President Donald Trump took to Twitter on Tuesday morning to predict that the isolation of tiny Qatar by its neighboring Gulf countries just might be “the beginning of the end” of terrorism. And naturally, he took credit for that isolation, painting it as a direct result of his recent trip to Saudi Arabia.
Is Trump right that putting Qatar in a corner will end terrorism? That’s wishful thinking. Terrorism is not really about money. The better question is, why is this rich-but-wee Persian Gulf monarchy suddenly being pushed into the limelight by Trump? That’s easier to answer.
Trump loves Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis loathe Qatar.
“So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off,” Trump said in his two-part Twitter message on Tuesday. They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”
Why do the Saudis hate Qatar? Because Qatar fancies itself as a rival to the Saudis as leader of the world of Sunni Islam. Qatar’s monarchy started the satellite news channel Al Jazeera, which instantly made it a major player in the Middle East. It also supports the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the primary expression of modern “political Islam” in the Arab world, and as such is a threat to Saudi hegemony. That dominance is grounded in the Saudis’ own history, geography and, most of all, allegiance to the deeply fundamentalist Wahabi school of Islam. So Qatar was pleased when Egyptian voters elected a Brotherhood government after the Arab Spring. And then the Saudis showered billions in cash upon the military strongman who overthrew the Brotherhood government, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. (The hands on that glowing orb at the Riyadh convention belonged to Trump, al-Sisi and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz.) Like the Saudis, al-Sisi calls the Brotherhood a “terrorist” organization, though the Brotherhood has historically and officially distanced the organization from terror.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia also compete in Syria. Both are on the side of the rebels, who are overwhelmingly Sunni (while Syrian President Bashar Assad is aligned with Shi’ite Iran), but Qatar favors the Islamic Front, which leaves it vulnerable to the extremist label. Neither side supports ISIS, but ISIS quite likes the Saudis, who have spent billions worldwide promoting a puritanical strain of Islam that the militants are very comfortable with. In fact, after setting up schools, ISIS used Saudi textbooks until they managed to publish their own. In fact, U.S. officials for years have complained that the Saudis, even as they cooperate on the tactical problem of preventing terrorist plots, are one of the main promoters of the intolerance and rigidity that produce Muslim extremism, and terror.
Further complicating the picture: Qatar (pronounced like “cutter’) is a strong military ally of the United States. Trump noted as much when he met with the Emir of Qatar in Riyadh. The Pentagon has 11,000 service members and its largest air base in the Middle East on the stubby peninsula. Qatar is less uptight and xenophobic than the Saudis. Its capital, Doha, has a branch of Georgetown University and the Brookings Institution, plus other educational institutions. In 2022, it will host the World Cup.
In other words, things are not as simple Trump tweets. But then again, they never are.