How Personal Politics Drive Conflict in the Gulf
David Roberts, lecturer in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London, based at the Joaan Bin Jassim Staff College in Qatar, offers expert insight into the recent tensions among the major GCC states.
“I love all the countries of the Gulf, and they all love me.” With this less than subtle statement, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the vocal Qatar-based Muslim Brotherhood scholar tried to do his part to repair regional relations in the Gulf that have badly frayed in recent weeks. Long-brewing discontent erupted in early March with the unprecedented withdrawal of the Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini ambassadors from Qatar. Subsequent mediation from Kuwait’s Emir has led the protagonists to the cusp of a modus vivendi, and a vague document has been agreed upon.
But core differences remain. Qatar is alone in the region in providing financial, material, and rhetorical support for popular governance around the Middle East. It can do this because its domestic security is strong and, without internal restrictions to speak of such as a strong Parliament, its elite is unusually unconstrained and capable of pursuing unusual foreign policy tangents such as assiduously supporting the new movements in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Such aid, which has been frequently channeled through Brotherhood connections, resonated favorably across much of the region. This allowed Qatar to play an important role in emerging popular revolts, keeping the autocratic monarchy with no meaningful elections on the right side of wider public opinion, while also laying the foundations for new, potentially close regional relations. Qatar’s Gulf neighbors, however, without as pliant a domestic context and driven by the intention of thwarting new Islamist actors, seek the firm reinstatement of the regional status quo ante.
In November 2013, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah presented Qatar’s new, 33-year-old Emir – a man one-third his age – with a document demanding a total reorientation of Qatar’s foreign policy under the guise of promoting regional security. In the face of conflicting interests between Saudi and Qatar, this was Abdullah’s attempt to cow Qatar and get its renegade regional foreign policy under control; something he had tried but failed to do for decades with Tamim’s father, Hamad. Tamim demurred, but Abdullah was nevertheless led to believe that the Emir had acquiesced to the Saudi leader’s way of thinking. Yet Qatar’s rhetorical support of the Brotherhood continued and Qaradawi stoked ire across the region in early 2014. In January he accused Saudi Arabia’s leaders of not believing in sharia law and he also declared that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has “always been against Islamic rule” prompting its foreign ministry to summon the Qatari ambassador to explain the lack of an official denunciation or apology.
In March of this year, Qatari representatives facilitated the release of thirteen Greek Orthodox nuns held in Syria since in December 2012 with – according to some reports – a ransom of $67 million. From the Saudi perspective this was a clear example of Qatar adversely intervening in the conflict and further fermenting a petri dish in which jihadi groups grow, prosper, and strengthen. Saudi authorities also see Qatar fermenting similar problems in Saudi’s own backyard in Yemen where Doha stands accused of channeling its support through the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Al Islah party.
Despite their own material and financial support for suspect groups in such conflicts, Riyadh clearly believes that Qatari actions encourage jihadism, which represents a threat to Saudi security. Given the bitter Saudi experience with domestic terrorism in the mid-2000s and its large, relatively porous borders with Yemen and Iraq, fears are growing in the Saudi elite of the impact or ‘blowback’ of returning, more radicalized, and battle-tested jihadis. This is the reason that the remit of Minister of the Interior Muhammed bin Nayef has recently been extended to cover Syria and Yemen and why the Saudi leadership issued a decree in February making it illegal for their citizens to fight in regional conflicts.
The withdrawal of the ambassadors from Doha had little practical effect. Gulf diplomacy is conducted at a much higher level, but it was a public and unprecedented rebuke. Leaks to the press about the potential Saudi escalation including the cancellation of an impending airline deal by Qatar Airways in Saudi Arabia or potentially closing the land border to Qatar, added to a sense of near naked extortion.
The nature of the mooted compromise agreement that the Kuwaitis hammered out does not augur well for long-term stability. The agreement is thought to demand that Qatar curtails funding for a range of media organizations in the Middle East that are critical of the policies of the Gulf States; expels Brotherhood members currently living in Doha; halts its support of the Brotherhood and the Houthis in Yemen; and stops naturalizing Gulf citizens fleeing states as opposition members or Islamists. Though Qatar has, according to reports, now agreed to implement these statutes, it is difficult to see how Doha could possibly do so without fundamentally shifting its foreign policy, something it is most unlikely to do.
Since the late 1950s Qatar has provided various kinds of support for the Brotherhood. Even without a meaningful religiously based commonality – Qatar being theoretically closer, ironically, to the Saudi interpretation of Islam – Qatar often found Brotherhood members both available and sufficiently qualified to staff its emerging bureaucracies. This filled a basic need, while also allowing the Qataris to diversify away any existing dependency on Saudi Arabia in such matters. The Brothers, who settled in Qatar over the decades, whether notable ideologues like Qaradawi or those with the loosest of affiliation to the group, found Doha to be a safe and secure location. These relationships came into their own during the Arab Spring, when their potential for influence increased, for a time at least. Though the Brotherhood is once more deeply repressed across much of the region and should never be seen as a group in “Qatar’s pocket,” there is an unusually deep connection that has been cultivated over decades.
Qatar enjoys this relationship because neither the Brotherhood nor any similar groups poses a challenge to the country. Indeed, the local Brotherhood branch disbanded itself in 1999. Additionally, Qatari society is so small and close-knit, and the socioeconomic bargain so strong, that the ruling elites feel entirely and understandably comfortable supporting a group that offers an alternative arrangement of government. Saudi Arabia, however, does face a challenge from the Brothers in two ways. Firstly, the Brotherhood offers a competing form of Islamic government, one that was realized for a time in Egypt and that directly challenges Saudi Arabia as the beacon of Islamic governance. Secondly, Saudi Arabia faces politicized Islam as an oppositional force: Discord throughout the Kingdom could be channeled by the Brotherhood and used to confront the royal family. The UAE has similar fears, stemming from the disparities in wealth between Abu Dhabi and Dubai and the northern Emirates. The government also insists that it has rooted out dozens of Brothers who were planning to disrupt the status quo. Equally, the UAE’s de facto leader, Mohammad bin Zayed, is known to have a deep distrust and dislike for the group that directly shapes the state’s policy.
Given that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have recently labeled the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group, there is no turning back the clock; their antipathy is now institutionalized state policy. In the aftermath of the ambassadorial withdrawal, dozens of Qataris changed their Twitter profile pictures to photos of the Emir. Qataris - even those who do not support the Brotherhood – were clearly signaling that they would not be bullied into changing their policy. So while Qatar could theoretically change tack and join the bandwagon, such an about-face would be seen as a capitulation and would be received poorly back in Doha. Also, aside from the legacy of the policy toward the Brotherhood in Qatar, if there has been a central theme in the country’s foreign policy in the last twenty-five years it has been one of unambiguously asserting Qatar’s independence from Saudi Arabia. Reasonable accommodation has been made in the past, such as in 2008 when Qatar controlled to a greater degree Al Jazeera coverage of Saudi Arabia to ensure the return of the Saudi ambassador to Doha after a six year absence, but the current proposals seek strategic change. Part of the mooted accord attempting to resolve this latest crisis hints that once more Al Jazeera’s coverage might be on the table and Qaradawi is, for the time being at least, cooperating by toning down his rhetoric. But without precisely the kind of meaningful change that Qatar cannot undertake, relations seem set for an extended cold snap, punctuated by personally-led spurts of anger, potentially peripatetically lurching relations from one mini-crisis to the next.