Is Qatar better than Saudi Arabia
The diplomatic crisis on the Arabian Peninsula is coming to a head. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain have severed all diplomatic ties with Qatar. The causes for this are varied, but the alliance of the Qatar opponents is also extremely fragile, analyzed Parham Kouloubandi.
The decision of the four Arab states hit him completely unexpectedly, the Qatari foreign minister said in an interview Al-Jazeera announce. He was particularly surprised that the other Gulf states had not addressed their differences with his government at the last joint meetings, neither at the annual summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Manama at the beginning of May, nor briefly at the Riyadh conference with American President Donald Trump after that. It seems like Qatar was completely taken by surprise by the decision.
A tightening of the long-standing tense relations between the Gulf states had become apparent. The extent and harshness of the reaction are surprising, but the political climate on the Arabian Peninsula has always been more competitive than unity, especially since the smaller Gulf states gained independence from Great Britain in the key year of 1971. In this respect, one should not make the mistake of attributing the current crisis to the Iranian-Saudi dialectic that is omnipresent in the discourse, because if the situation around Qatar shows one thing, it is that the Middle East is far more complex than a purely binary approach could explain it.
This article first outlines the background to the conflict and then tries to classify the respective situation of each of the four alliance states and thus show how their antagonism towards Qatar is justified. Ultimately, however, it is argued that due to the many differences on other political issues, their alliance is rather fragile and could therefore fail.
Prelude to Conflict: Fake News
Despite the - at least externally presented - surprise of the Qatari Foreign Minister, the first scandal loomed in the Gulf a week ago: A few days after the Riyadh conference, the state news agency of Qatar presented an article on its website. In it, the incumbent Emir Thamim bin Hamad was quoted as criticizing the aggressive stance of other states towards Iran, calling Tehran a “stabilizing” regional power and praising Hamas as a “legitimate representative of the Palestinians”. The timing of its publication left no doubt that it was intended in response to statements made by some Gulf States during the conference.
Shortly after the report went online, there were initial outraged reactions from the Saudi media. The Qatari government had it deleted immediately, claiming that their news agency, along with an official government Twitter account, had been targeted by hackers, but the damage could no longer be averted: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE blocked access to it Qatari media and heavily criticized the emir. To this day, the media assert that the report is false and that the emir was credited with fabricated quotations, but with little success.
Interestingly, the Egyptian government blocked several news sites on the same day, including Al-Jazeerabroadcasting from Qatar. However, a direct connection with the alleged statements of Qatar's head of state cannot be established. Egypt does not have a strong anti-Iranian stance - Egypt's President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi did not even mention Iran in his Riyadh speech. In addition, the majority of the Egyptian media were affected. So it seems more as if Cairo wanted to seize the opportunity to delete previously targeted websites with little attention.
But with strikingly identical reasons, all four states, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt took steps against Qatar and accused the Qatari media of being a supporter of terrorism. It was the same states that went one step further and sanctioned the entire country in addition to individual Qatari channels and websites. With the same justification: Doha supports terror and must therefore be punished.
Geopolitical classification: Much more than Iran-Saudi Arabia
The quick reactions to the hacker attack, coordinated among the Gulf states, assume that they have little to do with the report itself, but that it was ultimately only the catalyst for existing tensions. Each of the four countries has its own reasons to raise its dispute with Qatar to a new level and to conduct it with an unprecedented degree of severity. This has only to a limited extent to do with Iran or a purely Saudi-led initiative; the foreign policy orientation of the states is too diverse for that and their relations with Qatar are too complex.
The two upheavals in Egypt in 2011 and 2013 had a massive impact on the country's foreign policy: with the election of Mohammed Morsi as president, Cairo initially pursued a more Islamist-tinged approach, including expanding its contacts with Hamas and parts of the Syrian opposition. Morsi intensified relations with Turkey and Qatar in particular during his tenure, which is why Doha in particular announced that it would invest large sums in Egypt to help the country out of its financial plight. Countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE were more critical or even negative about the new Egypt, as will be shown later.
With the fall of Morsi, the constellation changed almost completely: The newly come to power President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi implemented a more pragmatic foreign policy, which brought Egyptian relations with Turkey and Qatar extremely tense, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE were able to expand their links with Cairo, including through financial aid. Especially the fact that al-Jazeera Describing al-Sissi's takeover as a coup and regularly criticizing him caused anger. When the Egyptian president started a diplomatic tour around the Gulf at the end of April, he symbolically left out one state: Qatar.
Even if, in the eyes of many observers, Riyadh pursues a thoroughly Islamist foreign policy, the Saudis were more than happy when the military abruptly ended Morsi's presidency and offered the new ruler directly to fill the vacated space in Qatar. Although it may seem strange at first glance that Saudi Arabia, as an Islamic monarchy, prefers a secular-oriented Egypt to a religious one, this only shows the complexity in the Middle East, which goes far beyond denominational approaches.
While Qatar and Saudi Arabia are the only countries in the world where Wahhabism is the official state religion, their relationships are characterized by rivalry rather than friendship. This went so far that recently the Saudi descendants of the ideological founder Abd al-Wahab demanded that Qatar's state mosque should be renamed because Doha had strayed from the path of Wahabism. A serious accusation.
Differences between the two states began when the father of the current Emir of Qatar took office in 1996. Hamid bin Khalifa used his country's wealth of resources to pursue a more active foreign policy line that enabled him to shape his small emirate of just 400,000 citizens into a major political actor in the region and a major economic player in the world. However, this came at the expense of relations with Riyadh. Saudi Arabia, by far the largest nation on the Arabian Peninsula, saw its role as a hegemonic power endangered by a rising Qatar. The Saudis viewed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), established in 1981 to shield the six countries bordering the Persian Gulf, first from Iran and later from an aggressive Iraq, as an alliance they led. Doha's political solo effort was displeased and continues to bother Riyadh today.
In Bahrain, however, Saudi Arabia's calculation worked better. The ruling al-Khalifa family there is highly dependent on Riyadh, especially since the government pursues a discriminatory domestic policy towards the Shiite majority of the population and, in contrast to neighboring states, cannot absorb internal tensions over a large amount of resources. A protest movement in 2011, the so-called Pearl Revolution, could only be put down with Saudi troops - under the guise of the GCC. Manama, with no real election, orients itself almost entirely to Riyadh in terms of foreign policy.
United Arab Emirates
It is different with the UAE. The seven emirates were able to build up a relatively stable position thanks to the oil boom and are far more independent from Saudi Arabia than Bahrain, which can be seen in Yemen, among other places. This has allowed them to become a kind of trading center in the Persian Gulf, where politics is secondary. The Emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi particularly benefited from this by developing into regional transshipment centers. Together with Oman, they are said to have the best relations between the GCC and Iran, which is reflected, among other things, in the large number of Iranian companies in the Emirates.
Although the UAE's policy is accordingly contrary to the Saudi one on two key points, they share the same differences with Qatar. There are several reasons for this, which manifest themselves on the one hand as a kind of economic rivalry, at their peak via the competing airlines of Dubai and Doha - Emirates and Qatar Airways - and which are particularly defined by a core aspect:
The fear of the Muslim Brotherhood
The reason for the current diplomatic crisis for all four states lies in Doha's connections with the Muslim Brotherhood, the transnational social movement that is older than most Arab states. Both Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE have, in some cases, massive reservations about the various splits of the Muslim Brotherhood and see them as the greatest threat to their states.
Egypt's former President Morsi was an active Muslim Brother until he took office and based his policy on their principles, with which he wanted to enforce a redefinition of Cairo's regional role. Accordingly, the Egyptian military reacted sharply to some of its statements regarding Syria: Morsi's demand that Assad should be overthrown was clearly put into perspective when the General Staff made it clear that Egypt's armed forces should only be used within its own borders. The military, something like the oldest political institution in the country, has always been an adversary of the Muslim Brotherhood. To this day, al-Sissi justifies his repressive domestic policy with the danger posed by the brotherhood. This also includes measures such as blocking media.
That connects Cairo with Riyadh, where the Muslim Brotherhood is viewed with similar suspicion. Because although they represent an Islamist agenda, it is diametrically opposed to the Saudi one. The Saudis define their religion in terms of their Wahabi clergy, who are closely linked to the royal family and accordingly exclude anti-monarchical tendencies. The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, as a movement that was founded in 1928 in opposition to the Egyptian king, rejects a dynastic principle of rule in Islam - and thus calls the entire Saudi order into question. The riad's fear of a revival of an Islam based on the principles of the Muslim Brotherhood is therefore essentially justified. Their final decision in 2014 stood in this light: The Muslim Brotherhood was declared a terrorist organization.
The UAE shares a similar fear. Shortly after their independence, they started a cautious democratization, as a result of which an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood was established, the al-Islah party. This was originally founded by Egyptian dissidents who fled reprisals from their homeland and grew in importance and size over the decades. After its supporters began to criticize the Emirates and to some extent question the order in the state, the policy of the UAE changed: in 2014 the Islah was finally banned and several proceedings started against allegedly militant members. The UAE tightened its policy against the Muslim Brotherhood and set one of its basic principles to combat it within the region.
All three - or four including Bahrain - countries have long viewed Qatar as an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has provoked tensions. These discharged particularly strongly in March 2014: At that time, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE withdrew their diplomats from Qatar and presented Doha with a list of demands that essentially aimed at their connections with the Muslim Brotherhood. After an eight-month ice age between the states, an agreement was reached, as a result of which Qatar agreed to make some concessions. Among other things, these concerned the expulsion of wanted Muslim Brotherhood from Saudi Arabia and the UAE who found shelter in Qatar. That was the harbinger of the current crisis, because apparently the promised Doha concessions ultimately turned out to be empty promises, which is why the three Gulf states, now together with Egypt, started a new offensive. This time, however, with heavier guns.
Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood
The fact that these combined interests are now culminating in an aggressive stance against Doha shows how serious the allegations against the Gulf state from various sides are. There is no question that there are connections between the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar. The emirate regulated the Brotherhood's activities in the country, but instead allowed them to operate relatively openly abroad. In this way, Qatar hoped to gain influence in regional developments. With success: in Libya as well as in Syria, branches of the Muslim Brotherhood established themselves after the protest movements of 2011, also in Tunisia. Other Islamist-oriented groups, such as Hamas, a former offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, or the Taliban opened representative offices in Doha. Little Qatar entered the power struggle in the Middle East.
However, at the expense of his relationships with his neighbors. It is possible that the current blockade will be the receipt Doha has to pay for its autonomous foreign policy. On the other hand, Qatar has a certain degree of resilience and at least has two important US military bases in the country that should not be underestimated. In addition, the three countries that are exerting pressure on Qatar are anything but allies with one another, on the contrary.
The rivalry between the various states on the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt is part of a complex political constellation that goes far beyond the Muslim Brotherhood alone. It affects several hotspots in the region affected by current tensions. To what extent is uncertain.
The rival poles of power in the country are supported by various actors who try to pursue their foreign policy line. While Qatar supports the “Libyan Dawn” militia alliance together with Turkey, which is made up of former Muslim Brotherhoods and Islamists and holds the city of Tripoli, Egypt and the UAE are trying to combat the influence of the other side through the former army chief Khalifa Haftar in Tobruk. The UAE even went so far and actively participated militarily in Libya and flew several air strikes - together with Egypt. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, held back, especially because Riyadh is waging another war on its own that needs full attention:
The constellation in the country is often broken down to a simplified denominational or Iranian-Saudi dialectic - which is rather superficial. The situation in Yemen goes far beyond one-dimensional approaches. What is important in the current analysis is that although Saudi Arabia leads the military coalition in the country and both the UAE and Egypt were part of it, as well as Qatar before it was excluded, the goals of the actors are very different. While Riyadh, when the new King bin Salman came to power in 2014, saw the Houthis as a greater opponent than the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and accordingly moved closer to the latter, the UAE are continuing their resolute line against them in Yemen. The result: In Aden there was fighting between militias supported by the two Gulf states. Qatar and Egypt, on the other hand, which acted much more passively in Yemen, are left out in the face of these internal tensions.
Other differences between the alliance that has now been formed around Egypt, Saudi Arabia (together with Bahrain) and the UAE exist in Syria, among others, where the situation is even more complex than in Libya and Yemen. It should be clear that the four states have found a common interest in Qatar, but at the same time disagree on other points.Egypt has more differences with Turkey, Saudi Arabia with Iran, the UAE is not afraid to snub Riyadh in Yemen and Bahrain is ultimately under great domestic political pressure, even without a diplomatic crisis.
The newly formed alliance against Qatar can certainly build enough pressure to secure concessions from Doha, but its positions on other political issues diverge more than they converge. That could ultimately weaken them.
The current Gulf tensions are far more than just a development motivated by Trump or Iran. It goes much deeper and reveals the schism in the region, in which no situation is one-dimensional and one should therefore be careful before attempting simplistic explanations. One thing becomes clear, however: the idea of an Arab NATO, as brought into play by Trump, fails shortly after it was even proposed.
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