The Arab Gulf States may not admit it publicly, but a schism is slowly emerging between these countries in the wake of the rise of Islamist powers in the region. Qatar, on the one hand, has wholeheartedly endorsed the new Islamist powers of the Arab world in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, while the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have been skeptical at best. Although disagreements concerning external relations have previously emerged within the Gulf Cooperation Council states — for instance, some states have stronger ties with Iran than others would like to see — this is the first time that a member state has allied itself closely with a party that another member state accuses of undermining its system of government.
Qatar’s relations with the Muslim Brotherhood are multi-pronged. On the media front, Qatar has dedicated Al Jazeera, the country’s most prized non-financial asset, to the service of the Muslim Brotherhood and turned it into what prominent Middle East scholar Alain Gresh calls a “mouthpiece for the Brotherhood.” The channel has in turn been repeatedly praised by the Brotherhood for its “neutrality.” Qatar has also been very generous with the income from its gas wealth. Qatar’s influential prime minister pledged that his country would not allow Egypt to go bankrupt. Doha has already transferred five billion dollars to Egypt to help it meet its financial obligations and prevent the pound from sliding further.
In exchange for its assistance, Al Ahram reports that Egypt’s new government gave Qatar a number of assurances, including “technical support” for the Syrian opposition, the rotation — possibly to a Qatari citizen — of the Arab League Secretary General post, and “Egyptian approval of Qatari nominees on behalf of the Arab group in several international and regional forums.” Egypt has also given Qatar a number of perks, such as excluding Qatari investments from laws governing foreign ownership.
While Saudi Arabia has also been generous with its assistance — the Kingdom granted Egypt $4 billion in assistance — it is still wary of the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi skepticism stems mainly from two issues. The Brotherhood’s stance towards Saddam Hussein’s forces invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was seen by many in Saudi and other Gulf states as an endorsement of the aggression. This may also explain Kuwait’s cold shoulder treatment of the Brotherhood. The oil-rich Gulf state, whose sovereign wealth fund is estimated to reach $300 billion, hasn’t offered any meaningful aid to Egypt since the Brotherhood came to power. However, no Gulf official has been as public with voicing his distaste for the Brotherhood as the late Saudi Crown Prince and Interior Minister Prince Nayef, who was quoted as saying in 2002: “Without any hesitation I say it, that our problems, all of them, came from the direction of the Muslim Brotherhood.” The Saudis accuse the Muslim Brotherhood of “betraying” the Kingdom after it hosted their members who were persecuted during the Nasser era. While the UAE’s strict opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood stems from the country’s allegations that the group seeks to establish an “Islamist state in UAE.”
Although publically welcoming the Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia has privately been opposing them. I was informed by a source that was present at recent negotiations to form the Syrian opposition of the Saudi delegation’s strong rejection of any Brotherhood figure. Saudi’s financial assistance could be read as an attempt to keep relations relatively warm and not allow this most important of Arab states to drift into an Iranian orbit.
The UAE has publically taken the strictest position towards the Muslim Brotherhood and what it claims are the group’s activity on its territory. It has detained dozens of individuals it alleges are Brotherhood members, both citizens and more recently non-citizens. Looking back, the UAE was amongst the first countries to pledge aid to Egypt, as early as June 2011, in the form of $3 billion in small businesses and housing projects. However, none of that money has materialized, no doubt due to the deteriorating relations.
UAE-Qatar at opposite ends
The UAE and Qatar have accomplished an almost complete reversal of roles in relations with Egypt over the past two years. Egypt was a steadfast ally to the UAE under the previous Mubarak government, while relations with Qatar were cold at best. Following the ascent to power of the Brotherhood, Qatar was catapulted to the forefront of Egypt’s friends in the region. A case in point is the size of Qatari investments in Egypt prior to the revolution, which Egyptian government estimates put at a measly $260 million. On the other hand, the size of UAE investments in Egypt is estimated to be $5 billion, while trade is growing in double digits despite the spiraling of relations. Saudi investments in Egypt, probably the largest of any country, are estimated to be $12 billion. It is notable that Qatar announced plans to invest $18 billion in Egypt in the next five years.
On Mar. 5, 2012, Al Jazeera broadcast a show with Brotherhood televangelist Yousef Al-Qaradawi in which he warned the leadership of the UAE that they will be “facing the wrath of God” after a number of Syrians were deported to Egypt. The following day, the Emir of Qatar visited Abu Dhabi on an unannounced visit and is said to have reassured the UAE president of Qatar’s ties with its Gulf neighbor. That episode was never uploaded onto Al Jazeera’s website, but is available on YouTube. Al Qaradawi is amongst a group of Muslim Brotherhood leaders who immigrated to Qatar during the Nasser era and set up a branch in the Gulf state. In 1999, the Qatari chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood decided to dissolve its operations and by 2003 the dissolution was complete. In the same year, a series of meetings were held between the current Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders in the hopes that a similar deal could be reached for the UAE chapter. The deal stipulated that the UAE chapter of the Brotherhood, known as Al Islah and established in the 1970s, can continue operating within the UAE in exchange for ending its pledges of allegiance to the Supreme Guide and ceasing political activities. According to the deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the group agreed to stop recruiting members from the UAE armed forces and to cease offering allegiance as of 2003, although nothing was said about halting political activities. Relations between the Brotherhood and the UAE never recovered following the collapse of this deal that for some reason succeeded in Qatar, but not in the Emirates.
The Qatar-UAE-Egypt triangle has gone through different phases. In the mid-20th century, Dubai, the second emirate in the UAE, was the closest Gulf state to Qatar. Familial ties between both states translated into a common currency and strong economic ties. Following the Qatari coup d’état in 1996, in which the current Emir replaced his father who had good ties with Egypt, relations between Doha and Cairo deteriorated. Soon after, Qatar launched Al Jazeera, which hosted Egyptian and Saudi opposition for years until a thaw in relations took effect around 2008. Interestingly, Mubarak’s first visit in over a decade to Qatar took place only in November 2010, exactly two months before he fell from power.
Saudi and the UAE were also apprehensive of Qatar’s ties with Iran. These states were taken aback when Qatar invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to attend a meeting of the GCC in December 2007, making him the first Iranian leader to do so. Qatar’s attempts at smoothing relations with Iran are understandable in the light of both countries sharing the world’s biggest gas field. What is not so understandable is Qatar’s unwavering commitment to the Muslim Brotherhood to the degree that it may jeopardize relations with its neighboring Gulf States.
One Qatar-based researcher attributes the country’s active role to the Emir’s desire to “secure a legacy for himself,” while a soon to be published paper by a Princeton academic argues that Qatar sees the Brotherhood as a platform to exponentially increase its regional and global influence. There is no doubt that Qatar’s global significance has multiplied through piggybacking on Egypt’s stature and the regional influence of the Muslim Brotherhood.
While the UAE has alienated Egypt’s new leaders, Qatar has alienated Egypt’s population. It is yet unclear which strategy will work in the medium-to-long term. Qatar has certainly scored points of influence over the UAE at present, but the same will not apply to Saudi. For Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the grand prize is no doubt the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with its massive wealth fund of $637 billion. The host of two of Islam’s three holiest sites in Mecca and Medina also includes over 1.5 million Egyptian immigrants. Ultimately, neither Qatar nor the UAE can ever replace the significance of Saudi Arabia for Egypt and its Muslim Brotherhood government.
Amidst the simmering disagreements between the wealthy Gulf states, it is important to consider what is best for Egypt. The country is facing major challenges including 4 million unemployed officially, tourism arrivals down by double-digit percentile points, underpaid doctors, over a million street children, poor infrastructure that results in the deaths of hundreds a year, and a variety of educational, environmental, social and other economic challenges. Egypt clearly needs all the friends it can get. No matter how honorable the Qatari Prime Minister’s intent to not let Egypt go bankrupt, the latter’s debts are far too large for it to be covered through Doha’s generosity. Egypt’s public debt is estimated at $224 billion, while Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, while growing rapidly, is estimated at $136 billion. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood needs foreign help to finance and implement its neo-liberal economic plans. This will include not only funding from Qatar, Saudi and the UAE, but also technical transfer from the latter to Egypt to help it tackle its various challenges.
Qatar rapprochement with the Muslim Brotherhood has drawn the ire not only of its Gulf’s neighbors, but also the Egyptian intelligentsia. News leaks about Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood concessions to the Gulf peninsula state — along with the bypassing of diplomatic norms such as neglecting to notify the Egyptian ambassador to Doha about Qatar’s Prime Minister’s recent visit to Cairo — only exacerbates tension with non-Islamists in Egypt. The Qataris have had to deny claims of attempting to “dominate” Egypt, and rebut allegations that it is buying the Suez Canal, one of Egypt’s main sources of revenue. One must only visit social media pages of Egyptian activists and intellectuals to see their heavily negative reaction to the warming of relations between the Brotherhood and Qatar, a phenomenon also reported widely in the Egyptian media. Local outlets have also been reporting on growing discontent within the Egyptian street over ties to Qatar, with one former Egyptian minister threatening to throw himself off a tower if the Brotherhood handed the Suez Canal to the Gulf state.
Concern in Qatar
On online private messages too, citizens of Qatar, traditionally a Salafi Wahhabi, state have been telling me of their discontent with the state policy towards the Brotherhood. I sought permission to publish parts of an email I received from a Qatari commenting on the state’s close ties and financial aid to the Brotherhood:
“The problem is that the amount of aid isn’t beneficial to any party except the MB. Egyptian aid from Qatar is now tied into the MB. The people of Egypt know this and it can create a problem later with the question of democracy.
Qatar’s diplomacy is at some level now delegitimized by their aid being tied to a party. Qatar aids parties that, in return, they influence. Rather than being a respectable third party, Qatar has now interjected itself in Egyptian, Libyan and Syrian politics, for better or worse.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia are a bit different because now they can help in future situations without question (or as much controversy) on how objective they can be. While Qatar has a stake in the MB, the success of the MB means more influence for Qatar.”
Doha’s Brotherhood gamble
Clearly Qatar is taking a giant leap of faith with the Brotherhood, something it is not unknown to do before when it built ties simultaneously with Hamas and Israel, Iran and the US, the Taliban and the West. This time Qatar will be hoping that its Muslim Brotherhood allies succeed in their political and economic project and, since it is so heavily invested in them, they may also hope that their hold on power lasts for some time. Qatar will also, at minimum, expect Egypt’s Brotherhood to be a loyal friend in return, although many who have dealt with the Brotherhood may advise Doha to read about the group’s record of keeping promises and alliances when they are no longer beneficial. Consider for an instant a scenario in which Saudi Arabia presents Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood with a choice of expanding its relations with the Kingdom in exchange for an easing of ties with the Qataris. It probably won’t be a difficult decision for the Brotherhood to make.
Qatar, after all, presents the Brotherhood with two major assets. First, the country’s Al Jazeera satellite channel which — although no longer popular in Egypt following the advent of numerous local channels — still enjoys substantial regional viewership from which the network can continue to propagate the Brotherhood’s message. Second, Qatar is today the Muslim Brotherhood’s banker and personal financier, bankrolling its budget and investing heavily in the group’s projects. However, Qatar’s vast per-capita wealth pales in comparison to Islamic heavyweight Saudi Arabia’s several hundred billion dollars in assets and investable funds. Whatever diplomatic and regional weight Qatar and Al Jazeera can offer the Brotherhood could easily be matched by Saudi Arabia’s much larger media and diplomatic network. Meanwhile, the UAE and Saudi will continue to wonder what exactly Qatar wants from the Brotherhood as they see their smaller Gulf neighbor fully immerse itself in the Brotherhood’s challenges, hopes and ambitions.
It would indeed be ironic if the Brotherhood, having been nurtured and supported by Qatar so carefully, turns its back on the state in the coming few years. Ironic perhaps, but not unlikely.
This article was originally published in Al Monitor on January 23, 2013.