timep single page

Showdown in the Gulf

Over the past week, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE took the unprecedented step of collectively withdrawing their ambassadors from Qatar, citing the latter’s disregard for their security. The following day, Egypt also announced a similar step. Observers viewed this as a message to Qatar to cease its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar issued a statement dismissing the Gulf concerns, saying that its actions had not jeopardized the security of the Gulf states. The following day, a senior Qatari official stated that his country would not change its policies or be pressured to expel the Brotherhood members whom it is hosting.

Over the past few years, Qatar had dedicated significant funds to the group, now officially banned in Egypt, and had provided them with generous and dedicated media coverage through Al Jazeera Arabic and its sister channel in Egypt, Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr. Qatar also gave refuge to Brotherhood figures before and after their ousting from power in Egypt last summer.

Back in 2002, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Qatar for six years in protest over Al Jazeera’s coverage of Saudi Arabia and their hosting of Saudi dissidents. Following a rapprochement, the ambassador returned, and Al Jazeera was allowed not only to operate in Saudi Arabia but to open a local bureau. A relative of a Saudi dissident told me in 2012 that following the opening of the bureau in Riyadh, the channel ceased to contact them for appearances. This time, however, the collective and very public nature of the disagreement suggests that the Gulf states are seeking more than mere assurances from Doha—they may expect concrete steps and confidence-building measures to be taken prior to a reinstatement of their ambassadors.

The Coalition of the Brotherhood

The questions on most Gulf observers’ minds are “What explains Qatar’s unyielding support for the Muslim Brotherhood,” and “What benefits does their support for that group bring Qatar?” There are no clear answers to these questions, and Qatar and the Brotherhood make odd bedfellows, considering that Qatar’s Wahhabi monarchy is theoretically in contradiction to the Brotherhood’s political Islam agenda (based on Sayed Qutb’s teachings).

What is clear, however, is that many of the region’s states are skeptical of the Brotherhood’s intentions at best, and with the exception of Qatar, only Sudan, Tunisia, and Turkey have warm relations with the group. If Qatar chooses to continue to side with the Brotherhood at the expense of relations with other states in the region, it would probably be another risky, long-term bet similar to the one it took decades ago that appeared, albeit briefly, to have paid off when the Brotherhood came to power in Egypt for a year.

Today, the scenario is quite different. Egyptians have risen up against the Brotherhood, and although the general sentiment towards the current period of military rule in Egypt is souring, there is no yearning for the return of the incompetent rule of the Brotherhood in Egypt. Additionally, the Brotherhood’s greatest major ally, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan, has seen his popularity recede significantly amid allegations of abuse of power. Consequently, Erdogan may be unable to extend generous financial support to the Brotherhood at the expense of his own population. The other two countries maintaining an alignment with the Brotherhood, Sudan and Tunisia, respectively are a practically failed state and a politically fledgling nation that is in no position to offer meaningful help to the Brotherhood.

The question remains, though, what could those Arab states opposing the Brotherhood do to pressure Qatar into abandoning or limiting its support for the group? There are political as well as economic levers at these states’ disposal. Already, Egypt has required Qatari citizens who hold diplomatic and special passports to seek visas prior to visiting Egypt. Qatar Airways, which recently won a tender to operate internal flights in Saudi Arabia, may find Riyadh reluctant to grant it final authorization to run such routes. Qatar also exports natural gas to the UAE, which has already started making arrangements with other gas suppliers in North America. Joint development and infrastructure projects, including the poorly named “Friendship Bridge” between Qatar and Bahrain as well as the Gulf-wide railroad system, could be frozen, and economic and diplomatic ties could be further downgraded or put on hold. Qatar’s ambassadors to these states will receive the same level of welcome that is afforded to the Iranian ambassador.

However, gas-rich Qatar remains a wealthy state that—unlike others in the region—is not reliant on aid from others. Its sovereign wealth fund, the QIA, has over $100 billion in assets under management. Qatar also launched its own satellite partly in order to continue broadcasting Al Jazeera without interruption or pressure from other states.

Even so, Saudi Arabia, with its political and economic clout, can make life difficult for the Qatari government if it chooses to do so. Saudi, the region’s largest economy, is also the only state with a land border with Qatar, giving Riyadh the ability to open and shut ground transport into the country at will, something it had earlier shown it was willing to do. In fact, border tensions in 1992 led to an exchange-of-fire incident in which three Qatari soldiers were killed. Qatar’s stock market has already fallen following the withdrawal of the ambassadors. In the medium term, Qatar’s crown jewel, the 2022 World Cup, could be put in jeopardy if Saudi firms, the best-prepared in the region to undertake necessary major construction projects, are discouraged from bidding on the tenders to build stadiums, infrastructure and hotels valued at $115 billion.

Finally, it is likely that both Qatar and the other Gulf states will reject mediation efforts offered by the Kuwaiti Emir, a seasoned diplomat who has successfully resolved various disagreements between the Gulf states over the past few years. After all, this is no easily reconcilable difference. Qatar has made a strategic decision that maintaining close ties with the Brotherhood is in its fundamental interests, and the other Gulf states have made a strategic decision that Qatar’s close ties with the Brotherhood represent a fundamental threat.

All that remains to be seen now is which side will blink first.