A new geopolitical settlement has emerged in the Middle East since the 2011 Arab uprisings. This realignment remains largely overlooked, even though much of what ails the region today can be better explained through it, instead of the traditional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran or the sectarian tension between Shia and Sunni.
The countries of the region can be divided into two camps: one that seeks to advance its foreign interests through the support of Islamists, and one whose foreign policy is guided by opposition to the rise of Islamists.
Countries in each of the camps are not necessarily aligned with each other so they do not form together on one side. This, understandably, makes it hard for policymakers and observers to view the region as such. But it is this realignment that could provide clarity to the United States as it recalibrates its approach in the region. Support or opposition to Islamists informs the foreign policies of the Middle East’s main powers. For some of those countries, it is the single greatest foreign policy driver.
Before 2011, the US used to refer to countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt as the moderate states. They had a pragmatic outlook towards the Arab-Israeli conflict, unlike the dogmatic position of countries like Iran and Syria. After 2011, though, those countries took on deeper roles in their neighbourhood. Events in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria compelled those countries to take specific positions to counter the political and religious waves that swept the region. Any label based on their past policies can no longer properly capture the nature of their role.
Iran, from the other camp, was no longer able to sustain its old position of presenting itself as having a cross-sectarian agenda against Israel, working with Shia and Sunni Islamists to advance the Palestinian cause. Instead, it was forced to adopt an aggressively narrow policy defined by attempts to maintain or expand its reach through Shia militias.
Qatar and Turkey also put most of their eggs in the Islamist basket. In Syria, they supported some of the most extremist forces in the conflict. They also took the side of Islamists in the Libyan conflict, and backed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere.
The pro-Islamist camp is less cohesive than the anti-Islamist side. But this camp supports various incarnations of Islamism in the Middle East, and that is what makes them part of the same problem. And the different positions each of these camps has towards Islamists help explain conflicts in the region, more than the Saudi-Iran rivalry. The conflicts in Libya and Syria could be explained through the prism of support or opposition to Islamists, as could other conflicts in the region today.
Take also the current tension between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. The crisis erupted after remarks attributed to the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, in which he expressed support for alliance with Iran and criticised the Saudi-led effort to isolate Tehran. The remarks were quickly denied by Qatari authorities, which claimed that their news agency had been hacked.
A glimpse at social media shows telling support for Qatar from a large number of Islamists and even jihadists. A former member of the top council in Al Qaeda’s Jabhat Al Nusra started a hashtag on Twitter to express solidarity with Doha.
Qataris have accused Saudi Arabia of being behind the hacking, supposedly to justify a prepared smear campaign against Doha. But reactions to the remarks were a symptom of a long-simmering tension with Qatar, over its support of Islamists.
In April 2014, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain agreed to resolve a diplomatic crisis with Qatar after it agreed to a list of demands. According to a document the author saw at the time, Doha agreed to rein in media outlets “inside and outside Doha” that criticise and attack its Gulf neighbours. Qatar was also accused of supporting Islamists from the Gulf, even providing them with passports to travel into western countries. Doha agreed to cease such support and to expel a number of Doha-domiciled hardliners from other countries.
Doha complied with some of those demands, especially the last two, which required immediate action. But Qatari-funded outlets continued to criticise Saudi Arabia, including by reporting on internal power machinations in Riyadh.
Reactions to the emir’s denied remarks appear to reflect Saudi Arabia’s belief that Qatar is not serious about changing its disruptive policies. Doha apparently attempted to appease Riyadh by deporting a Saudi activist, Mohammed Al Otaibi, back to Saudi Arabia, on Monday.
The current crisis is not an overblown reaction to remarks that Qatar denied, as outside observers seem to think. The real reason is Qatar’s insistence on aligning itself with Islamists, including Gulf activists, as part of its strategic regional outlook, coupled with rapprochement with Iran at a time when Saudi Arabia gathered 55 countries to isolate Iran. Having normal relations with Iran, in and of itself, would not have produced the same responses, with Oman being a case in point. The tension between Qatar and its neighbours shows that the old geopolitical lines can no longer explain the Middle East. Disputes over the support of Islamists, Shia or Sunni, is a better way to explain the geopolitical scene in the region, and to design policies accordingly.
Hassan Hassan is a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror
On Twitter: @hxhassan