The Egyptian army issued its stern ultimatum on July 1, 2013, which was ostensibly a stark warning to both Morsi, the first democratically elected president of Eygpt, representing the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and on the other side the Tamarod Movement and the National Salvation Front – a loose coalition of secular parties. However, in reality, it was nothing short of a thinly veiled threat to Morsi, stressing that unless he conceded a significant portion of his powers within 48 hours, the army would oust him. Although the army overthrew Morsi on July 3, its ruthless crackdown, which led to the deaths of over 100 MB followers on July 27, then bolstered the MB and dramatically escalated its increasingly defiant protests.
While it is incontestable that Qatar – headed by its previous Emir, Hamed bin Khalifa Al Thani and his Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Hamed Bin Jassim – was foremost in its unequivocal backing for the popular uprisings that swept the region, the bulk of its support went to propping up the MB. The Saudi regime, by contrast, has given its support to tyrannical regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain. The Saudi king made frantic efforts to forestall the spread of the uprising to Saudi Arabia by offering billions of dollars in benefits, strictly prohibiting protests, rewarding the Wahhabi Salafi religious establishment and, most ominously, instructing the Saudi army to invade and occupy Bahrain.
What is indisputable is the pivotal role played by the radical and regressive Wahhabi Salafi religious establishment in giving religious legitimacy to the Saudi regime, which in turn provides it with the vital funding to propagate and export its violent ideology. According to the Wahhabi ideology, it is strictly forbidden to oppose the ruler. Thus, in the Saudi regime’s eyes the MB’s explicit endorsement of political Islam, which underlines explicitly that legitimate rule can only stem from democratic elections, is an existential threat aimed at the very legitimacy of the Saudi King’s absolute power. Making matters even worse, Qatar had enthusiastically embraced and even offered citizenship to the influential and highly controversial spiritual leader of the MB, Yusuf Al Qaradawi.
As the protest in Syria became increasingly militarised, the Qataris ramped up their full-blown support to the MB. However, the Saudi regime has consistently considered the Syrian regime, since the days of the late Hafiz Al Assad, Bashar’s father, a major thorn in its side and an irreplaceable strategic ally to its principal adversary Iran. The regime moved swiftly to shore up the armed insurgents by deploying its intelligence services, whose instrumental role in establishing and funding Jabhat Al Nusra (JN) was highlighted in an online intelligence review released in Paris in January 2013. The Saudi regime also used its huge influence and leverage on not only Sunni tribal leaders in western Iraq, but also on Saudi members of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to convince AQI that its principal battlefield must be Syria and that its ultimate goal should be deposing Bashar Al Assad’s Alawite regime, since its overthrow would break the back-bone of the Iraqi Shia-led government and inevitably loosen Iran’s grip on Iraq.
Creating a new branch of Al Qaeda in Syria under the new label of ‘JN’, which was not yet designated a terrorist organisation, was not only an unmissable lifeline to AQI, on its back foot in 2011, but also provided Saudi Arabia and Qatar with a window of opportunity to bolster AQI and JN and destabilise Syria and Iraq simultaneously, under the perfect pretext of supporting democracy in Syria. So AQI scrambled to send Abu Mohammed Al Jolani, in July 2011, to form JN, while Aymen Al Zawahri, the overall leader of Al Qaeda, instructed all of his fighters in February 2012 to converge on Syria.
The New York Times reported on October 14, 2012, that most of the weapons shipped by Saudi Arabia and Qatar were going to hard-line jihadists in Syria, thereby explaining how JN swiftly turned into the best armed group in Syria. It also reported on February 29, 2013, that Saudi Arabia had dramatically stepped up support for the rebels by financing a large purchase of weapons from Croatia. However, its article on April 27, 2013 was, even if indirectly, far more scathing about Saudi and Qatari arming and funding, asserting ominously that nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria was there a secular fighting force to be found. The Guardian, meanwhile, reported on June 22, 2012, that Saudi Arabia is in the process of paying salaries to Syrian rebels.
But a well informed source in an article on April 13, 2013 in Al Arabia, a mouth-piece of the Saudi regime, confirmed the purchase and shipment of Croatian weapons to Syrian rebels, and acknowledged the appointment of Bander Bin Sultan, in July 2012, as intelligence chief to ratchet up Saudi Arabia’s faltering efforts in Syria. Even more revealing, however, was the assertion that Bander was firmly behind the steering wheel, so the Qataris must have been told to take a back seat. In essence, all this funding, arming, and paying salaries to militants by Saudi Arabia and Qatar has not only turned JN into the most ruthless and potent force among the opposition groups, but also dramatically reinvigorated AQI.
Without a doubt, the recapture of the strategic city of Qusair in early June 2013 by the Syrian army - backed up by its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah - marked a major turning point in the Syrian conflict, prompting Obama’s startling decision, on June 13, to arm the rebels. This was followed by the sudden return of Saudi Arabia’s king from his holiday. Last time, he returned to invade and occupy Bahrain. This time, he was back to assume his new role after the US verdict: Saudi Arabia, not Qatar, must lead the Arab world.
Thus, Qatar’s Emir was pushed by the US on June 25 to hand over power to his son, Tamim Bin Hamed. And, in stark contrast to what many experts predicted, the new Qatari foreign policy has increasingly been shifting towards toeing the Saudi line or keeping a low profile. This is clear from the following: first, Qatar’s new Emir made it abundantly clear in his first speech that Qatar would respect all political directions, and fiercely rejected sectarianism. Second, the highly conspicuous absence of any mention of the Syrian crisis. Third, and far more significant, replacing Hamed Bin Jassim, who was Prime Minister and Foreign Minister with Abdallah Bin Nasser Bin Khalifa, who has been appointed PM and Interior Minister, suggesting a more inward-looking policy. Fourth, the appointment of Khalid Al Atiyah who has far less clout, since he is not a member of the royal family. Fifth, the new Emir swiftly congratulated the interim Egyptian president, Adly Mansour, who was appointed by the Egyptian army. This was in stark contrast to the Fatwa issued on July 6, 2013 by Al Qaradawi, who openly called on the Egyptian people to defy the army and maintain support for Morsi.
While Egypt’s MB was the first casualty of Saudi Arabia’s uncontested leadership of the Arab world, nonetheless, hot on its heels came the dramatic takeover of the leadership of the Syrian National Coalition which the Qataris had been fighting hard to retain, by the Saudi candidate, Ahmed Jerba, on July 6, 2013. This was swiftly followed by the resignation of the Qatari-backed interim PM, Gassan Hetto. Soon afterwards, came the closing down of the Taliban’s political office in Doha. And, most recently, protest erupted in Tunisia against the Ennahda party, Tunisia’s MB, accusing it of assassinating a prominent secular politician.
We may speculate on the principal reasons behind the US decision: first, the high degree of confusion amongst its allies in the Middle East, which gave the Syrian regime the edge. Second, the sheer arrogance and recklessness of the Qatari leadership. Third, the hope that the Saudis would learn from the lesson taught to the Qataris. Fourth, having the Qataris in the back seat would give the US added leverage over the Saudis. Fifth, pushing the Qatari Emir to make way for his son sends a message to the Saudi king. Sixth, the US’ increasing worry about Saudi Arabia’s weakening internal front, especially after its patently deceitful myth of being the guardian of Sunni Islam has unravelled, largely due to the Saudi regime’s full-blown support for tyrannical regimes against the Sunnis in these countries. Seventh, a golden opportunity for the US to point the finger of blame at the previous Qatari leadership if a new 9/11, similar to the terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, took place, rather than blame Saudi Arabia or indeed itself for allowing the Saudis to send anti-aircraft missiles to Syrian rebels.
As part of the Saudi regime’s strenuous attempts to stave off an internal uprising, it has relentlessly been seeking to ignite a regional sectarian war to demonstrate to its increasingly disenfranchised people that it is heavily engaged in combating an existential threat from the Shia, namely Iran. But with the Saudis leading the Arab world, the risk of such a war has never been higher. Indeed, if such a war erupts, both sides of the sectarian divide would undoubtedly blame the US. It is, therefore, high time for the US to acknowledge that its unwavering support to Saudi Arabia – whence the vast majority (15 out of 19) of the 9 / 11 suicide bombers, never mind, the mastermind, Osama Bin Laden, came – has played a major role in turning the war on terror into irrefutably the most successful enterprise for promoting Al Qaeda into prominence in countless new countries.
It is imperative for the US, if it genuinely strives to halt the menacingly fast-spreading avalanche of extremist Wahhabi Salafi ideology and to avoid an all-out confrontation with an increasingly radicalised Muslim world – to forestall Saudi Arabia’s relentless export of its hard-line Salafi Wahhabi ideology and extremist jihadist fighters, by putting immense pressure on the Saudis to push them to expand the protection for oil deal into protection for oil, concrete political reform and some kind of deal on democratic change.