By Michael Young, NOW.
The decision of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain to withdraw their ambassadors from Qatar shows that the Arab world remains divided over the so-called Arab Spring.
The Saudi-Qatari rift (which was at the heart of the decision) is primarily linked to their very different attitudes toward the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Gaza. Whereas the Saudi regime supported the coup against President Muhammad Morsi, and sought to reinforce the military-dominated government that followed, Qatar has continued to back the Muslim Brotherhood.
According to Nabil Ennasri, a specialist on Qatar who was interviewed by the French daily La Croix: “The ambassadors crisis must be linked to the decision of a Cairo tribunal on Tuesday to freeze the assets of the Palestinian Hamas [movement] and bar it from Egyptian territory, as it is suspected of allying itself with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to commit attacks [in Egypt].”
The Saudis have reacted in contradictory ways to the Arab uprisings since 2011. They looked with a jaundiced eye on Hosni Mubarak’s exit in Egypt, but had no regrets about the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and have supported the revolt against Bashar al-Assad.
Geographical proximity has been a major factor in Saudi thinking. What happens in Egypt and Syria are vital for the kingdom since both are close to Saudi Arabia, while Libya and Tunisia are not. Moreover, Iran, the Saudis’ main regional foe, has been active in Syria and the Palestinian territories, reportedly resuming its financing of Hamas.
According to Al-Monitor’s Hazem Balousha, citing high-level sources within Hamas, ties were re-established after two meetings, in Ankara and Doha, between Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas’ Political Bureau, and an unnamed high-level Iranian representative. The rift between Hamas and Iran, caused by their differences over Syria, reportedly cost the Islamist movement some $23m per month.
There was a time when Saudi Arabia acted as a refuge for members of the Muslim Brotherhood who had fled Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt. However, much has changed since then. The Saudis were not pleased when their old ally Mubarak was replaced by Morsi, who was democratically elected after a popular revolution. For a conservative monarchy whose legitimacy springs from its link to Islam, the prospect of Islamists reaching power through an electoral process was an anathema, as this could have echoed favourably in the kingdom.
The Saudi devotion to stability has not been evident in Syria, however, where the kingdom supports the rebels and has pushed Qatar aside as their main sponsor. Recently, the Syria file was taken out of the hands of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who is said to be ill, and handed to the interior minister, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, a rising star in the Saudi system who one day may become king.
Prince Muhammad is known for combating Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and he survived an assassination attempt in August 2009. This has given the kingdom some credibility in Syria, where its foes have accused it of supporting Al-Qaeda groups. Prince Muhammad’s appointment was an indirect way of countering that accusation.
Saudi policies in Egypt and Syria have been aimed at getting a handle on a situation that, after 2011, was unpredictable for the royal family. The re-imposition of a military-backed regime in Cairo is within reach for the Saudis, with the likelihood that the army commander, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, will win the presidency. Riyadh does not want anything to hinder that scenario, above all Qatari interference.
In Syria, the Saudis and Qataris may be on the same side, but their separate agendas were one reason for the opposition’s divisions early on. Both Qatar and Turkey backed the Muslim Brotherhood in the opposition coalition, creating profound rifts at a moment when the west was seeking a unified opposition partner. The Muslim Brotherhood was later shown to be utterly ineffective in Syria.
Since then, the Saudis helped create the so-called Islamic Front, an alliance mainly of Salafist groups that helped supplant the Free Syrian Army backed by the Western countries. While the objective was to impose some coherence in the ranks of the fragmented opposition, it was also, and more implicitly, to ensure that the Saudis would be in a better position to define the Syrian endgame not only with respect to other Arab states, but also the United States.
For now, the Saudis appear to have the upper hand. Qatari support for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has an air of desperation about it. The prospect that Morsi will return to power seems ridiculous.
In Syria, the Saudis and Americans are allegedly preparing for a spring offensive against Damascus, directed from the south. Whether this will shake Bashar Al-Assad’s regime and force him to negotiate remains unclear, but the Saudis and Americans are working together again. The Obama administration, despite its displeasure with Morsi’s violent removal, is also very likely to come around to a Sisi victory. After three years of chaos in the Middle East, the Saudis’ appeal for stability will receive a sympathetic ear in Washington.
That sense of renewed confidence, coupled with recognition that the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme will be arduous, may have prompted the diplomatic isolation of Qatar. With a new emir in Doha, the Saudis are flexing their muscles to push their own preferences in the region. Only time will tell whether the Qataris comply.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.
This article was published on Now.