The conflict with Qatar is fundamentally about the possibility of democracy in the Arab world. That’s why Saudi and Trumpian autocrats are on the same side.
When Saudi Arabia is accusing someone else of Islamic extremism, it’s pretty clear that something else is really going on. Qatar’s real sins, in the Saudis’ eyes, seem to be threefold:
It has tried to maintain good relations with Iran, thereby, at least to some extent, opting out of the Saudi narrative of perpetual conflict between Sunni and Shiite Islam;
It has provided funding and other support for the Islamic political movement the Muslim Brotherhood, which was overthrown by the current military regime in Egypt and is aligned with both Hamas in Gaza and the Turkish government; and
It is the home of news network Al Jazeera, which is funded by the Qatari royal family and provides generally independent and politically neutral reporting on Middle East issues.
I quote Gideon Rachman’s bon moton the Arab Spring: “The good news is that this is the Arab 1989. The bad news is that we are the Soviet Union.” There are also links to a number of other commentators who have said similar things, to which I would now add, at the top of the list, this piece by Hugh Miles in yesterday’s Observer. It’s well worth a few minutes of your time.
Miles headlines with the story of Al Jazeera, which he explains very well, but even more importantly he shows the connection between my second and third points above:
What [Saudi Arabia and its allies] find particularly distasteful is the widely propagated view, shared by the Qatari leadership, that sooner or later Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas will come to power across the whole region, propelled either by revolution or democratic elections. …
Given that on the few occasions Sunni Arab countries have been able to hold free and fair elections Islamist parties have usually won, even though they are not often allowed to take or hold power for long, Qatar’s assumption that one day they will come to power is not unrealistic. But for Qatar’s neighbours it is heretical.
This is the vital point to appreciate. But if your understanding of “Islamist” is that it’s roughly equivalent to “terrorist” or perhaps “extremist fundamentalist” (if, say, you’re Gerard Henderson), then the quoted passage makes no sense. On any conceivable test, the Saudi regime is much more extreme in its fundamentalism, and more closely linked to the terrorists of Da’esh/IS or Al-Qaeda, than the Muslim Brotherhood or Hamas.
The big thing about groups like the Muslim Brotherhood is not just that they believe in some sort of political Islam – that’s normal for the region – but that they have popular support and are trying to bring about democratic change. As Miles puts it:
Arabs generally are fed up with their corrupt and useless unelected governments and are ready for any alternative in future, as long as it looks nothing like the past. Many Sunni Arabs, liberals and Islamists alike, find al-Jazeera’s democratic, Islamist discourse and optimistic vision of the future much more inspiring than the visions their widely hated and feared governments are peddling.
That’s not to say that the Brotherhood and its sister parties would necessarily remain democratic if they took power. But so far their record is a lot better than that of their opponents. The potential is there to bring political Islam within the democratic tent, in much the way that the Christian Democrat parties did for political Christianity in the period after the Second World War.
And that’s what forms the common bond between the Saudis and the hard right in the United States – both the neoconservatives and the Trumpian nationalists. Both are committed to the view that Islamic democracy is impossible; the Saudis because it threatens their autocracy, the Americans because it means admitting the Arabs to the status of real political players.