23 February, 2024


Gulf Absolutism – Jihadism – ‘Trumpism’: The Middle East Tinder Box Again

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

To make sense of the Middle East, three dimensions; the Saudis and Gulf States, jihadism now reaching into Iran, and Trump, have to be tied together. The Qatari royals and Emir Al Thani, have for two decades had outreach ambitions, by which I mean they don’t want to be excessively bound to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the seven-sheikdom UAE, dominated by one of its constituents Abu Dhabi. The whole lot are satrapies of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi monarchy, and its feudal court and state, is the big player in this oil and gas abundant region.

Why are the Qatari royals bidding to carve out a modicum of autonomy? The sheikdoms of the Arabian Peninsula were separate tribes till British Imperial power (Cor Blimy the Raj moulded more than India!) subordinated Arabia, the Gulf, Persia and the Middle East.  When Britain withdrew after the WW2, a medley of kingdoms, sheikdoms and nations surfaced (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, Trans-Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and the seven sheikdoms in the UAE). But the similarity ends there. Qatar shares with Iran, the world’s largest single gas field under the south-central portion of the Persian Gulf. Exploitation of the 9,700 sq. km, 43 trillion cu meter field necessitates cooperation with Iran. So it needs to befriend Sunni Saudi Arabia’s arch Shia enemy.

Qatari desire to keep at arm’s length from the Saudi led bunch creates problems. Its capital Doha hosts pesky Al Jazeera which competes with CNN and BBC globally and in the premier regional broadcaster. Its unconcealed contempt for human rights violators, enthusiasm for the Arab Spring and its Westernised male and, Allah forgive, headscarf-less female announcers, is a gadfly in the groin of their Majesties and Emirs. (Qatar, a sheikdom, is no democracy; but of a more liberal sort). Qatar has invested billions in housing and welfare in Gaza and bankrolls the Hamas admin – no doubt Hamas puts aside a cut to buy arms. And it backs the Muslim Brotherhood while the Saudis lie awake at night fretting over the Brotherhood, regional challenger of Wahhabism the Saudi version of Sunni Islam and the root ideology of jihadism.

The Saudis and Abu Dhabi accuse Qatar of financing terrorism. This is rich coming from the Saudis who lay out billions spreading Wahhabism, promoting fundamentalism, financing religious schools that teachnothing else but the Quran in classical Arabic and whose products are recognised on par with University graduates in bankrolled Bangladesh and elsewhere. It funds thousands of mosque building projects across Asia. The Saudis are in bed with Islamic fundamentalism while embracing an America purportedly at war with Islamic terrorism.

But there is truth to the charge that Qatar too slips generous dollars to terrorist and “terrorist” groups – there are so many it’s confusing which is which. Erica Solomon alleges in the Financial Times of 6 June that Qatar doled out a billion dollars to secure the release of a falconry party of Qatari royals and 50 militants (security guards?) taken hostage in Iraq in 2015. The collectors she says were Iranian figures and Katalab Hezbollah (Shia mercenaries?). The point is this; there are wheels within wheels; everybody is involved in some way; radical Islam has become ubiquitous in the context of the breakdown of the global order that there is no escaping its shadow.


A bit of vocabulary first. I use Islamic fundamentalism for harking back, seeking to live as in the Prophet’s days, strict adherence to the religious code and literal interpretation of primary texts. If a movement goes further and demands social and political reorganisation along these lines, but only by persuasion and peaceful means, I use the term extremist. If it goes the whole hog and precipitates violence against Muslims or non-Muslims, that’s terrorism. These are working definitions; many such as ISIS fit the last. Activist theocratic leaders, preachers and writers, fit the second category.

In this classification Wahhabism properly speaking is fundamentalist. Its founder Ibn Abd al-Wahhab refrained from advocating force against unbelievers.  Unfortunately he found a patron in Muhammad Ibn Saud, a chieftain of the Najd tribe and originator of the House of Saud which reigns to this day. Wahhab refused to endorse Saud’s campaigns of plunder and insisted jihad was justified only if the umma was endangered. He forbade killing prisoners, destruction of property and slaughter of civilians. Nor did he say those killed in battle or suicide missions were martyrs.  Ideological conflict with Ibn Saud simmered but after his death later Wahhabis cast aside inhibition and encouraged Ibn Saud to enforce a version of Wahhabi Islam which consolidated absolute monarchy by sword and faith. The first jihadists were none other than the founding fathers of the House of Saud!

Ibn Saud’s son, Ibn Muhammad, used religion to justify wholesale slaughter of populations. In 1801, he sacked city of Karbala in modern Iraq, plundered the tomb of Shia founder Imam Husain and slaughtered thousands including women and children. Now Jihadism has hijacked Wahhabism to the point where all who don’t practice its form of Islam or accept its vision of a global Caliphate are deemed infidels and enemies worthy of death. Horrific slaughter and mindless terror stalks Western, Syrian, Afghan, Indian and Iranian streets.

What I have put together here is no scholarly or political thesis of two centuries of fundamentalism and it bypasses mainstream Islam altogether. Nor have I touched on the persecution of Muslims in parts of the world like Burma, India, China and recently anti-Muslim arson in Lanka, all of which can provoke a backlash. That’s because my task is limited; it only formulates a simple story line specifically for the needs of this essay.

The tangle of terrorism

More important than the historical links between jihadist-like behaviour and the rise of the Saudi royal house is that the Gordian knot of modern jihadism is tangled with governments. In the best known case, 911all but four of the 19 terrorists were Saudis. Osama bin Laden belongs to an influential Saudi family. Reams of allegations from Western sources allege that Saudi private funds flow to terrorist groups. The same is true of many other Emirates.

In a hard-hitting piece on website Counterpunch(6 June 2017) entitled “London Terror Attack: It’s Time to Confront Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia” John Wright says “US, British and French governments can no longer credibly claim to be serious about fighting terrorism or religious extremism while cosying up to what is a medieval kleptocracy in Riyadh. Just days prior to the attack in London it was reported that a UK government inquiry into the role of Saudi money in funding terrorism is likely to be shelved due to the sensitive nature of its findings”.

The case of the US is deeper and more convoluted; there have been links between power brokers in America and Saudi, Gulf and Middle East ruling cliques from the early days of oil. That’s old news; but new-style cloak and dagger collaboration of these governments is the jihadist funding lifeline. Taliban without Pakistan, Hezbollah without Iran and IS without private Saudi slush would be a shadow of what they have become. Absolutism, theocracy, feudal monarchy on one side, jihadist movements on the other, cohabit comfortably. They feed each other through variations in an Islamic concert and feed on a poverty-stricken, ignorant and religion-duped populace. When Theresa May calls for the defeat of evil Jihadist ideology she little understands what she is talking about.

Enter Trump

Trump has a Midas touch. All he touches glitters for a moment and turns leaden in a trice. I hope he is not impeached, nor ‘abdicates’ quickly; America needs to ingest its medicine well lest it blunders again. In his first tweets he took credit for the Qatar crisis saying in thinly veiled words that he arranged it on his 2 May visit to Riyadh. Embarrassed Washington officials scampered to cover up subsequently by arranging for him to phone the Qatari royals and by offering to mediate a settlement. Secretary of State Tillerson went 180 degrees and called for the lifting of the Qatar embargo. It’s all blind man’s buff in Washington. Trump in America and worldwide, and Theresa May in Britain and Europe, like the Rajapaksas of Lanka, are damaged goods.

But it runs deeper than the idiosyncrasies of a comical president. US foreign policy in the Middle East (and now in East Asia and China) has become disoriented. In 1956 Eisenhower set a new tone when he forced the UK and France to abandon their invasion of Egypt when Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. The next big setback was America’s defeat in the Vietnam War but the US reconciled itself to the new power balance in the Far East and policy consistency resumed. But when Bush invaded Iraq for trumped (sic) up reasons with his poodle Teflon Blair in tow; the downward spiral resumed. Obama’s composure restored a modicum of calmness.

Though some sobriety resumed during the Obama presidency his inability to deliver on the Palestine imbroglio (the most profound of the regions dilemmas) means the US writ no longer runs. America’s policy on jihadism is resisting those who threaten the homeland; in all else it consorts with different groups at different times (Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and the blind eye on the horrid Saudi monarchy). Welcome to a new rice puller, the Qatari-Saudi-American achcharu.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Kumar David: It is a Garbage in Garbage out type article. Now, you are retired, you could have well prepared by reading the background. Anyway, It is all about circling Iran. Qatar is supporting terrorists from both the Wahabis and from Shias. So, supporting the Shia was the problem. Trump and Saudis did not want that. Your article it self says it, that USA did it and Saudis followed it. QaTaR problem is all about Iran. That is why Shias are also suffering from Wahabis. You should have read, Wahabis or the Saudi arabia is an invention of the United Kingdom some where in 1932 I think. They do all what the west do.

  • 0

    Qatar’s relationship with Iran, Muslim Brotherhood (that believes in political activism, reform, democracy, freedom of assembly and press), Muslim Brotherhood supported Hamas with its model of political activism, Arab Spring, and Al Jazeera’s Arabic coverage of Arab Spring are all not good signs for Al Saud family and the dynasty of Saudi Arabia that waited for a US president who could be bribed – USD 110 arms deal is nothing for Al Saud family if that can protect their dynasty. In the economic front, it is Saudi who is going to be affected worst among all involved, but who cares.

    Qatar’s care is mainly to sell its gas and gradually become a regional political power by whatever means(But we don’t know if it is also working to create issues in KSA) to achieve its goals. Why would they finance IS in Syria? It is to bring down Bassar-Al Assad, so that Qatar can setup their gas pipe-lines through Syria to EU to sell at a cheaper price than Russians.

  • 0

    Al Jazeera is best of a bad lot perhaps, but not the bastion of democratic values. It played foul in Libya and in Syria.
    Overall, I think that this article is rather shallow.

    • 0

      Al Jazeera in Arabic is definitely not a good thing for a country where Political Science’ is not a subject and politics / democracy related books are banned, and confiscated at the entry. CNN / BBC are less effective.

  • 1

    Prof.David , thank you for a great read .

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