When justifying its recent decision – along with the UAE, Egypt, the Maldives, Bahrain, Yemen (or what’s left of it) and the Eastern Libyan government – to sever relations with Qatar, Saudi Arabia put out a statement claiming that the reason was that its former ally was "harbouring a multitude of terrorist and sectarian groups that aim to create instability in the region".
The UAE followed suit, claiming that Qatar was guilty of "ongoing policies that rattle the security and sovereignty of the region as well as its manipulation and evasion of its commitments and treaties".
This has long been coming. While the Trump administration might paint this as Saudi and the UAE getting ‘tough on terror’, Qatar is being singled out for its support for revolution in the Arab world – its support for democratic forms of Islamism, namely the Muslim Brotherhood.
This is the reason Saudi and, even more strenuously, the UAE have rounded against Qatar. The groups in question are not ISIS (Daesh), but rather groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood – groups that have adhered to Islamic democracy. The Brotherhood is the main target of this action by Saudi, the UAE and Egypt.
The Muslim Brotherhood
A few weeks ago the Abu Dhabi-owned daily newspaper The National published an editorial on the Muslim Brotherhood, the title of which declared that the Brotherhood and the Islamic State group (IS) ‘share the same swamp’.
The editorial tenuously justifies this absurd claim by listing instances where the Brotherhood, or its political wings and offshoots, have got into power through democracy.
For example, the editorial cites a completely illogical correlation between the election of 16 “Islamists” in the Jordanian parliamentary elections – by which it surely means the election of 15 members of the National Coalition for Reform (NCR) – and “[IS]-related incidents” in the country.
It seems to have escaped the authors of the editorial that the Brotherhood-affiliated Islamic Action Front is merely one component force of the NCR, which is a broad democratic coalition that includes secular Jordanian nationalists, ethnic minorities, Christians and women. This is what the UAE considers to be ‘terrorism’.
And this perhaps subtly reveals the main problem the UAE and Saudi have with Brotherhood-affiliated groups and Qatar, which has refused to persecute them and has backed them. The two nations might seek to claim that the Brotherhood is a threat to democracy, but it is precisely its participation in democracy that makes the Brotherhood such a threat to the UAE.
It’s the UAE, and not the Brotherhood, that seeks to undermine and destroy democracy wherever it may be found in the region. In this sense, the UAE and Saudi have much more in common with IS than either does with the Islamic democracy of the Brotherhood – which at least accepts the fundamental liberties provided by democracy. Indeed, their only crime so far has been to attain relative democratic success.
Democracy and the UAE
The UAE, on the other hand, has engaged in a veritable rampage of anti-democratic activities in the era of the Arab uprisings. While Saudi Arabia is usually the UAE’s senior partner-in-crime, the UAE took a senior role in sponsoring Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s murderous anti-democratic counter-revolution in Egypt, spending billions backing the tyrant as he overthrew the government of Egypt’s first ever elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party. It’s often said that Morsi was ‘supported by Qatar’, but while they invested in Egypt’s economy during its democratic era, there was no material relationship between Morsi and Qatar.
Indeed, the UAE, unlike Saudi Arabia, didn’t just shower money on the Egyptian counter-revolution once it happened, but actively helped foment it, bankrolling the allegedly ‘grassroots’ Tamarod campaign, the main function of which was to undermine the democracy that had been won through the January 25 revolution.
The Brotherhood, far from being agents of jihadi tyranny, as is the case with IS, were agents of democratic change – they were popularly elected and intent on incrementally steering Egypt away from military rule and institutionalised kleptocracy and tyranny.
This is precisely why the UAE is intent on their destruction.
The UAE have absolutely no interest in democracy taking hold anywhere in the region, never mind in Egypt, the largest Arabic-speaking country.
Autocracy gives oxygen to terrorism
Contrary to what Saudi and the UAE would have you believe, the true correlation is between the order of brutal tyranny that the UAE and Saudi represent and support, and the rise of IS. Take, as one acute example, the overthrow of democracy in Egypt that the UAE has sponsored – it was only after democracy was smashed and that Sisi reinstituted and elevated the level of authoritarian brutality against the democratic opposition that IS (Daesh) could become a force in Egypt.
While the Sinai insurgency predates Sisi’s rise, IS were only able to unite the diverse jihadi forces involved and form its franchise ‘Wilayat Sinai’ after Sisi destroyed any hope there was to settle the underlying problems that face the Sinai through democracy and instead decided to do what his regime does best – mete out militarised brutality, ranging from airstrikes against civilians to forced displacement.
It’s of no surprise that amid the bloody chaos that forces like the UAE would have you believe is order, IS in Egypt have grown from strength to strength. Under Sisi, they are able to launch unprecedentedly large-scale attacks on military targets, as well as creep into the Nile Valley, bomb passenger planes and, terrorise Egyptian Christians in Al-Arish. Most recently we’ve seen Egyptian Christians massacred in Alexandria, Tanta and Minya. This is the ‘security’ birthed by Saudi and the UAE’s vision of the region.
Egypt’s vicious cycle is a mere microcosm for the counter-revolutionary order that the UAE and Saudi support – tyranny leads to terrorism; terrorism leads to more tyranny; and more tyranny leads to more terrorism.
In Libya, the UAE, along with Sisi’s Egypt, have intervened to support Khalifa Haftar’s ‘Operation Dignity’, which seeks to ‘eradicate’ the democratically-elected Brotherhood. And while there has been wrongdoing on both sides, the UAE’s intervention and its conviction to eliminate the Brotherhood has prolonged the way and provided perfect conditions for ISIS to thrive (luckily Libyan rebels uniting despite the UAE has kept them at bay).
Superficially speaking, the UAE would have the world believe that it is opposed to ‘Islamism’. However, on a domestic level its constituent Emirates enforce particularly brutal forms of Islamic sharia within its own borders, including punishments carried out by IS, such as flogging and stoning. But one could argue that, like the even more brutal Saudi Arabia, while these practices are savage, they’re confined to the UAE and pose no external threat, unlike the expansive nature of IS.
There’s truth in this, but the UAE and Saudi have poured more resources into fighting against democratic and moderate forms of Islamism than fighting IS; indeed, as above, it is precisely through this crusade against democratic Brotherhood-affiliated Islamism that IS has gained huge ground.
The UAE claims to be opposed to IS, yet by supporting a regional order that has contempt for basic liberties, democracy and human life, it is providing IS with the chaos and blood that is its most vital fuel. If we consider ‘Islamism’ in its totality to be an ideology full of antagonisms and in a period of transition – the Muslim Brotherhood represent a democratisation of the phenomenon. By persecuting and using its resources to target these kind of forces, the UAE is allowing Islamism to be hegemonised by anti-democratic forces like IS.
One might wonder why the UAE and Saudi are so set against the Brotherhood and democratic Islamism. It has every interest in suppressing democracy in the region, but surely its confident enough within its own autocratic skin? The UAE and Saudi knows that there is nothing more dangerous in a region packed full of dictators than a successful democracy. They even threatened to destabilise Tunisia’s post-revolutionary democracy, due to Tunisian President Essebsi’s rejection of their demand that they repress the democratically elected Brotherhood-affiliated Ennahda movement, which famously even relinquished power it had won fairly at the ballot box to unify the country.
In a region where Islamism has a huge base, there is nothing more dangerous than Islamists who want to enshrine democracy and position their politics as being antagonistic to tyranny through democracy. But while the UAE has placed itself firmly in the camp of counter-revolution in the region, it finds willing allies around the world, particularly in the West and Russia.
Perhaps in the UAE - with its vacuous culture, crude materialism and brutal anti-egalitarianism, and where most of its residents are a subclass of mostly impoverished Muslim South Asians and Arabs - the main fear is that an Islamic form of democracy fills the voids that underlie its society? In Saudi, where the majority of citizens are not Wahhabis and have shown support for Brotherhood figures like Morsi, they fear a growing democratic Islamist backlash within their own borders.
In this sense, the UAE, Saudi, Sisi’s Egypt and IS are united in their goals of seeking to ensure that the most basic forms of liberty are denied to the region.