The danger of picking sides in the Qatar crisis

(Front R-L) Jordan's King Abdullah II, Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, U.S. President Donald Trump, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani pose for a photo during Arab-Islamic-American Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 21, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RTX36UEB
Editor's note:

As long as the United States wants to provide security for the Arab Gulf nations and fight terrorism, it cannot afford to pick sides in a destabilizing fraternal squabble, argue Daniel Byman and William McCants. Instead, Washington would do well to encourage its allies to resolve their differences while pushing all of them to do better on counterterrorism and curtailing government-sponsored hate speech. This piece originally appeared in The Atlantic.

The key reason offered by Saudi Arabia and seven other nations for their sudden sundering of ties with Qatar is the country’s enabling of terrorism. They do have a point: Qatar has hosted leaders of Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, and has long provided a platform to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who has sanctioned the bombing of civilian targets in Israel and U.S. forces in Iraq. And the country has, at times, turned a blind eye to al-Qaida patrons who raise money for the group within its borders and funnel money to some jihadist groups in Syria. But Americans should not parrot the talking points of Qatar’s critics, a group whose ranks appear to include President Donald Trump, who tweeted:

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the leaders of the anti-Qatar movement, aren’t actually sanctioning the country because it promotes jihadism and political Islam. If that were the case, they would also be sanctioning Kuwait, which has allowed its citizens to fund jihadists in Syria and permits the Muslim Brotherhood to serve in parliament. The anti-Qatar animus stems, instead, from its support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Qatar-based Al Jazeera, where guests frequently criticize their rule (and, notably, say little about Doha’s own sins), its government’s willingness to work with Iran, and its relatively independent foreign policy.

So, a pox on all their houses. Right? Not so fast.

As it happens, the Gulf states are also crucial partners in the fight against terrorism. They provide the U.S. government with vital intelligence. They fly side-by-side in bombing runs on ISIS targets. They offer key facilities for fighting al-Qaida. What this means for the United States is that picking sides in a dispute like this one risks jeopardizing cooperation with some states by condoning the nefarious activities of others—all for little gain.

To grasp the complexities of these relationships, it’s important to remember that, prior to 9/11, the United States usually ignored tacit or explicit state support for terrorism among the nations of the Gulf. For years, these states openly supported jihad around the world. The Saudi government or its official charities channeled money and weapons to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s and to Bosnian and Chechen insurgents in the 1990s. Several Kuwaiti charities likely sent money to mujahedeen fighters in the Balkans. Government-organized charities in Qatar associated with al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood cleric, raised money for Chechen rebels. The UAE government-sanctioned Human Appeal International charity had ties to Hamas. The UAE and Saudi Arabia were among the few governments to recognize the Taliban regime in the pre-9/11 era. The Kingdom also encouraged or at least permitted thousands of Saudi citizens to fight in these conflicts.

While direct state support for jihad is rare these days, indirect aid remains common. In 2014, former U.S. Treasury Department undersecretary David Cohen called Kuwait, “the epicenter of fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria.” In 2016, the State Department noted that “entities and individuals within Qatar” provide money to terrorists, including al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria. A senior treasury official noted Qatar and Kuwait were “permissive jurisdictions” for terrorists, and that Qatar provided money to Hamas, the de facto government of Gaza. (Qatar’s developmental aid to Hamas was reportedly distributed with Israel’s blessing.) The State Department has also criticized the Saudis for failing to halt terrorist financing (although it can be difficult to separate whether the funds come from wealthy individuals or the government itself). “[S]ome individuals and entities in Saudi Arabia continued to serve as sources of financial support for Sunni-based extremist groups, particularly regional [al-Qaida] affiliates such as the Nusrah Front,” the agency reported in 2016.

Although the Gulf states are also major sources of foreign fighters—over 2,500 Saudis have gone to Syria to fight, making their country the second-largest foreign contributor to ISIS’s ranks (the much-smaller Qatar and UAE have seen only a handful of their citizens go)—perhaps even more important is the fact that they are home to preachers and religious organizations that stoke sectarianism and oppose a U.S. role in the Middle East. Many of these voices are responsible for indoctrination rather than direct violence. A number of prominent Saudi preachers regularly condemn Shia Muslims, helping validate ISIS’s sectarian campaign. For terrorists, this provides theological legitimacy for their actions, enabling them to attract recruits and funds.

While Saudi Arabia hosts the vast majority of hate-spewing clerics, it is not alone in providing them with a safe haven. Qatar hosts al-Qaradawi, and some Qatari citizens own Salafi satellite channels that broadcast religious bigotry across the Middle East. The UAE has also hosted its fair share of hate mongers.

But no matter how dangerous and inflammatory these voices are, or how much these governments seem to look away from the consequences of fanning the flames of jihad, America can’t simply turn its back on long-time Gulf partners without considering the costs. And it cannot evaluate those costs according to the narrow interests of its other partners in the region.

For decades, U.S. policymakers have believed that their security and stability was crucial to maintaining world energy prices. So lawmakers invested billions in protecting them from hostile regional powers like Iraq and Iran, and deployed troops there to ensure their security. At first, the greater risk of terrorism, resulting from hostility that arose in response to the U.S. military presence in the region, was simply the price of ensuring energy security. But it’s far more than just the oil today.

Since 9/11, counterterrorism has become the dominant reason for the United States to stay involved in the Gulf; Gulf allies are often vital partners for stopping jihadist attacks around the world. Saudi Arabia has been a crucial source of intelligence on al-Qaida, ISIS, and their affiliates. It provided the critical tip-off to American and European intelligence officials that allowed British and Emirati security personnel to intercept the expertly concealed bombs constructed by al-Qaida’s Yemen branch, which were already en route to the United States. The Saudis and the UAE have also joined in the bombing campaigns on ISIS positions in Syria. In 2015, Saudi Arabia led the creation of a Muslim coalition against what it called the “disease” of Islamic extremism.

And Qatar? Within its borders lies the massive al Udeid airbase, where 10,000 U.S. personnel are stationed. It is the largest, most important U.S. military facility in the Middle East, hosting the forward elements of USCENTCOM, and providing a base for much of America’s air operations in the region. Its runways are large enough to base the B-52s that bomb ISIS. The United States has even benefited from the ambiguous ties between Qatar’s Gulf partners and terrorist groups: When America sought the release of a hostage held by al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, it turned to Qatar to broker the deal.

As long as the United States wants to provide security for the Arab Gulf nations and fight terrorism, it cannot afford to pick sides in a destabilizing fraternal squabble. That would undermine the very purpose of U.S. involvement in the first place, and risk incurring disaster. Instead, Washington would do well to encourage its allies to resolve their differences while pushing all of them to do better on counterterrorism and curtailing government-sponsored hate speech. This approach has worked in the past: Although Saudi Arabia’s behavior is still troubling, it is light years better than it was in the pre-9/11 era. The same goes for Qatar. None of this means the United States should excuse their bad behavior. But America must also recognize the Gulf states are effective counterterrorism partners in a range of ways.

In the end, the Middle East is the wrong place to look if you’re seeking moral purity.