture. We no longer can afford (or want) to commit our young men and women to fighting Middle Eastern wars. Yet, we simply cannot step back from the region and leave it entirely to its own devices. A middle way is therefore needed: the United States needs to empower regimes that are friendly to its interests (keeping the oil flowing, countering Islamic extremism, containing Iran, and leaving Israel alone) in order to allow for the United States to return to its birds’ eye view in the Middle East—something that it has not been able to fully do since Desert Storm.
Accept it: America’s Sunni Arab allies are doing the right thing regarding Qatar. The Trump Administration is right to not come down too hard on the Saudis for doing something that will ultimately further America’s strategic interests in the region. Don’t listen to the media on this, either. If you do, you’ll end up supporting Muslim Brotherhood talking points. Qatar is a dangerous threat to America in the region: they support terrorism and do business with Iran. They must be brought to heel.
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