By Abdulrazag Elaradi
The terrorism that threatens much of today’s Middle East is a direct result of the region’s complicated web of political intrigues.
The region has long been a mix of staunch dictatorships, huge wealth and crippling poverty. Throw in the threat of war and you have political fragility teetering constantly on the edge of instability. A “Game of Thrones” situation arises out of such a crucible while individual liberties are usually tossed aside for in order to maintain power.
Today’s terrorism is often the result of regional players using such violence to their own advantages.
The 2011 Arab Spring sought to break this regressive order, only to be met with a counter-revolution led by United Arab Emirates and other allies in the region. The current Gulf Crisis is a follow-up episode to this longer and older rivalry.
Saudi Arabia, for instance, has long tried to influence the region by deliberately exporting its extreme Salafi-Wahhabi ideology, while the UAE prefers to get in bed with authoritarian rulers in Libya and Egypt.
Only Qatar has taken a different path among the Gulf nations, choosing instead to explore the democratising possibilities of the Arab Spring’s legacy, thus creating today’s ever-worsening tension.
The use of extremism has always been a way for certain countries caught up in these crises to get a leg up on their opponents. Today’s terrorism has little to do with religion.
Rather, ideologically-driven groups are being used by state power as tools against their rivals. This dynamic has given birth to a whole new crop of terrorists, who are primarily the product of collusion between the region’s intelligence services and those of major global powers.
It’s an old tactic that goes all the way back to 1980s Afghanistan, when the mujaheddin were funded to fight the Soviet occupation, leading to the birth of al-Qaeda.Likewise, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, along with the (sometimes accidental) arming of jihadists in the Syrian civil war, eventually contributed to the rise of IS.
Saudi intelligence has more recently indoctrinated and leveraged the so called “Madkhali” movement – an extremist strain that openly denounces democracy, human rights, and everything “western” – on the front lines of their counter-revolutionary offensive in Yemen, Egypt, Libya and Syria, which in turn might give birth to a new generation of terror.
Saudi Arabia’s ally, the UAE, prefers to fund military dictators such as Khalifa Haftar in Libya and Egypt’s President Sisi. Both are busy marginalising freedoms at home, forcing young men into the clutches of terrorism. This will lead to more crackdown from above, forming a vicious cycle. This is the real story of the region.
The Arab Spring tried to introduce a new chapter to this old and stale reality but its countries weren’t helped by the US like the former Soviet countries were after 1989.
Authoritarian regimes became the norm. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been at the forefront of preserving this form of “order” and see any allegiance to the ideals of the Arab Spring as a lethal threat. Hence their quarrel with Qatar in the current Gulf Crisis.
For many years now, Qatar has chosen a path different to that of the Saudi-UAE nexus. It chose to support and welcome the Arab Spring and to embrace the uncertainties of democracy and – by extension – individual freedoms.
This progressive posture earned Qatar the recent campaign against its government, which accuses Qatar of – and the irony is palpable – supporting terrorism. More specifically, Qatar’s rivals accuse it of supporting groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas in Gaza.
But Qatar’s dictatorial rivals have, since the Arab Spring, invested billions in rolling back dissenting groups and political freedoms. They’ve concentrated political and economic corruption in order to destroy education programmes and have slashed human rights.
Principled dissidents end up going to jail as terrorists take their place, buoyed by the apparent weakness of peaceful resistance. Doha has tried to blaze a new path out of this stalemate.
Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in 2011, far from an example of “fuelling terrorism,” reflected its willingness to embrace democracy. In an open society, all those who’re willing to play by the rules get to compete for government, and the Egyptian people eventually chose the Brotherhood candidate. Qatar decided to uphold the principle of democratic politics on that count.
Moreover, Doha has long acted as a mediating force between opposing – and often warring-factions. Qatar has hosted countless reconciliation talks, which, when done correctly, helps marginalise terrorism. No other Gulf power can claim this.
Far from being a “supporter of terrorism” (as if Saudi Arabia and the UAE are ones to talk), Qatar’s leadership on security issues resembles efforts by Scandinavian countries to engage the rest of Europe on issues of deradicalisation and counter-extremism.
None of these facts has ever been secret or hidden. Even the US has used Qatar as a back channel and a hub for dialogue, a mediating platform that has few peers, if any.
President Trump and his aides should thus find out who exactly is fuelling extremism in the region before pumping out haphazard tweets such as, “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!”
Trumps’ meddling in this Middle East crisis, triggering it with a tweet and impeding it by a call, is leaving behind a region in chaos.
Terrorism isn’t going away anytime soon. Extremist groups continue to draw in young, impressionable people who are looking for a way out of the conditions into which authoritarian regimes have forced them.
In proposing a new way forward, Qatar has made many enemies who, without evidence, accuse it of fuelling terrorism. But ironically, Qatar may actually be the only country in the entire region that actually gets it when it comes to mitigating the threat of extremism: embracing democracy and openness is the only way.
Abdulrazag Elaradi is a Libyan businessman, writer, political analyst and former member of the National Transitional Council of Libya. His work has been published in the NYT and Huffington Post among others.