Saudi Arabia threatens to blockade Qatar over terrorism
Riyadh wants to contain radical groups and media at odds with foreign jihad policy
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal attends an Arab foreign ministers emergency meeting to discuss the Syrian crisis at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo yesterday. Photograph: Reuters
Saudi Arabia has threatened to blockade neighbouring Qatar by air, land and sea unless Doha cuts ties with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, closes global channel al-Jazeera, and expels local branches of the US Brookings Institution and Rand Corporation think tanks.
The threat was issued by Riyadh before it withdrew its ambassador to Doha and branded as “terrorist organisations” the brotherhood, Lebanon’s Hizbullah and al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and Jabhat al-Nusra.
Although the kingdom has long been the font of Sunni ultra-orthodox Salafism and jihadism, it now seeks to contain radical movements and media and other organisations giving them publicity.
King Abdullah has decreed that any Saudi who fights abroad could be jailed for 20-30 years, and those who join, endorse or provide moral or material support to groups classified as “terrorist” or “extremist” will risk prison sentences of five to 30 years.
The decree followed the gazetting of a sweeping new anti- terrorism law prohibiting acts that disturb public order, promote insecurity, undermine national unity or harm the reputation of the kingdom.
While the law and decree are meant to curb jihadi operations on Saudi soil as well as counter non-jihadi dissidence, these legal instruments appear to contradict government policy on foreign jihad.
While 400 Saudis have returned home from Syrian battlefields, another 1,000-2,000 are believed to be fighting with jihadi groups funded by the government as well as wealthy Saudis, Kuwaitis and Qataris.
An informed source speculated the decree sends a message to Saudis: “Don’t come home. Fight unto death or victory.”
For half a century Saudi Arabia used its oil wealth to promote Muslim fundamentalists, notably the brotherhood and its offshoots, to counter the secular pan-Arab nationalism preached by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Syrian and Iraqi Baath parties.
The kingdom provided refuge for brotherhood officials and activists from Egypt and other countries where governments were battling the movement. However, in recent years, Riyadh fell out with the brotherhood because it did not follow Saudi dictation.
After Shia clerics overthrew the shah of Iran in 1979 and tried to export their “Islamic revolution” to the wider Muslim world, which is 85 per cent Sunni, Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the guardian of Sunni orthodoxy, turned to evangelism.
The object has been to convert Muslims to “Wahhabism,” the Saudi puritanical interpretation of Islam. The Saudi campaign in Syria is against Damascus’s ally Shia Iran as well as godless, secular Baathism.
The rise in the price of oil since the 1970s has enabled the Saudis to train clerics and build schools, Islamic centres, universities and mosques around the world.
Traditionally gentle, tolerant, mystic Sufis, who had served as Islam’s missionaries, have been replaced by narrow, harsh Wahhabi preachers and imams. Over the past 30 years the kingdom has spent more than $100 billion (€72 billion) on promoting Wahhabism.
Even before the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia – partnered by the US Central Intelligence Agency – trained and armed mujahideen (holy warriors) from Afghanistan and across the Muslim world to fight the Soviet Afghan republic. After the war ended with the Soviet withdrawal from that country in 1989, veterans of this conflict fanned out to fight in Bosnia, Algeria, Libya, the Caucasus and elsewhere.
Fearing blowback from Saudi jihadis engaged in the Syrian war, Riyadh has recently given the Syrian file to the interior minister Prince Mohamed bin Nayef, who has been in charge of an anti-terrorism campaign in the kingdom and Yemen, replacing intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan.
The Wall Street Journal has quoted a key Saudi source who said the shift suggests that Riyadh could rely more on diplomatic than military means by exerting pressure on Russia, Iran and Hizbullah, Damascus’s chief supporters, to resolve the conflict by removing President Bashar al-Assad.
Nevertheless, Riyadh also favours providing shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to “vetted” rebels, well aware these weapons could fall into al-Qaeda hands.