While Saudi Arabia hosts the vast majority of hate-spewing clerics, it is not alone in providing them with a safe haven. Qatar hosts al-Qaradawi, and some Qatari citizens own Salafi satellite channels that broadcast religious bigotry across the Middle East. The UAE has also hosted its fair share of hate mongers.
But no matter how dangerous and inflammatory these voices are, or how much these governments seem to look away from the consequences of fanning the flames of jihad, America can’t simply turn its back on long-time Gulf partners without considering the costs. And it cannot evaluate those costs according to the narrow interests of its other partners in the region.
For decades, U.S. policymakers have believed that their security and stability was crucial to maintaining world energy prices. So lawmakers invested billions in protecting them from hostile regional powers like Iraq and Iran, and deployed troops there to ensure their security. At first, the greater risk of terrorism, resulting from hostility that arose in response to the U.S. military presence in the region, was simply the price of ensuring energy security. But it’s far more than just the oil today.
Since 9/11, counterterrorism has become the dominant reason for the United States to stay involved in the Gulf; Gulf allies are often vital partners for stopping jihadist attacks around the world. Saudi Arabia has been a crucial source of intelligence on al-Qaeda, ISIS, and their affiliates. It provided the critical tip-off to American and European intelligence officials that allowed British and Emirati security personnel to intercept the expertly concealed bombs constructed by al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch, which were already en route to the United States. The Saudis and the UAE have also joined in the bombing campaigns on ISIS positions in Syria. In 2015, Saudi Arabia led the creation of a Muslim coalition against what it called the “disease” of Islamic extremism.
And Qatar? Within its borders lies the massive al Udeid airbase, where 10,000 U.S. personnel are stationed. It is the largest, most important U.S. military facility in the Middle East, hosting the forward elements of USCENTCOM, and providing a base for much of America’s air operations in the region. Its runways are large enough to base the B-52s that bomb ISIS. The United States has even benefited from the ambiguous ties between Qatar’s Gulf partners and terrorist groups: When America sought the release of a hostage held by al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, it turned to Qatar to broker the deal.
As long as the United States wants to provide security for the Arab Gulf nations and fight terrorism, it cannot afford to pick sides in a destabilizing fraternal squabble. That would undermine the very purpose of U.S. involvement in the first place, and risk incurring disaster. Instead, Washington would do well to encourage its allies to resolve their differences while pushing all of them to do better on counterterrorism and curtailing government-sponsored hate speech. This approach has worked in the past: Although Saudi Arabia’s behavior is still troubling, it is light years better than it was in the pre-9/11 era. The same goes for Qatar. None of this means the United States should excuse their bad behavior. But America must also recognize the Gulf states are effective counterterrorism partners in a range of ways.
In the end, the Middle East is the wrong place to look if you’re seeking moral purity.
Georgetown University maintains a campus in Doha and has received money from a range of individuals and donors in the Gulf. The Brookings Institution also maintains a branch in Doha and has received funding from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.