What a difference a year makes in the Middle East. One year ago this week, Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, handed over power to his son Sheikh Tamim, joining a short but seemingly growing list of monarchs who have abdicated in favor of their relatives. At the time of his abdication, Hamad left behind an empire of soft power and influence that spanned the entire region. Twelve months on, things could not be more different.
Only 72 hours after Tamim’s ascension to the throne, the Muslim Brotherhood — arguably Qatar’s biggest ally that the Gulf state has propped up with billions of dollars and favorable media coverage through Al Jazeera Arabic — was swept from power in Egypt. The movement, which only a few days before held the presidency, the premiership, cabinet posts and parliament, was chased underground, jailed and exiled. President Mohammed Morsi did not even have time to send a cable of congratulations to the young emir. Elsewhere, Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda movement, another close ally of Qatar, agreed to give up power and appoint a caretaker cabinet only a few weeks after the Brotherhood was ousted in Egypt. In Libya, where Qatar committed money, media and military power, former Gen. Khalifa Hifter has pledged to “purge” his country of Muslim Brotherhood members. The Qatari-backed and Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Syrian National Coalition no longer plays a significant role, with the opposition now headed by the Saudi-backed Ahmed al-Jarba, leading one political pundit to comment on Qatar’s influence that “Politically, it is in the back seat — or maybe not even in the car.”
Qatar’s Muslim Brotherhood allies suffered a major blow when Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam’s two holiest shrines, joined Egypt and declared the group a “terrorist” organization. Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz sent a cable to congratulate Egypt’s new strongman President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi less than an hour after he was declared president, saying, “Causing any harm to Egypt is tantamount to harming Islam, Arabs and Saudi Arabia” and advising Sisi to “beware bad friends.” In another clear reference to Qatar, the king said, “Any of us should be aware that if he is able to provide assistance [to Egypt], but lagged behind rather than coming up with this duty, he will have no place among us tomorrow.”
Qatar is increasingly suffering a major image problem over its hosting of the World Cup. Accusations ranged from bribing FIFA officials to vote for Qatar as the host of the World Cup 2022 to repeat accusations of “slave labor” conditions in the country. In the past few weeks, the United States downgraded Qatar in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report, and all but one sponsor — the UAE’s Emirates airline — called upon FIFA to open an investigation into the allegations known as “Qatargate.”
In March, in an unprecedented step, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha after Qatar failed to honor a joint security agreement in November 2013 that included commitments from Doha to cease support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its hosting of Gulf opposition figures. Over the past few months, Kuwait’s veteran diplomat-turned-emir has volunteered to mediate between the Gulf Tripartite (Saudi, Bahrain and the UAE) and Qatar. A task that has yet to bear any fruits will be to find a face-saving measure for Qatar’s emir that is acceptable to the Gulf Tripartite. According to one diplomatic source, unless Qatar satisfies the group’s conditions, the latter may opt to boycott the upcoming Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Doha in December, therefore denying the necessary quorum for a Gulf summit to convene.
The events of the past few months are turning 2014 into an annus horribilus for Qatar. However, it is too early to dismiss it from the game of nations. Qatar is still the host of the forward headquarters of the US Central Command, it is endowed with immense natural wealth and although Al Jazeera Arabic has turned into an Islamist shadow of its former self, its English-language networks are slowly gaining global prominence. On a visit to France, Tamim told his hosts on June 23, “We have always been playing the role of a mediator between countries with differences.” Yet, the biggest test for the young emir will be whether he can work out his own differences with the Gulf Tripartite and not find himself alone at the table in December.
This article was originally published in Al Monitor on June 26, 2014.