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Gulf rift: uneasy dynasties in a changing world

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© Jochen Tack / Alamy

This week, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, citing Qatar’s apparent failure to heed the terms of a security agreement made at a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) meeting late last year. The two issues in the dispute are Qatar’s perceived backing for the Egyptian Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the coverage on Qatari pan-Arab news channel Al Jazeera, which has been favourable to the Brotherhood and its challenge to the Egyptian authorities after the military ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi last year.

Saudi media claim that the new emir, Tamim bin Hamad, agreed to the terms of the security agreement, although whether he did or not is another question. Arab media have carried reports of sharp conversations between Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and Tamim at this week’s GCC meeting in Riyadh, during which Saud al-Faisal accused Qatar of contravening the agreement by interfering in other countries’ internal affairs. Saud al-Faisal’s evidence was a pile of newspaper cuttings, to which Tamim replied with the equivalent of “show me something real”. 

Saudi Arabia and the UAE see recent sermons by Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, a Brotherhood-linked Egyptian cleric resident in Doha, as proof that Doha is not playing ball. Al-Qaradawi has regularly attacked the Saudi and UAE-backed Egyptian government in his sermons and on Al Jazeera. But in January, he touched on the trials for suspected Brotherhood members or sympathisers in the UAE, implying that UAE rule was not Islamic. That provoked the UAE to summon the Qatari ambassador to lodge a complaint.

However, a few weeks later Qaradawi did the same thing again. “Were two lines that I said enough to make you angry? What if I gave a whole sermon on your scandals and injustices?”  As the editor of online daily Rai al-Youm, Abdel-Bari Atwan, wrote  at the time, an escalation in the Saudi and UAE position was from that point expected. It is clear that Qaradawi, whose sermons are normally carried on Qatari state TV, could not have taken up the attack again without getting a green light. It is also likely the case that the green light came from the “Father Emir” rather than from Tamim, whom Saudi Arabia hoped it could push around.

Arab media have talked of further measures Saudi Arabia could take, such as closing land borders or, along with the UAE, closing off airspace to Qatar Airways. Since GCC economic integration has never advanced very far, the countries have little economic leverage over Qatar and there is little fear of consequences for the Gulf financial sector at this stage. This dispute shows the very reason why GCC integration is doomed to failure – its absence allows a country like Qatar to ignore external pressures , and the others can do little to force it to comply. As I argued in my recent memo looking at Qatar’s leadership transition, it is difficult to see Qatar’s rulers buckling to Saudi-UAE pressure. Kowtowing to Gulf demands has not been their pattern of behaviour over the past two decades.

The dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar is deep and rooted in history, involving border disputes and the Saudi view of Qatar as a vassal state along the lines of Bahrain. Saudi Arabia has in the past withdrawn its ambassador over coverage on Al Jazeera, notably from 2002 to 2007. A landmark “reconciliation” took place in 2007, which saw Saudi Arabia disappear from Al Jazeera as a subject for serious political discussion. Rather than nix coverage of Islamist and other opposition to the post-coup Egypt government, as Riyadh demands, Doha could in fact reopen the doors to criticism of Saudi Arabia on its pan-Arab channel.

In Qatar’s view, it is already operating within certain boundaries by agreeing to stop coverage of the Bahraini protests in February 2011, an agreement that followed a visit by veteran foreign minister Saud al-Faisal to Doha. Qatar does not believe that giving publicity to Islamist opposition in Egypt and Islamist parties elsewhere in the Arab world is an internal security issue for the Gulf. In Qatar’s opinion, allowing this kind of coverage is not a regime-threatening act, and if Gulf governments see it that way, then that is their problem. Interestingly, reports suggest Riyadh has demanded an end to the extensive presence of Arab Islamists in Doha, in think tanks and university departments. Qatar has spent years building up an “Ikhwanistan” in Doha, an oasis of Islamism that it would hardly tear down in one fell swoop in response to Saudi pressure.

So, GCC divisions are on full display. Kuwait and Oman have not joined in the move to withdraw ambassadors. Oman declared publicly at a summit in December its opposition to Saudi plans for greater GCC integration. And Kuwait has played the role of mediator in the past, which it may try to do again now. Regarding Bahrain, it is worth noting that the Muslim Brotherhood is in fact a regime-allied force there, through the Islah charity and its political front al-Minbar. The Sunni Al Khalifa family has seen the Brotherhood as one card to help boost Sunni support in the face of the Shia opposition. Bahraini opposition figures say the UAE has pressured Bahrain to curtail Minbar-Islah activities in Bahrain. Some of their leaders have visited Egypt since the uprisings three years ago, seeking to extract statements from Egyptian Islamists who were then in parliament and government against Bahrain’s Shi'ite Wefaq party-led opposition. In fact, Bahrain’s banking sector has long been seen as a place where the Muslim Brotherhood’s international wing has put money and made investments, along with Malaysia and Indonesia.

The current standoff takes us back to the conflict surrounding the foundational coup of 1995 that created modern Qatar. Qatar accused Egypt and Saudi Arabia, with help from Bahrain, of orchestrating a counter-coup to reinstate the old emir, who had usually deferred to Riyadh. Sheikh Hamad was seen as being particularly driven by a desire to reject Saudi overlordship. Things have come full circle. But the situation now is far more tense because of the “Arab Spring” movement. Dynasties whose power has remained essentially unchallenged since colonial days are now very edgy about internal dissent – and about each other.

 

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