Officially, the narrative on the split among Gulf Arab nations, between Saudi Arabia and the tiny nation of Qatar, has centered around support for terrorism. The reality of the situation is far more nuanced, but that hasn’t stopped President Trump from immediately embracing the Saudi position, attacking the Qatari government for supporting “extremism” in the region.
.. the actual rift stems heavily from the Arab Spring, and the Qatari government’s support, both official and unofficial, for groups advocating democratic reform in the Middle East. While the Saudis and the other nations involved in directly in this split are more than comfortable to be overtly hostile to democracy in the Middle East, it is wildly dangerous for the United States to position itself in such a manner.
.. The hostility toward Qatar has its roots in the hostility of other Gulf Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, toward al-Jazeera, a highly influential media outlet in the Middle East which is funded heavily by the Qatari royal family, and whose positions often conflict with those of Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the GCC governments.
.. Al-Jazeera has its origin in dissent toward the Saudis. Founded in 1996, the network’s staff were heavily from the Arabic-language BBC news service, which had just been shut down because of mounting censorship demands by the Saudi government. The new network was given broad editorial discretion, though It has remained funded by, and subsequently loyal to, the Qatari government.
From the beginning, al-Jazeera was controversial, willingly broadcasting dissenting opinions on important issues at a level unheard of in the region. Israeli officials were interviewed, something which just didn’t happen on other networks there, and opposition figures who were silenced domestically in various nations often found a voice on al-Jazeera, enhancing the network’s credibility, and given it a broad reach indeed.
.. The Arab Spring saw the conflux of two major bogeymen of a lot of the region’s despots, calls for democratic reform and the Muslim Brotherhood
.. Qatar’s relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood is unusually positive for the region. The group has existed for nearly a century, initially a reaction to British colonialism, advocating a religiously conservative, but democratic, system of government that has given it great influence in the clergy, which in the Middle East has been where revolutions traditionally start, and a natural position in the Arab Spring as a big organizer.
.. Few region-wide revolutions come and go successfully without some attempts at a counterrevolution, and this was true in the Arab Spring as well.
.. The fall of the Brotherhood in Egypt was a real turning point, as the new junta there under current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi quickly presented the Brotherhood and its Islamist supporters as “terrorists,”
.. Since then, Qatar’s connections with the Muslim Brotherhood, and al-Jazeera’s unwillingness to vilify the only really successfully democratic revolutions in decades, has been a source of tensions between Qatar and its neighbors. This has at times led to diplomatic rows, but really boiled over this month in the wake of President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia.
.. Trump’s often vague understanding of Middle Eastern affairs fit perfectly into the anti-Qatar narrative, with Trump having been keen to move against the Muslim Brotherhood himself after taking office, and likely would have done so but for advice to the contrary within the administration.
.. President Trump’s move to back the Saudis and the Egyptians against Qatar is incredibly dangerous in the long-term for US interests, because it positions America as backing an overtly anti-democracy movements in the region under the guise of the war on terror.