Our friends in the Gulf

By Ben Cohen for JNS.org

Gamal Abdel Nasser and Osama bin Laden must be turning in their graves.

The decision by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to sever links with Qatar over its pro-Iranian foreign policy and deep ties to terrorism funding would have been greeted with equal outrage by Nasser, the Egyptian dictator who personified Arab nationalism at its height in the 1960s, and bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader who viewed the global community of Islam as an organic whole locked in conflict with the crusader West.

Indeed, it’s hard to see how the current diplomatic crisis in the Arab world could become more debasing, at least from the distinct vantage points of Arab solidarity and global Islamism. In a week when the world is marking the 50th anniversary of Israel’s victory during the Six-Day War of June 1967 — mourned in the Arab world as an unjust extension of the ‘Zionist occupation’ started in 1948 — the apparent priority for the leaders of key Arab countries is to punish a fellow Arab state.

To make matters worse, President Donald Trump joined the chorus against Qatar’s financial support for terrorism on Twitter only hours after its four Arab adversaries — with no sentimentality whatsoever — shut down their air, land and sea connections with the emirate. As a result, planes departing from the airport in Doha — the same airport lauded by Trump on the campaign trail as a model for America’s builders to follow! — now need to fly around Iran and Turkey to get to Europe and the Atlantic seaboard.

Lest I sound sympathetic to the Qataris, let me make it clear that I’m not. Quite the reverse; on an admittedly base level, I’m pleased to see Qatar is finally getting some comeuppance, not least because I’ve written a great deal about its shameful policies and practices in this column and for other outlets.

Like many other journalists, I’ve written about the conditions of slavery endured by the thousands of migrant workers who labour in 100-degree heat on unsanitary, dangerous construction sites — all so that the world’s soccer apparatchiks can sit in gleaming, artificially cooled stadiums when Qatar hosts the 2022 FIFA World Cup. I’ve written about how Qatar has lied about abolishing its ‘kafala’ system, through which these workers are bonded to their employers, when in fact it has made it even easier for employers to confiscate the passports of these horribly abused migrants. I’ve explained how lying is an official currency in Qatar, which finances its Al Jazeera broadcasting network to run a steady diet of fatuous conspiracy theories, hypocritical attacks on neighbouring countries that would never be permitted upon Qatar’s own royal family, and whispering campaigns against opponents — like its recent antisemitic series on the ‘Zionist lobby’ — dressed up as investigative journalism.

Qatar’s support for Hamas, financing of BDS activities and anti-Zionist propaganda in Europe and the U.S., and funneling of millions of dollars to the barbarians of Islamic State and jihadi groups in Syria, are yet more reasons to hold back on any tears for its privileged elite, stuck as they now are in a gilded cage. More importantly, millions of people previously dazzled by Qatar’s rapacious appetite in the world’s property and financial markets are getting a rare glimpse of the true nature of its rulers.

The crisis has been long in the making. Four years ago, the Saudis led a group of Arab states in withdrawing their ambassadors from Doha because of Qatar’s generous support of the Muslim Brotherhood. But that initiative didn’t lead to a change in Qatar’s position, because the ruling family knew that President Barack Obama’s distaste for the Saudis and desire to secure a nuclear deal with Iran would mean any pressure on Qatar was limited. With Trump now in the White House, and with the Saudis jostling with Egyptians for first place in the burgeoning anti-Islamist/anti-Iranian alliance with Washington, Qatar suddenly looks much more vulnerable.

Since Arab royal families tend to prefer pragmatism over ideology, I won’t be surprised if the drama in the Gulf is resolved through diplomacy — though it seems hard to conceive of that happening without significant Qatari concessions on relations with Iran and with Sunni Islamist organisations.

As ever, there is a broader question about the state of the Arab world that should trouble anyone — especially the non-Arab peoples of the region, like the Israelis and the Kurds, along with their friends in America — who has an abiding strategic interest in this part of the globe.

At present, we are openly aligned with the Saudi-Egyptian bloc of Arab states — all of them dictatorships with appalling human rights records, dismal levels of public education and media outlets whose fabrications would have Trump tweeting 24/7 if he were an Arab leader. In the short term, this is the most prudent path, as it presents a united front towards the Iranian regime and heralds the possibility of substantive peace between Israel and the Arab Gulf states.

But if we succeed in neutralising the Iranian threat, a tall order in and of itself, will America’s pivotal role in such an alliance lead to political reforms among the allies themselves, so that relatively enlightened Jordan becomes a preferred role model for the Arab peoples instead of brutalizing Egypt? Given the premium American presidents from FDR to Trump have placed upon their relationships with Sunni Arab kings and dictators, one would be unwise to bet on it.

In the last analysis, this represents another major step backwards when it comes to giving Arab states and Arab leaders some legitimacy in the eyes of their people. Such legitimacy comes from instituting democratic accountability, as well as respect for basic human and labor rights, and greater tolerance for dissenting speech, as part of the practice of government in the region.

After decades of corrupt and violent rule, the Arab world is still hostage to the same fundamental conflicts that nurtured both Arabism and Islamism. That lasting reality, far more than Qatar’s temporary discomfort, is what defines the region today and makes it so perilous.

Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.


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