By David D. Kirkpatrick
July 5, 2017
As Saudi Arabia accuses Qatar, a Persian Gulf neighbour, of spreading Islamist extremism, British politicians are debating whether the Saudis themselves may deserve more of the blame.
The government of Prime Minister Theresa May has acknowledged in recent days that it is withholding a study on the Saudi role in fostering extremism in Britain, and opponents have accused her of pandering to the Saudi royals to protect British trade deals.
On Wednesday, a report from a hawkish think tank in London called new attention to the debate by arguing that Saudi Arabia had, in fact, played a singularly important role in promoting extremist strains of Islam in British mosques and religious schools — including the training of British preachers who have advocated jihadist violence.
Over the last 30 years, “Saudi Arabia has spent at least £67 billion,” or about $87 billion, on this endeavour around the world, said the think tank, the Henry Jackson Society, named for a United States senator from the Cold War era.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia has led an international campaign to primarily blame its neighbour Qatar for the surge in extremist violence in recent years. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and several Arab allies have cut off travel, trade and diplomatic relations with Qatar as punishment, and they set a deadline of Wednesday night for Qatar to comply with a sweeping list of demands aimed at curtailing its influence and independence, including shutting down its pioneering Arab news network, Al Jazeera.
“It is complete, utter hypocrisy,” said Tom Wilson, the author of the Henry Jackson Society report.
The report set off new debate here only in part because of its implications for the feud in the Persian Gulf, which threatens to divide the Western-backed alliance against the militants of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Britain is also reeling from a string of deadly terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists in recent weeks, including a suicide bombing in May at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester and an attack last month on and around London Bridge.
The attention to Saudi Arabia also comes at a time when Ms. May’s political opponents are ratcheting up their denunciations of her Conservative government’s support for the two-year Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has plunged that impoverished country into a humanitarian catastrophe of disease and famine with no end in sight. (Saudi Arabia says the campaign there is essential to keep power away from the Houthis, a Yemeni faction aligned with Iran.)
The study of Saudi extremism was initiated more than a year ago by Ms. May’s predecessor, Prime Minister David Cameron, also a Conservative. He agreed to it partly to win the support of another party, the Liberal Democrats, for airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria, and on Wednesday the Liberal Democrats accused Ms. May of putting Saudi business deals ahead of public safety by declining to disclose the study’s findings.
“We hear regularly about the Saudi arms deals or ministers going to Riyadh to kowtow before their royal family, but yet our government won’t release a report that will clearly criticize Saudi Arabia,” Timothy Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, said in a statement.
Britain is “cozying up to one of the most extreme, nasty and oppressive regimes in the world,” he said. “You would think our security would be more important, but it appears not.”
The Home Office, which conducted the study, denied that the government had withheld it to avoid offending or embarrassing the Saudis. But a spokesman declined to comment on whether the findings of the study had highlighted a Saudi role in spreading extremism. “Ministers are considering advice on what is able to be published in the report and will update Parliament in due course,” the office said in a statement.
The Saudi Embassy in London did not respond to telephone calls.
The debates pointed to what Mr. Wilson called “two different, competing ideas about what is extremism.”
British policy defines extremism as an ideology opposed to liberal democracy, and the government has kept the definition loose in part to avoid disputes with disparate Arab allies, said Jane Kinninmont, a scholar at Chatham House, another think tank, who has written about the definition of extremism in the Persian Gulf as “a moving target.”
For the monarchs of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for example, “the Muslim Brotherhood are extremists because they seek the overthrow of monarchies,” Ms. Kinninmont said. An alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood is the main reason Qatar’s neighbours accuse it of extremism, “but that is not a definition of extremism that the U.K. or the U.S. or France can share.”
Critics of Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, denounce its promulgation of a more austere, conservative and intolerant version of Islam, even though the Saudi religious establishment preaches obedience to rulers and discourages insurrection. Mr. Wilson, the author of the report about Saudi extremism, acknowledged in an interview that he meant mainly nonviolent extremism.
“They are not jihadists,” he said. “It is the usual illiberal, hard-line conservative, rather than radical, in that respect.” Still, he said, individual clerics who studied in Saudi Arabia have gone on to call for jihad or to “glorify violence” from British mosques.
After the Egyptian military overthrew an elected president from the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates pressed the British to designate the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, and Mr. Cameron agreed to commission a study by the Foreign Office.
Officials familiar with the resulting report said it read like a prosecutor’s brief against the Brotherhood, but it nonetheless concluded that the organization did not meet the criteria for a terrorist designation. Such a move would have angered both the Gulf monarchs and the Brotherhood’s sympathizers. That study, too, has remained withheld.
The British government “finds it very difficult to make public statements about the Persian Gulf,” Ms. Kinninmont said, without offending the monarchs of the region or risking its credibility with citizens at home.