Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Saudi Arabia and Qatar: the biters bit

                “Oh villains, vipers, damned without redemption…
      Snakes, in my heart-blood warmed, that sting my heart!”
–        William Shakespeare: “Richard II”
   There is ample evidence that those strongholds of Wahhabist Islam, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have until recently been supporting, both financially and logistically, the self-styled Islamic State (IS), as well as its extremist precursors.  But now the penny seems to have dropped.  The rulers of both countries have at last realised that they are threatened by the very creature they have fostered. IS has vowed to topple the Qatari and Saudi regimes, both of which it considers, in the words of  General Jonathan Shaw, Britain's former Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff, to be “corrupt outposts of decadence and sin.”  So Qatar and Saudi Arabia now have every reason to lead an ideological struggle against IS.  The question is – are they doing so wholeheartedly, or are they even now equivocating?

            What were Saudi Arabia and Qatar playing at, in the first place?  US Vice-President Joe Biden spelled it out to Harvard University’s John F Kennedy Forum on August 28:

“They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war …they poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad – except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world."

Now, perhaps too late, both states have realised that they have been clutching a viper to their respective bosoms. Both have nominally allied themselves to the US-led coalition aimed at defeating and eliminating IS.  The problem is that IS retains an undoubted appeal to Wahhabist adherents within both countries.  The US Treasury has released documents suggesting that Qatar is failing to crack down on individuals alleged to be sponsors of terrorism (it names Khalifa Muhammad Turki al-Subaiy in one report).  Other reports specify that Qatari-based financiers have funded the al-Nusra Front, an offshoot of al-Qaeda that is accused of responsibility for kidnapping James Foley (who was murdered) and John Cantlie (whose life currently hangs in the balance), and handing them over to IS.

          The Emir of Qatar has insisted that his country does not fund terrorism, although in his statement he added the troubling caveat that Qatar and the West might disagree over what precisely constitutes a terrorist movement. But surely this is not the time, nor is it appropriate, to indulge in semantics.  Accordingly, one of the UK’s leading newspapers, the Daily Telegraph, has launched a campaign to “stop the funding of terrorism.”  Anything that could result in money and weapons falling into the hands of the enemy, the newspaper maintains, should be exposed and stopped, and the West needs to put pressure on any state that appears to tolerate or even abet terrorism.

However, the immorality of abetting terrorism seems to take a back seat when profits – especially oil profits are involved.  So IS is not short of cash. In addition to the more than $420 million it is reported to have looted from the central bank when it captured the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, it is enjoying a continuous flow of revenue from the sale of oil from the refineries it has seized.  IS now seems to control the majority of Syria's eastern oil fields and  also several smaller fields in Iraq. Analysts put its income from oil smuggling at between $1 million and $3 million per day, even though it is fencing the oil at a massive discount. In New York and London crude trades at just above $100 a barrel; IS is content to receive between $10 and $25 a barrel, while the middlemen in Syria, to whom they peddle it and who then bring it to refineries in Turkey, Iran, or Kurdistan, are rubbing their hands at the enormous profits they are able to obtain from the trade.

Turkey’s involvement in the transactions have been described by Ali Ediboglu of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). “$800 million worth of oil that ISIS obtained from regions it occupied this year is being sold in Turkey. They have laid pipes from villages near the Turkish border at Hatay. Similar pipes exist also at  Kilis, Urfa and Gaziantep [Turkish border regions]. They transfer the oil to Turkey and parlay it into cash.”

The strong Wahhabist strain that harbours sympathy for IS in both Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and is partially frustrating both states’ attempts to act decisively against it, is a religious movement within Islam variously described as "orthodox", "ultra-conservative", "fundamentalist", " or "extremist ".

Wahhabism is named after an eighteenth century preacher and scholar, Muhammad ibn Abd al-WahhabThe alliance between his followers and the House of Saud proved durable, and the ruling family continued to maintain its politico-religious alliance with the Wahhabi sect over the next 150 years, through to its eventual proclamation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, and then into modern times. Today Mohammed bin Abd Al-Wahhab's teachings are state-sponsored and are the dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia.

As for Qatar, its adherence to Wahhabism was always less rigid than Saudi Arabia’s. Qatar traditionally defined its state religion as “Wahhabism of the sea” as opposed to Saudi Arabia’s “Wahhabism of the land”.  The distinction refers to the fact that the Saudi government has less control of an empowered clergy compared to Qatar, that has no indigenous clergy with a social base to speak of. It also reflects a Saudi history of tribal strife over oases, as opposed to one of communal life in Qatar, and Qatar’s outward looking maritime trade history. 

It was as recently as 2011 that Qatar decided to pledge itself unreservedly to traditional Wahhabism.  On December 16, 2011 Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani inaugurated the “Imam Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab” Mosque in Doha, reaffirming his commitment to carry the message and spread the teachings of Islam to the whole world. The Muslim nation, he asserted, was in need of renewal and the inspiration of Wahhab’s call.

Now Wahhabism has turned round and is biting both states, clearly threatened as they are by the expansionist Islamist force and extremist Islamist philosophy of IS that will have no truck with any version of Islam other than its own, self-declared, caliphate.  If IS is to be unconditionally defeated, there is an urgent need for both Saudi Arabia and Qatar to plug their porous Wahhabism, and stand solidly behind the US-led alliance.  

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 8 October 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 7 October 2014:

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