The National’s US correspondent Taimur Khan discusses the policies of Gulf countries towards extremism in the region and their relationship with Washington.
The National: You were just in Washington at an event where the UAE ambassador to the US, Yousef Al Otaiba, called for regional governments to ‘get serious’ about stopping money reaching extremists. Which countries in particular was he speaking about?
Khan: The ambassador himself didn’t directly name countries, but he was referring to US treasury department designations of 12 more foreign terrorist fundraisers. A number of those people were in Syria or had links to Kuwait or Qatar. They were raising funds primarily for Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate and also for ISIL.
The National: Why is this such a big issue for the UAE? Why did the ambassador decide to highlight this issue?
Khan: As the US-led coalition against ISIL gathers steam, the Gulf countries have to figure out more ways apart from the military side to combat the group. The Gulf countries have decided that the funding issue is a component that they are uniquely placed to tackle. The UAE, after September 11, was pretty open about opening their books to the US in terms of private charity fund raising and fund-raising by citizens. And other countries such as Qatar and Kuwait have much less successful track records on the private funding issue.
For foreign policy and domestic politics reasons both Kuwait and Qatar have done less than other countries in the Gulf to stem and stop private funding for militant groups. Both of these countries are very close allies of the US. Qatar in particular if very important for the US positioning in the Gulf. There’s a huge military base there. There’s intelligence coordination. Qatar, by virtue of its foreign policy, has closer relations than any other US ally with Islamist groups, both political and some militant groups. So it’s been useful in that regard as well.
Before the ISIL issue came to the forefront of global concerns, the US, at least publically, did not pressure these countries as much to take on the private fund raising aspect or to do more about that. They would make statements [of concern] and behind closed doors were pushing certain things. But I think this issue now becoming such a threat to the region has changed their calculations a bit and we see a more public pressure by the US on Qatar and Kuwait to do more.
The National: You were also recently at the UN general assembly. Everyone seemed focused on figuring out how to fight ISIL. In some way, can we say it’s a win for the international community that so many countries have agreed on the need to fight this group?
Khan: At one level it’s a good thing, obviously, that all of these countries in the Middle East, Europe, and around the world have said that they will cooperate. And there is a security council resolution that will force them to do more on the foreign fighter issue. And of course for the US it’s very important politically to have an Arab component to this coalition. To show a wary and war-weary American public that it’s not just the US going alone again in the Middle East.
When you focus more closely on the issue, some divisions emerge. It’s not so clear that everyone is on the same page.
The US strategy so far has been to contain ISIL, to work with the Iraqi government and also the Kurdish forces to coordinate on the fight in Iraq.
In Syria, it’s not really clear, beyond the air strikes, what the US will do, at least in the short term. This is where the disagreements with their Arab partners come into play. There’s not a focus on using the intervention there to address the Assad regime’s continued bombardment of civilian areas. There’s nothing in the strategy so far that would necessarily help the rebels fighting the regime, which Arab countries say is the root cause of the extremist threat emanating from Syria.
From discussions I’ve had, Arab countries have signed on because ISIL is an immediate threat to them and they have a stake in this. But also because they might perhaps see it as a kind of last chance to influence US policy in Syria. If they didn’t provide military support, it might give the US an excuse not to listen to them at all. They might have thought that being so publicly involved and militarily involved in a qualitative way would help them perhaps change US calculations or influence US calculations. But it’s not clear that this will necessarily be the case.
There’s a fear from the Arab perspective that if the US does not address the issue of the regime and do more to bolster rebels to bring about a political transition that their involvement in the coalition publically will probably remain, but in practice it might scale back. Or they might become less interested in this strategy, especially if they are seen as carrying out airstrikes that are benefiting the regime.
The National: At the UN you also saw Sheikh Abdullah, the UAE’s foreign minister speak, what did he decide to focus on?
Khan: During the foreign minister’s speech at the general assembly, he focused on the UAE being out front in the fight against extremism. But from the UAE position, they really don’t want that fight to be limited to ISIL. They view it as a regional undertaking that is not just military, but that has other aspects, including ideological. It’s a way for the UAE to present itself as partner par excellence for the West and the world in this post-post-Arab Spring era where violence and extremism has metastasized, where there’s heightened political tension.
He wanted to draw attention, from the UAE’s perspective, to the connection between violent extremism, Al Qaeda and ISIL, and Islamism more broadly. There’s an opportunity for the UAE to make that argument in the current context.
The National: Can we say this is a new era for Gulf governments in terms of self-defense?
Khan: It’s certainly unprecedented, the kind of military roles that the Gulf governments are playing in Syria in such a robust way and elsewhere in the region. Everyone agrees that it’s an important development. But the direct implications of what it will mean are not quite so clear. It comes in context of enduring, deep concerns in Gulf capitals about the Obama administration’s commitment to the traditional US stance in the region. I think there’s probably disagreement on the basis of some of those deep fears, but it’s undeniable that when you talk to Gulf officials, what repeatedly comes up is president Obama’s decision not to carry out airstrikes against the Assad regime. Even after its use of chemical weapons. President Obama had drawn a red line on chemical weapons and had given private assurances to officials in the region that the strikes were going to be carried out.
I think that moment coupled with the public messaging about pivoting to Asia, the national security advisor Susan Rice talk about that in explicit terms, saying the US did not want to be bogged down in the Middle East. And then also the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. That has led to to real fears in the Gulf and more broadly in the region about the drastic changes that could be in the cards in terms of the geopolitical status quo in the region. With the US perhaps hoping to leave some kind of balance of power in the region that would allow it to scale back and focus on its more core interests in Asia.
I think in that context, the UAE, in particular, being more assertive in protecting what it sees as its national interests without coordinating with the US, or with coordinating with the US, it does mark a different era. The US will still remain the predominant guarantor of security in the region. Especially given what’s going on, it’s not going to change its stance any time soon. But there are changes taking place.
This administration has called for Arab countries, for Gulf countries to do more of the heavy lifting, to take on more responsibility for security in the region. So I think they are probably happy to see Gulf countries more willing to put skin the game, so to speak. At the same time, I’m not sure how happy they would be if that kind of unilateral action clashes with US interests. So there is definitely the beginning of a new more unpredictable era.