Just ahead of a planned state visit from President Barack Obama, Saudi Arabia is brandishing the threat of a land and naval blockade against its neighbor and fellow Gulf Cooperation Council member Qatar. Saudi Foreign Minister Sa‘ud bin Faysal threatened such military action unless Doha shuts down the Al Jazeera news network, outlaws the Society of Muslim Brothers and expels the local affiliates of two American think tanks, the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center and the Rand Corporation’s Qatar Policy Institute.
For commentary on the rift within the traditionally close GCC alliance, Ian Masters of KPFK radio in Los Angeles turned to a member of the editorial committee of Middle East Report: Toby Jones, a professor of history at Rutgers University and author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia.
Neither Masters nor Jones pulled any punches. Saudi Arabia is feeling “muscular” about its regional primacy, Jones explained, even as the House of Saud is uneasy about the anti-monarchical Islamist ideological influence of the Muslim Brothers, who it recently declared to be members of a “terrorist organization.”
Egypt’s current military government has consistently accused Qatar of backing the Egyptian branch of the Brothers, and has withdrawn its ambassador from Doha; the Saudi spat with Qatar reflects the strong support in Riyadh for Field Marshal ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, who looks more and more like the new dictator in Cairo. Both the Egyptian military and the Saudi royal family have blamed the 2011 uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere on instigation by Al Jazeera, whose reporters are currently on trial in Egypt.
The insistence on expulsion of US-based think tanks, on the other hand, reflects a wider aversion to any mention of democracy and human rights on the part of what Jones labeled a coercive, violent regime that brutally stamps out expression, crushes minorities and imposes a strict system of gender apartheid. Those in Washington who view Saudi Arabia as a moderate, liberal regime are simply mistaken, he said.
It is equally erroneous to portray Saudi Arabia as somehow “mature” in its foreign policy because one shares the House of Saud’s antipathy for the Muslim Brothers, as commentator Jeffrey Goldberg does. The Saudis, of course, are every bit as complicit as the Qataris (if not more so) in backing “radical Sunni outfits in Syria” and giving extremist preachers platforms for their views. And Goldberg’s concern for foreign workers in Qatar, while touching, is also unevenly applied: Over the last year, the Saudis expelled some 800,000 Ethiopian, Yemeni, Somali and other workers. The expulsions were completely arbitrary — “normalization of the labor market” was the euphemism du jour — and got a fraction of the media coverage of the workers suffering as Qatar races to prepare for the 2022 World Cup.
Perhaps President Obama should reconsider his travel plans. And perhaps the Western media should develop just a slightly longer memory about the overseas adventures of US allies in the Gulf.