The September 11, 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on the United States had an enormous impact on Gulf Arab countries, their political and strategic calculations, and their relationships with the United States. The attacks, and the United States’ response, helped set in motion developments that continue to reverberate. Despite the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, at the 20-year anniversary of the attacks, the strategic and political landscape within the Gulf, and with the United States, is still essentially a post-9/11 environment.
Many other noteworthy developments have helped shape the Gulf Arab political landscape since then: the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, the growth of nationalist populism, the rise and fall of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement between world powers and Iran, and the apparent decline in clout and appeal of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. The 9/11 attacks and their aftermath profoundly influenced most, if not all, of these developments.
9/11 Changes Gulf Attitudes Toward Islamism and Terrorism
The 9/11 attacks began a process, which was intensified and solidified after the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings and their aftermath, whereby several Gulf Arab countries – notably the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia – came to categorically oppose both Salafist-jihadist groups, like al-Qaeda, and Islamist political movements, like the Muslim Brotherhood. Prior to the 9/11 attacks, the UAE had been ambivalent about Islamism and had been among the few states to extend diplomatic recognition to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Doubts in Abu Dhabi grew throughout the 1990s, however, and in 1994 the UAE Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, Jamiat al-Islah, was disbanded. But there was still some official sympathy toward the Muslim Brotherhood in some of the smaller Emirates, particularly Ras Al Khaimah.
Yet 9/11 came as a massive shock to the UAE leadership, especially since two of the hijackers were Emiratis. The dangers of terrorism were confirmed, and the idea took root that the Muslim Brotherhood provided the narrative and conceptual framework for al-Qaeda and other more violent groups and was therefore the ultimate source of that threat. Emirati leaders moved to systematically purge jihadi and Islamist groups from their society, fired Islamist teachers, and revamped textbooks. Most importantly, the UAE began to develop and propagate an anti-Islamist narrative and an alternative model based on tolerance, coexistence, and social openness but not democracy or political pluralism.
Qatar, by contrast, stuck with its strong sympathy for Islamist groups and support for other populist movements, including leftist Arab nationalists, which had broad public appeal but alarmed Arab governments. Qatar’s support for Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups and other Islamists put it at direct loggerheads with the UAE, setting off an ideological and ideational struggle to define the parameters of normative mainstream Arab political culture, particularly regarding political Islam. In contrast to the UAE’s labeling of the Muslim Brotherhood as the core of the problem, Qatar promulgated a contradictory narrative holding that political groups like the Muslim Brotherhood are the best corrective to the problem of jihadist terrorism (a view that had considerable purchase in the administration of former President Barack Obama and parts of the U.S. government until well into the upheavals associated with the Arab Spring). The rationale was that, unless there is a political outlet for Islamists, such as political parties or societies associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, some frustrated activists will eventually take up arms and join groups like al-Qaeda.
The argument came to a head after the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, in which long-standing autocrats, such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, and Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, were overthrown. The Muslim Brotherhood and similar Islamist groups initially thrived in the post-dictatorship environment in Egypt and Tunisia. But, eventually, they lost power through the political process in Tunisia and by a popular coup in Egypt. In Libya, there is a relative stalemate. And the armed uprising in Syria was defeated following a combined Russian-Iranian-Hezbollah military intervention to save the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in the fall of 2015. Despite the apparent confidence of Qatar and many members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamist political groups generally did not prevail in the post-uprising Arab republics, except arguably western Libya (in addition to Hamas rule in Gaza, which predates the Arab Spring).
Saudi Arabia, by contrast to its two smaller neighbors, initially shrugged off the 9/11 attacks as essentially not a Saudi problem, even though 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis and al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden, was an anti-government Saudi extremist. Saudi leaders seemingly thought that, even though there was a heavy Saudi component to the 9/11 attacks, since it was based in Afghanistan, organized largely in Hamburg, and carried out in the United States, it effectively was not Riyadh’s responsibility. However, a combination of U.S. pressure and outrage and, especially, al-Qaeda attacks inside Saudi Arabia in 2003, dramatically changed Saudi attitudes.
The Saudi view grew closer to the UAE’s perspective on Islamism and the Muslim Brotherhood, although Riyadh is reluctant to oppose all mixing of religion and politics as categorically as the UAE because of the key role religion has historically played in Saudi state legitimation narratives. However, particularly after the Arab Spring uprisings, Saudi Arabia joined the UAE in identifying the Muslim Brotherhood as a major regional threat and helping to support the 2013 coup in Egypt and other efforts in the region to counteract the Muslim Brotherhood. The two countries, as well as Egypt, formally designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization in 2014. And the dispute over Islamism was the main issue driving the rift with Qatar in 2013-14 and subsequent boycott from June 2017 to January 2021.
In short, 9/11 lies at the heart of an ideological dispute that reshaped Gulf Arab relations and their competing visions for security and stability. Since the fall of 2020, the region has been experiencing a period of widespread consolidation, retrenchment, and diplomatic maneuvering emphasizing diplomacy and commerce rather than conflict. Yet the underlying disputes are largely unresolved. Even the rapprochement with Qatar in the Gulf Cooperation Council is fragile because the underlying dispute over the political legitimacy of Islamism, and particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, remains highly contested. In relatively far off Afghanistan, the victory of the Taliban, a group following the Deobandi school of Islamism, which is virtually unknown in the Arab world, nonetheless reinforces the dispute over Islamism and terrorism, especially given the close ties to the Taliban maintained by Turkey and, especially, Qatar.
9/11’s Impact on U.S.-Gulf Arab Relations
In general, the 9/11 attacks strengthened the United States’ relations with all of its Gulf Arab partners but not without considerable complications. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, concerns about a Saudi role emerged, and some of them persist, contributing to an ongoing anti-Saudi current in U.S. political discourse. However, claims about Saudi leadership ties to the 9/11 attacks or al-Qaeda became recognized as implausible as more Americans learned about the group’s determination to overthrow the Saudi government. While skepticism remains in certain U.S. quarters, no evidence has definitively established a connection. Indeed, even the Saudi government has called for the release of relevant classified documents, such as an annex to the 9/11 Commission Report, which President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is reportedly planning to publicize later this year.
There is justified criticism, though, of Saudi Arabia’s role for decades in promoting an intolerant version of Islam that contributed to the religious justification for jihadist extremism, including by al-Qaeda. That 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis and that the leader of al-Qaeda himself was a Saudi dissident suggests a strong cultural connection, albeit oppositional to the government. Saudi Arabia’s status as a “virtual visa waiver country,” allowing for U.S. visa issuances by mail and obviating the need for personal appearances or supporting documents also helps explain why al-Qaeda preferred to use Saudis for these attacks on U.S. soil. Once Riyadh began taking a more proactive role in confronting and suppressing al-Qaeda following the 2003 terrorist attacks inside Saudi Arabia, differences between the U.S. and Saudi governments over these issues effectively subsided – although peripheral tensions over issues such as the efforts to sue the Saudi government or officials over the 9/11 attacks persist.
But Saudi Arabia demonstrated that it is indeed an indispensable partner in counterterrorism with numerous arrests, counterterrorism activities, financing crackdowns, foiled attacks, and crucial intelligence sharing. Yet, memories of 9/11 continue to haunt the U.S.-Saudi relationship even at a liminal register. They have been compounded in recent years by Riyadh’s closeness to the administration of former President Donald J. Trump, the humanitarian impact of the Yemen war, the murder of Saudi journalist Jamaal Khashoggi, and other human rights concerns.
The biggest direct effect of 9/11 on U.S.-Gulf relations was the first U.S. use of the Al Udeid air base in Qatar, which came to serve as the forward headquarters of U.S. Central Command, and, therefore, the hub of much of the non-naval U.S. military activity in the Gulf region. The base was built by Qatar in the 1990s, evidently in hopes of drawing the U.S. military into a permanent presence in the country as an essential pillar of Qatari defense strategy. However, it was in direct response to 9/11 that the United States first used the base in September 2001 as it prepared for the campaign against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Subsequently, Qatar has become the main host for U.S. air operations and basing, logistics, and command and control in the broad region covered by CENTCOM.
The U.S.-Qatar basing relationship has been essential to the U.S. military presence in the Gulf, the broader Middle East, and even the Indian Ocean. It has also been central to securing the U.S.-Qatari partnership, which has been invaluable to Qatar’s own security posture and its ability to withstand criticism for some of its alliances, regional activities, and the editorial content of its high-profile media outlets, such as Al Jazeera. In particular, the U.S. military presence in Qatar was imperative to Doha persuading Washington to remain neutral during the boycott of Qatar and pulling back from Trump’s initial move to side with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt. This basing relationship has also created an atmosphere of trust and reliability that has helped Qatar play a mediating role between the United States and the Taliban, which, as the United States has withdrawn from Afghanistan, appears to have paid off handsomely for the Qataris – although any deep relationship with the Taliban carries risks given that the organization could once again provide a hub for international terrorism.
The U.S.-UAE relationship has also gained strength since 9/11, as the UAE has also served as a crucial military partner, involved in every post-9/11 U.S. military engagement except the 2003 invasion of Iraq. During this time, the former secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, purportedly nicknamed the UAE “Little Sparta,” and the country became renowned for the unusual effectiveness of its air force and special forces, in contrast to many of the armed forces of other Arab states. The U.S. naval presence in Bahrain long predates 9/11, but that crucial relationship, too, was strengthened by the attacks and the subsequent military engagements. And the United States’ strong relationship with Kuwait, particularly following the 1991 liberation, persists.
The U.S. Response to 9/11 and the Rise of Iran
The most significant U.S. responses to the 9/11 attacks had the inadvertent effect of greatly strengthening Iran and its allies in the region. This process began with the ouster of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in October-November 2001. The Taliban had been among Iran’s bitterest enemies because of intense sectarian hatred and a constant source of irritation and outrage for Tehran. The exponential strengthening of Iran was probably the single biggest consequence of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Iraqi army that was disbanded and state that became badly fragmented by the U.S. occupation had served as Iran’s most potent adversary.
In addition to the brutal and stalemated Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, the Iraqi state and military under Saddam Hussein was a bulwark against Iranian designs in much of the Arab world and especially the northern Middle East. With Iraq disarmed, fragmented, and largely in the hands of pro-Iranian Shia militia groups, Iran’s influence began to stretch through Iraq into Syria and Lebanon where its oldest proxy militia group, Hezbollah, was becoming increasingly powerful and active in many other countries. The rise of Iranian hegemony in the region was cemented by the successful joint intervention with Russia and Hezbollah to save the Assad dictatorship in Damascus in the fall of 2015.
Obviously, Washington never intended the 9/11 responses to primarily serve to strengthen Iran’s regional hand. Yet over the past decade, both Washington and its Gulf Arab partners have had to deal with the rise of Iran as a budding regional hegemon. This has led to greater cooperation and mutual dependence and, at times, as in the case of the 2015 JCPOA nuclear agreement, unease and doubts about Washington’s reliability as a guarantor of regional stability and the status quo. This was underscored by Trump’s lack of any forceful response to the September 2019 missile and drone attacks on Saudi Aramco facilities, reportedly carried out by Iran, on the grounds that the United States itself was not directly targeted.
Yet Iran’s most sweeping regional ambitions continue to be opposed by a loose regional coalition led by the United States that includes Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as, in crucial basing roles, Qatar and Bahrain, and, of course, Israel. Tensions between the pro- and anti-Iranian camps perhaps constitute the most dangerous regional strategic fault line. Low-intensity conflict persists between Iran (and its allies) and the U.S.-allied coalition, particularly the January 2020 U.S. drone strike in Iraq that killed senior Iranian commander Qassim Suleimani and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Such tensions would certainly be the most plausible source of any potential new war in the Middle East.
The 9/11 attacks and their ripple effects, therefore, continue to shape the most consequential aspects of war and peace in the Middle East and the Gulf region. Twenty years on, that earthquake’s tremors are still being felt.