On June 21, the U.S. Department of State announced it was “mystified” by the bullying of the State of Qatar by, among others, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who had broken diplomatic relations, closed all borders, airspace and sea lanes in an attempt to shut down their neighbor’s economy.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Corker (R-Tenn.), taking a cue from the State Department, announced he would block all future arms sales to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries until they resolved their differences, a move that lays the onus mostly on Saudi Arabia, which has large, pending arms deals still to be contracted.
Senator Corker also recognized that the accusation that Qatar funds terrorism was only a pretext for punishing Qatar for its strongly pro-American policies; policies that the neighbors view as a threat despite their need for American protection.
The countries that ganged up on Qatar, a long-standing American ally that is home to a number of U.S. military bases, fear that the smallest Gulf Coast state had embarked on a path to modernization based on the American model that could upend the established regional autocratic order.
They saw that the aim of the Qatari experiment — from the U.S. universities housed on the Qatar Foundation’s Education City campus to its invention of a pan-regional investigative journalism tradition at Al Jazeera — has been to create people-power: training millions at home and across the region to think, debate and challenge the status quo of autocrats who buy American friends while supporting repression and extremism at home.
Long unhappy with Qatar’s modernization, its neighbors created the current crisis to undo what they perceive as a threat to the regional status quo. Their list of demands would, if accepted, reduce Qatar to a vassal state of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia worse than what it endured from independence in 1971 to 1990. Qatari society in that period could best be described as a “lite” version of Saudi Wahhabism.
With few exceptions, Qatari women could not get a driver’s license, and churches were banned. Following my arrival in late 1995, several senior clerics told me that they chafed under these restrictions, which they described as against the real teaching of Mohammed Abdul al-Wahhab. When asked why they tolerated them, the reply was always the same: “We are afraid of the Saudis.”
Fortunately for Qatar, it differed from Saudi Arabia in one other crucial aspect: governance. Unlike the Al-Saud family, the ruling Al-Thani family adhered more closely to the traditional bedouin constitutional order. The family chose the ruler through consensus with the governed. Qatar had already declared its de facto independence in 1990 when it realized that Saudi Arabia could not defend itself, let alone the GCC, after Iraq invaded Kuwait.
Rather, Saudi Arabia had to call the Americans, something the Qataris could do themselves. Relations with Saudi Arabia deteriorated and then turned toxic when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE conspired to support an attempted plot by partisans of the former Emir to assassinate Sheikh Hamid and restore his old cronies to power. It failed.
Qatar then embarked on the most radical modernization policies in regional memory by choosing the institutions and liberal values of the United States as a model. By early 1996, the emir lifted all press censorship and even abolished the Ministry of Information, making Qatar the only Arab state without a ministry responsible for censorship.
To improve education, Qatar enlisted RAND Corporation to advise on reforming K-12 schools. After explicitly stating that American universities were the world’s gold standard, the emir’s consort, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasr al-Misnad, led an effort that brought six of the most prestigious American universities to establish branch campuses in Doha.
Qatar insisted that they come as true branch campuses having a seamless relationship with the home campus, with complete academic freedom teaching the same curriculum exactly as at the home campus (for example, mixed classes). Qatar welcomed Georgetown University to set up its fabled School of Foreign Service in Qatar as an explicitly Jesuit institution.
Since then, Qatar Foundation has established many educational and social institutions that have brought Qatari women into a more equal status than any of its neighbors. Seventy percent of all Qatari graduates are women. Qatar established a municipal council with elected members early in 2000 under universal suffrage. Women got the vote on the same day as the men. This, in a society that remains as privately pious and conservative as any of its neighbors.
Religious freedom also thrives in Qatar. In early 1996, the Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs officially allowed a priest to come to Doha to celebrate Holy Week and Easter and tend to his communicants. The Foreign Ministry arranged for the priest (now the patriarch of Jerusalem) to meet with the prime minister and have an audience with the emir. Today, seven churches openly occupy a large plot donated by the government in a Doha suburb.
To the dismay of other regional ruling families, Qatar’s Sheikh Hamid never disguised his unabashed love for being an Arab and his belief that the peoples of the Arab world deserved better governance. He set the example of what free speech and free press can accomplish. He established Al-Jazeera out of the remnants of the BBC Arabic service, which had been shut down by the Saudis.
He made Qatar the hub for a decade-long series of international conferences where Arab intellectuals could meet and exchange views without fear of the secret police of their countries.
We all failed to anticipate the Arab Spring because we were looking for the intellectual ferment in the wrong places. Qatar had assumed the intellectual role of Andaluz and we never noticed. When the counterrevolution violently overthrew Egypt’s first democratically-elected government, Doha made the cardinal sin of agreeing with the United States publicly by expressing concern about this backward step.
The repressive states of the Arab world, meanwhile, all sought American protection while subliminally fostering hatred toward the liberal values about which we lectured them. The hatreds they created interacted with repression to formulate a deadly mix that led to 9/11, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Now that the American lectures are officially over, the repressive countries turned all their fury on Qatar as a surrogate for espousing the values and institutions of the United States. Americans should not stand idly as its neighbors punish Qatar for its belief in these American values.