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The Gulf crisis: Small states battle it out (SSRN Working Paper Part 1)

By James M. Dorsey Abstract Buried in the Gulf crisis is a major development likely to reshape international relations as well as power dynamics in the Middle East: the coming out of small states capable of punching far above their weight with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, a driver of the crisis, locked into an epic struggle to rewrite the region’s political map.

Goals dictate strategy Underwriting the struggle are different strategies of the Gulf’s small states, buffeted by huge war chests garnered from energy exports, to project power and shape the world around them. Both Qatar and the UAE project themselves as regional and global hubs that are building cutting-edge, 21st century knowledge societies on top of tribally-based autocracies. Despite their different attitudes towards political Islam, Qatar and the UAE have both developed societies in which religious scholars have relatively little say and Islamic mores and norms are relatively liberally interpreted. That, however, may be where the communality in approach ends. At the core of the different strategies as well as the diplomatic and economic boycott imposed in June 2017 on Qatar by a Saudi-UAE-led alliance, lie opposed visions of the future of a region wracked by debilitating power struggles; a convoluted, bloody and painful quest for political change; and a determined and ruthless counterrevolutionary effort to salvage the fundaments of the status quo ante. The UAE views autocracy as the key to regional security and the survival of its autocratic regime. It is seeking to “impose a narrative of authoritarian stability onto the Middle East,” said security studies scholar Andreas Krieg.[i]

As a result, the UAE has backed regime change in a number of countries, including Egypt[ii] and reportedly Turkey;[iii] supported anti-Islamist, anti- government rebels in Libya; joined Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen; and in the latest episode of its campaign, driven imposition of the boycott of Qatar. The UAE was also a driving force in persuading Saudi Arabia in 2014 to follow its example and ban the Muslim Brotherhood. It has attempted with relatively little success to create a more acquiescent, apolitical, alternative Muslim grouping.[iv]

In contrast to the UAE, Qatar has sought to position itself as the regional go-to go-between and mediator by maintaining relations not only with states but also a scala of Islamist, militant and rebel groups across the Middle East and northern Africa. It moreover embraced the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and supported Islamist forces, with the Brotherhood in the lead that emerged as the most organized political force from the uprisings.[v] Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood, despite their differing interpretations of Islam and contradictory political outlooks, amounted to aligning itself with forces who were challenging Gulf regimes and that the UAE alongside Saudi Arabia was seeking to suppress.

The UAE and Qatar’s starkly different visions and the determination of both small states to shape the Middle East and North Africa in their mould as a matter of a security and defence policy designed to ensure regime survival made confrontation inevitable. It is an epic struggle in which Qatar and the UAE, governed by rulers who have a visceral dislike of one another, could in the short and middle term both emerge as winners even if it is at the expense of those on whose backs the battle is fought and with considerable damage to their carefully groomed reputations.

The UAE and Qatar’s duelling visions complicate the region’s lay of the land wracked by multiple rivalries in which the interests of regional and external protagonists at times coincide but more often than not exacerbate the crisis. That has been nowhere more evident than in Syria where the Gulf’s major players supported Syrian rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, yet aggravated the struggle by at times aiding rival groups.

Joe Biden, a man known not to mince his words, complained as Barak Obama’s vice president that “our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. The Turks were great friends… The Saudis, the Emiratis, etc. What were they doing? They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war. What did they do? They poured hundreds and millions of dollars and tens and thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad. Except that the people who were being supplied were Al-Nusra and Al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world… We could not convince our colleagues to stop supplying them.”[vi] Biden was referring to Jabhat al-Nusra, initially an Al Qaeda affiliate that later distanced itself from the group.

Similarly, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton complained in cable made public by Wikileaks that “UAE-based donors have provided financial support to a variety of terrorist groups, including Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, LeT and other terrorist groups, including Hamas.” Clinton warned “that the UAE’s role as a growing global financial centre, coupled with weak regulatory oversight, makes it vulnerable to abuse by terrorist financiers and facilitation networks.”[vii] To be fair, the cable named and shamed virtually all Gulf states except for Oman.

At the bottom line, the rival strategies that involve the UAE working the corridors of power of the Gulf’s behemoth, Saudi Arabia, whose focus is its existential fight with Iran, and Qatar sponsoring opposition forces, has left the Middle East and North Africa in shambles. Beyond Syria, Libya and Yemen are wracked by wars. Egypt is ruled by an autocrat more brutal than his autocratic predecessor who has made his country financially dependent on Saudi Arabia and the UAE and has been unable to fulfil promises of greater economic opportunity.

Offense is the best defense

Qatar’s vision of a future Middle East and the survival of its ruling family is rooted in the creation in 1971 of a state, the only country alongside Saudi Arabia that adheres to Wahhabism, an austere interpretation of Islam, that was intended to be everything that the kingdom is not.[viii] Despite being a traditional Gulf state, Qatari conservatism is everything but a mirror image of Saudi Arabia’s stark way of life with its powerful, conservative clergy, absolute gender segregation; total ban on alcohol and houses of worship for adherents of other religions, and refusal to accommodate alternative lifestyles or religious practices.

Qataris privately distinguish between their “Wahhabism of the sea” as opposed to Saudi Arabia’s “Wahhabism of the land,” a reference to the fact that the Saudi government has less control of an empowered clergy compared to Qatar that has no indigenous clergy with a social base to speak of; a Saudi history of tribal strife over oases as opposed to one of communal life in Qatar, and Qatar’s outward looking maritime trade history. Some Qataris also attribute their country’s more outward looking perspective as well as its willingness to accommodate political exiles and opposition forces to a tradition of being an oasis of refuge dating back to the 19th century when the desolate territory offered sanctuary to pirates, fugitives and people fleeing persecution elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula. Qatar’s founder, Jassim bin Mohammed AL Thani, is quoted by Qataris as having described their country as the ‘ka’aba of the dispossessed,’ a reference to the black cubicle in Mecca that is a focal point of the pilgrimage to the holy city. [ix]

The notion of a more outward looking form of Wahhabism while rooted in history is in some ways a modern-day fallacy. Iranians and Africans accounted for the bulk of foreigners in Qatar in the 1930s who constituted 39 percent of the Qatari population and with whom Qataris had contact with for centuries. Originally slaves, many of the Africans were absorbed by the tribes as honorary members, became Qatari citizens with evidence and were not as a cultural threat. The discovery of oil and the rise of the rentier state changed all of that.[x] Qataris have largely been insensitive to regular reports of abuse of Asian domestic workers, but protested in 2009 when reports emerged that Qataris were hiring Saudis as maids. The protest was grounded in fears that if Saudis, their closest kin in the Gulf, could be reduced to that status of a maid, so could Qataris, pampered by a cradle-to-grave state.[xi]

The absence of religious scholars was in part a reflection of Qatari ambivalence towards Wahhabism that it viewed as both an opportunity and a threat: on the one hand, it served as a tool to legitimise domestic rule, on the other it was a potential monkey wrench Saudi Arabia could employ to assert control. Opting to generate a clerical class of its own would have enhanced the threat because Qatar would have been dependent on Saudi clergymen to develop its own. That would have produced a clergy steeped in the kingdom’s austere theology and inspired by its history of political power-sharing that would have advocated a Saudi-style, state-defined form of political Islam. By steering clear of the grooming of an indigenous clergy of their own, Qatari leaders ensured that they had greater manoeuvrability. They did not have to give a clergy a say in political and social affairs. Qatar’s pragmatic relationship to Wahhabism eased the forging of a close relationship with the Brotherhood even before it achieved independence.[xii]

Qatar’s relationship with the Brotherhood was moreover facilitated by the fact that key figures from the group like controversial Sheikh Yusuf Al Qaradawi, an Egyptian-born, naturalized Qatari citizen who became a major influence in the absence of a class of religious scholars, Libyan imam Ali Al Sallabi, and fellow Egyptians Sheikh Ahmed Assal and Sheikh Abdel Moez Abdul Sattar have had a base in Doha for decades. Headhunted by the head of Islamic sciences at Qatar’s education department, Abdullah bin Tukri al-Subai, Al-Assal arrived in Qatar in 1960 and where he taught in schools, lectured in mosques, and helped form Brotherhood groups.

Al-Sattar, the personal emissary to Palestine of Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna was appointed in the early 1960s director of Islamic Sciences at the ministry of education and co-authored numerous textbooks for the nascent Qatari school system that allowed for an approach that was not exclusively informed by Saudi interpretations of Wahhabism.[xiii] Qaradawi and Al-Sallabi were among 59 people listed by the Saudi-UAE-led alliance as Qatar-supported terrorists at the outset of the Gulf crisis.[xiv]

Qaradawi, who has been resident in Doha since he was forced into exile in 1961 by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s crackdown on the Brotherhood, has emerged as one of the Muslim world’s most influential religious scholars. He is believed to have opted for Qatar as his new home rather than Saudi Arabia that accommodated the largest number of fleeing Brothers in consultation with the Brotherhood’s leadership.[xv]

Freshly out of prison, Qaradawi’s move to Qatar was likely facilitated by Abdul-Badi Saqr, an Egyptian who came in 1954 at the invitation of the Qataris as one of the first of the Brothers to help set up their education system. Saqr had been recommended by Muhib al-Din al-Khatib, the proprietor of a Salafi bookshop in Cairo.[xvi] To fill the need for teachers, he invited Brothers who according to scholar Abdullah Juma Kobaisi “stamped the education system with their Islamic ideology since the education department was under their control.”[xvii]

The role of the Brotherhood was further enhanced by the fact that Qatar limited the institutional opportunities available for religious scholars of any description to exert influence domestically.

Religious schools as first founded by Qaradawi in 1961 remained niche and in 2008 to 2009 only taught 257 students, the vast majority of whom were not Qatari. Taking a leaf out of the books of Kemalist Turkey and the late president Habib Bourgiba’s Tunisia, two secular states that sought to ensure that Islam was perceived as a personal rather than a public practice, Qatar University’s College of Sharia and Islamic Studies, the country’s sole provider of higher religious education, unlike multiple similar institutions in Saud Arabia, enjoyed no special status even though Qaradawi was its first dean.[xviii]

Instead, with Qaradawi, Qatar created a global mufti[xix] who in the words of Islam scholar Yahya Michot represented the three dimensions of a spiritual leader that many in the global community of faithful were looking for: independence as a Muslim scholar and activist, representation of a transnational movement such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and association with an international organization such as the Qatar-backed International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS) that Qaradawi chairs.[xx]

Qaradawi offered the Al Thanis, who hail from the Bani Tamim, the tribal group that brought forth Wahhabism’s founder, Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab, a powerful shield against religious criticism. Moreover, he and other Brothers, helped Qatar develop its own fusion of Salafist and Brotherhood thinking that was initially expressed in publications such as Majalat al Umma.[xxi] They counterbalanced the influence of local Saudi-influenced scholars and Salafis who were influential in the ministries of justice and religious endowments.

The dismantling of the Brotherhood’s Qatari branch in the 1990s, a reformist voice within the group, assured the Gulf state that it would be spared the emergence of a home-grown Islamist movement.

Diverting the Islamist focus away from Qatar was further facilitated by Qatar’s funding of Brotherhood media outlets, including a show for Qaradawi on Al Jazeera, and Qaradawi’s show, Al Sharia wal Hayat (The Shariah and Life) that reached a global audience of tens of millions of Arabic speakers, helped give Al Jazeera its Islamist stamp. It also was a fixture on Qatar state television which broadcasted his Friday prayer sermons live.

The Qatari media strategy offered the Gulf state influence across the Middle East and North Africa where Brotherhood off-shoots were active including Gaza with Hamas, which Qatar lured away from Syria and Iran, as well as the Islamic Action Front in Jordan. The setting up of Al Jazeera paralleled the structuring of the Gulf state’s ties to the Brotherhood. While Al Jazeera steers clear of critical coverage of Qatar, the Brotherhood was allowed to operate everywhere except for in Qatar itself.

Instead, Qatar funded institutions that were designed to foster a generation of activists in the Middle East and North Africa as well as to guide the Brotherhood in its transition from a clandestine to a public group. Former Qatari Brother Jassim Al-Sultan established the Al-Nahda (Awakening) Project[xxii] to promote Islamist activism within democracies.

A medical doctor, Al-Sultan has since the dissolution of the group in Qatar advised the Brotherhood to reach out to other groups rather than stick to its strategy of building power bases within existing institutions. He has also criticized the Brotherhood for insisting on its slogan, ‘Islam is the Solution.’ Instead, he urged Egyptian Islamists to drop their notion of "infiltrating the society to control it" in favour of what he termed "partnership thought."[xxiii]

Al Nahda cooperated closely with the London and Doha-based Academy of Change (AOC)[xxiv] that focused on the study of “social, cultural, and political transformations especially in the Arabic and Islamic region.” AOC, headed by Hisham Morsi, an Egyptian-British paediatrician and British national married to one of Qaradawi’s daughters,[xxv] appeared to be modelled on Otoper, the Serbian youth movement that toppled President Slobodan Milosevic and has since transformed itself into a training ground for non-violent protest. Arrested during the 20ll popular revolt that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and later released, Morsi has authored manual on the tactics of non-violent resistance. In 2005, AOC organized its first three-day seminar in Cairo on civil disobedience tactics, including operating through decentralized networks and ensuring adherence to non-violence even if law enforcement intervenes brutally.[xxvi]

Former Qatari justice minister and prominent lawyer Najeeb al Nauimi encapsuled the strategic relationship between Qatar and the Brotherhood as well as the Gulf state’s more liberal interpretation of Wahhabism by noting that "Saudi Arabia has Mecca and Medina. We have Qaradawi -- and all his daughters drive cars and work.”[xxvii]

With the eruption of the protests in various Arab countries in 2011, Qaradawi was instrumental in persuading Qatar to use its political and financial muscle to support the Brotherhood in Egypt; the revolt in Libya against Col. Moammar Qaddafi; the post-Ben Ali Ennahdha-led government in Tunisia; an assortment of Islamist groups in Yemen and Morocco, and opponents of Syrian president Assad. Three days after a triumphant appearance in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in early 2011, Qaradawi issued on Al Jazeera a fatwa or religious opinion authorizing the killing of Qaddafi.[xxviii] He asserted further that historic links between Egypt and Syria put Syria in protesters’ firing line.[xxix] In response, Syrian officials accused Qaradawi of fostering sectarianism.[xxx]

Plausible deniability

If Qatar’s strategy was confrontational, the UAE opted for an approach that granted it a measure of plausible deniability by influencing the policies of Big Brother Saudi Arabia, establishing close ties to key policy makers in Washington, acquiring ports straddling the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and crafting a reputation as Little Sparta,[xxxi] a military power that despite its size and with the help of mercenaries[xxxii] could stand its ground and like the big boys on the block establish foreign military bases.

For much of the last decade, the UAE has argued against the notion of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that groups Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain as a defense pact. Instead, the UAE advertised itself as the United States’ most partner in the region. "I am not a believer in grouping the GCC together...ask us who wants to be involved and we will step forward, the others will take a step back... Encourage those of us who wish to lead to lead and we will; sooner or later the others will step forward but only when it is necessary," UAE Crown Prince and strongman Mohammed bin Zayed told US officials in 2009.[xxxiii]

While Qatar’s ever closer military ties to the United States centred on the Al Udeid Air Base, the largest US base in the Middle East that is home to the forward command post of the US Central Command, the UAE deepened relations in part by participating in every US war in the region since 1991 except for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.[xxxiv] Those wars included the 2001 US assault on Afghanistan despite the fact that the UAE, surprisingly unlike Qatar, was only one of three countries alongside Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, to have recognized the Taliban regime.[xxxv]

The fundamental differences in UAE and Qatari strategy also expressed themselves in their different approaches towards hard and soft power. Qatar focussed primarily on the soft power aspect with a fast-paced, mediation-driven foreign policy; a world class airline; high profile investments in arts, real estate and blue chips; and sports with an eye on becoming a global hub and centre of excellence in multiple fields.

Qatar arms acquisitions were modest compared to those of Saudi Arabia and the UAE until 2014[xxxvi] when it went on a $24 billion buying spree days after Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain first withdrew their ambassadors from Doha,[xxxvii] and its subsequent $12 billion acquisition of US fighter planes in 2017 days after the current Gulf crisis erupted.[xxxviii] The US embassy in Doha reported prior to the 2014 rupture in relations that Qatar lacked a national military strategy and seemed reluctant to draw one up.[xxxix] The embassy concluded in a cable to the State Department that “the QAF (Qatar Air Force) could put up little defense against Qatar’s primary perceived threats – Saudi Arabia and Iran – and the U.S. military’s presence here is larger and far more capable than Qatar’s forces.”[xl]

Qatar’s inclination to rely more on soft rather than hard power and its positioning as a friend-to-all and mediator is rooted in a tradition of playing both sides against the middle that dates back to the 19th century. Qatari tribes were juggling Ottomans, Brits, Omanis, Saudis and Iranians who were competing for influence on the tribes’ peninsula. They have seen their empires rise and fall.

Extrapolating from that experience, modern-day Qatar sees intellectual creativity and debate as long as it does not involve discussion of the Gulf state itself as a soft power tool. The controversial Al Jazeera television network, the in-gathering of the exiles, and the support of opposition groups are vehicles that position Qatar at the centre of a world of ideas that is likely to shape the future of the Middle East and North Africa.

The UAE adopted some of the same soft power elements, such as world class airlines and museums, blue chip investments, and sports but in contrast to Qatar saw its stepped-up military engagement and projection of strength as both a hard and soft power ploy. While Qatar primarily used its financial muscle, political support for multiple groups, and Al Jazeera to manipulate developments in the region, the UAE flexed not only its financial and commercial muscles, but also its improved military capability to intervene in multiple regional crises to a far greater extent than Qatar did.

By positioning itself as a power behind the Saudi throne, the UAE successfully exploited margins in the corridors of power in Riyadh to get the kingdom to adopt policies like the banning of the Brotherhood, a group that has the effect of a red cloth on a bull on Bin Zayed, but that the Saudis may not have pursued otherwise. The UAE, moreover, by aligning itself with Saudi Arabia rather than antagonizing it, has been far defter in its ability to achieve its goals and project its power without flying too high above the radar.

The UAE’s approach has also allowed it to ensure that major policy differences with Saudi Arabia on issues such as the conduct and objectives of the Yemen war, a role for the Brotherhood in a Sunni Muslim alliance against Iran, the degree of economic integration within the GCC and the thwarting of Saudi-led efforts to introduce a common currency, and Hamas’ place in Palestinian politics, did not get out of hand. Even more importantly, the approach ensured that the UAE’s policies were adopted or endorsed by bigger powers.

In fact, Bin Zayed’s finger prints were all over the Saudi-UAE-led alliance’s demands that Qatar halt its supports for Islamists and militants, shutter Al Jazeera and other media outlets, and close a Turkish military base.[xli] In 2009, Sheikh Mohamed went as far as telling US officials that Qatar is "part of the Muslim Brotherhood."[xlii] He suggested that a review of Al Jazeera employees would show that 90 percent were affiliated with the Brotherhood.

Because of the Brotherhood’s inroads into the UAE, Bin Zayed said he had sent his son with the Red Cross rather than the Red Crescent on a humanitarian mission to Ethiopia to cure him of his interest in Islamist teachings. “His son returned from the mission with his vision of the west intact and in fact corrected. He was astonished that the Christians with the Red Cross were giving food and support to anyone who needed the support, not just to Christians. His son had only heard the stories of the west through the lens of Al Jazeera and others similarly aligned,” the US embassy in Abu Dhabi recounted Bin Zayed as saying.[xliii]

Distrust of the Brotherhood in Saudi Arabia dates back to post-9/11 Brotherhood-backed calls for reform in the kingdom and its support for Saddam Hussein after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 that culminated in then Interior Minister Prince Nayef declaring that the group was at the root of all of the kingdom’s problems.[xliv] Two years later, Bin Zayed took advantage of the fact that ailing King Abdullah had an approximately two-hour concentration span to convince him with the help of the head of the Saudi court, Khaled al Tuwaijri, to designate the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.[xlv]

It was a decision that was at stake in the power struggle that occurred as Abdullah lay on his death bed. Bin Zayed initially lost with the dismissal of Al-Tuwaijri and other Saudi officials close to the UAE crown prince by newly appointed King Salman.[xlvi] Within weeks of his rise in 2015, Salman, eager to form a Sunni Muslim alliance against Iran, made overtures to the Brotherhood. In a first public gesture, two weeks after Salman’s inauguration, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Feisal told an interviewer that “there is no problem between the kingdom and the movement.”[xlvii] The Muslim World League, a body established by Saudi Arabia in the 1960s and dominated by the Brotherhood, organized a month later a conference in a building Mecca that had not been used since the banning of the brothers to which Qataris with close ties to the Islamists were invited.[xlviii]

Not to be defeated and determined to stiffen the Saudis back when it came to the Brotherhood, Bin Zayed forged close ties to his namesake, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s son who was being groomed to become Salman’s successor. Bin Zayed became young Salman’s model for the kind of authority he wanted to project.

“A close working relationship has developed between the two men, who share a ‘can-do’ mentality that favours ambitious ‘big-picture’ approaches to national and regional issues… Most significantly, for Qatar, Bin Zayed has secured Saudi backing for his hard-line approach to the Muslim Brotherhood and other regional Islamist groups… Although King Salman pragmatically engaged with members of the Brotherhood after he came to power in January 2015, the Saudi stance has once again moved closer to the Emirati one in recent months,” said Gulf scholar Kristian Coates Ulrichsen.[xlix]


If change in the Middle East and North Africa is ultimately inevitable, the UAE is no less vulnerable than Qatar. While the rulers of the seven emirates that constitute the UAE under the leadership of Abu Dhabi’s Al-Nahayan family may well agree on the threat posed by the Brotherhood, it remains unclear whether they are equally enthusiastic about Bin Zayed’s aggressive policies towards Qatar.

The Gulf crisis “is about Abu Dhabi asserting its dominance in foreign policy issues, because this is not in Dubai’s interest,” said former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Sir William Patey. By implication, Sir Patey was suggesting that unease among the various emirates may be one reason why Abu Dhabi refrained from tightening the screws on Qatar by closing a partially Abu Dhabi-owned pipeline from Qatar that supplies Dubai with up to 40 percent of its natural gas needs.

Bin Zayed’s obsession with Qatar and the Brotherhood is rooted in the fact that the Brotherhood-affiliated Jamiat Al-Islah party, founded in the Emirates in 1974 by Emiratis who had met Brothers while studying in Egypt and Kuwait, was created after a decade in which Brothers operating from Qatar had agitated n the UAE.[l] Paving the way for the establishment of the party, Abdel Badie Sakkar, an early Muslim Brotherhood migrant to Qatar, travelled regularly to the Emirates where he established Al-Iman school in Dubai’s Rashidiya neighbourhood of Dubai that was staffed by Al-Sattar’s relatives and associates.[li]

Bin Zayed’s obsession with the Brotherhood, believed to have been fed by fierce opponents of the group like former Egyptian State Security chief, retired General Fuad Allam, a lecturer at Cairo’s Police Academy and the National Center for Criminal and Social Research and Riyadh’s Naif Arab University for Security Sciences, put an end to UAE founder Sheikh Zayed al-Nahyan’s willingness to indulge the group.

Bin Zayed’s concern was further fuelled by a declaration in 1994 by the International Organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood stating that “we believe in the existence of multiple political parties in Islamic society. Authorities should not inhibit the formation of political parties and groups as long as the Shari‘a is the supreme constitution … The recognition of multiple political parties entails the consent to a peaceful transfer of power between political groups and parties by means of periodic elections.”[lii]

The US embassy in Abu Dhabi reported in 2004 that “in a meeting with (US) Deputy Secretary (of State Richard) Armitage on April 20, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed noted that UAE security forces had identified ‘50 to 60’ Emirati Muslim Brothers in the Armed Forces, and that a senior Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer is within one of the ruling families - a reference, we believe, to Sharjah Ruler Sheikh Sultan Al Qassimi… whose ties to Saudi Arabia are well known.”[liii]

At its peak, Al-Islah enjoyed significant support among Emiratis as well as within the country’s armed forces.[liv] Al-Islah’s size and influence was ultimately limited by restrictions on political activity that forced the group to focus on social, cultural and educational activities. Al-Islah campaigned against Westernization and sought to imbue younger Emiratis with Islamic mores.

The restrictions were part of a collapsed deal negotiated in the late 1990s under which the party would have been allowed to remain active in exchange for ending its allegiance to the Brotherhood’s global leadership, a halt to its recruitment in the UAE’s armed forces and end to political activities.[lv] Bin Zayed estimated that in 2004 Al-Islah had a some 700 members.[lvi] Scores of Al-Islah members were put on trial in 2012 on charges of plotting to undermine the government in through recruitment in the military and the bureaucracy.[lvii]

Bin Zayed’s obsession despite the Brotherhood’s small numbers in the UAE itself has prompted the government to spend tens of billions of dollars on fighting the group. “By doing so, the UAE isn’t fighting a real threat, rather it is trying to suppress a popular trend,” said analyst Galip Dalay.[lviii]

Dalay’s assertion was countered by a Muslim Brother serving a 15-year jail sentence in the UAE who was trotted out for an interview with Abu Dhabi Television in which he asserted that Qatar had trained Brothers to use social media to mobilize protests. “Qatar believes that it is only a matter of time before it would bring people into the streets (of the UAE) as it did in other countries,” said Abdulrahman bin Subaih Khalifa Al Suwaidi, a former Al-Islah board member.[lix]

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

[i] Al Jazeera English, What's behind the demand to shut down Al Jazeera? 14 July 2017, [ii] David D. Kirkpatrick, Recordings Suggest Emirates and Egyptian Military Pushed Ousting of Morsi, The New York Times, 1 March 2015, [iii] James M. Dorsey, All the UAE’s men: Gulf crisis opens door to power shift in Palestine, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, 9 July 2017, [iv] Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, India-UAE ties: Abu Dhabi positions itself as the Sunni alternative, Hindustan Times, 28 January 2017, [v] Ibid. Dorsey [vi] Tulin Daloglu, Biden's Apology Hides the Truth, Al-Monitor, 7 October 2014, [vii] Hillary Clinton, Terrorist Finance: Action Request for Senior Level Engagement on Terrorism Finance, US Department of State, 30 December 2009, [viii] James M. Dorsey, Wahhabism vs. Wahhabism: Qatar Challenges Saudi Arabia, RSIS Working Paper No. 262, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, 6 September 2013, [ix] Interviews with the author, 2006-2017 [x] Allen J. Fromherz, Qatar Rise to Power and Influence, London: I. B. Tauris, 2017, p. 12 [xi] The Los Angeles Times, QATAR: Public outrage rises with demand for Saudi maids, 12 August 2009, [xii] David H. Warren, Qatari Support for the Muslim Brotherhood is More Than Just Realpolitik, it has a Long, Personal History, Maydan, 12 July 2017, [xiii] David B. Roberts, Qatar, the Ikhwan, and transnational relations in the Gulf, Project on Middle East Political Science, 9 March 2014, [xiv] The National, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt issue Qatar-linked terrorism list, 9 June 2017, [xv] Ibid. Warren [xvi] Abdullah Juma Kobaisi. 1979 ‘The Development of Education in Qatar, 1950-1977,’ Durham University, p. 122, [xvii] Ibid. Kobaisi, p. 123 [xviii] Birol Baskan and Steven Wright, Seeds of Change: Comparing State-Religion Relations in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Arab Studies Quarterly, Vol. 11:2, p. 96-112 [xix] Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen and Bettina Graf (Editors), Global Mufti: The Phenomenon of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012 [xx] Yahya Michot, 2011. ‘The fatwa of Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi against Gaddafi,’ 15 March, [xxi] Andrew Hammond, Qatar’s Leadership Transition: Like Father, Like Son, February 2014, European Council on Foreign Relations, [xxii] [xxiii] Ahmed Azem, Qatar's ties with the Muslim Brotherhood affect entire region, The National, 18 May 2012, [xxiv] [xxv] Raphael Israeli, From Arab Spring to Islamic Winter, London: Routledge, 2013, p. 161 [xxvi] Marwa Awad and Hugo Dixon, Reuters Special Report: Inside the Egyptian revolution, Reuters, 13 April 2011, [xxvii] Yaroslav Trofimov. October 24, 2002, Lifting the Veil: In a Quiet Revolt, Qatar Is Snubbing Neighboring Saudis, The Wall Street Journal, [xxviii] bid. Michot [xxix] Qaradawi backs Syrian revolution, The Peninsula, March 26, 2011, [xxx] Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, ‘Syria and the ‘Resistance’ Bloc: Buddies No More,’ May 22, 2011, American Thinker, [xxxi] The Economist, The ambitious United Arab Emirates, 6 April 2017, [xxxii] The New Arab, The UAE is 'employing' Blackwater to run its army, 8 July 2017, [xxxiii] US Embassy Abu Dhabi, Strong Words in Private from MBZ at IDEX -- Bashes Iran, Qatar, Russia, 25 February 2009, [xxxiv] Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “In the UAE, the United States has a Quiet, Potent Ally Nicknamed ‘Little Sparta’,” The Washington Post, 9 November 2014, [xxxv] Mission: Winds of Goodness, Our Partners who Helped and Supported the Project, 2011, [xxxvi] US Embassy Doha, Scenesetter for U.S. – Qatari Military Consultative Commission, Wikileaks, 7 January 2010, [xxxvii] Peter Kovessy, Qatar’s military build-up continues with $24bn in new arms deals,’ Doha News, 28 March 2014, [xxxviii] Ryan Browne, Amid diplomatic crisis Pentagon agrees $12 billion jet deal with Qatar, CNN, 15 June 2017, [xxxix] Ibid. US Embassy Doha [xl] US Embassy Doha. The Move toward an Interagency Synchronization Plan: The Results of Embassy Doha’s Third Field Assessment, 19 November 2009, [xli] The National, The 13 demands on Qatar from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt, 23 June 2017, [xlii] Ibid. US Embassy Abu Dhabi. Strong Words in Private from MBZ at IDEX [xliii] Ibid. US Embassy Abu Dhabi [xliv] Arab News, Naif says Muslim Brotherhood cause of most Arab problems, 28 November 2002, [xlv] Interviews with intelligence analysts, 2014-2016 [xlvi] Interviews with intelligence analysts, 2015-2016 [xlvii] Middle East Monitor, Saudi ‘has no problem with the Muslim Brotherhood,” 12 February 2015, [xlviii] James M. Dorsey, Gulf Alliances: Regional States Hedge Their Bets, RSIS Commentaries, 23 March 2015, [xlix] Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Transformations in UAE’s Foreign Policy, Al Sharq Forum, 14 June 2017, [l] Tarek Al Mubarak and Amr Al Turabi, Different Paths in the Gulf لامَسَر َل مُكهتَلِف َه فِِ َلا كهَلِِج)), As Sharq Al-Awsat, 11 June 2013 [li] Amr al-Turabi and Tarek al-Mubarak, Qatar’s Introspective Islamists, Asharq Al-Awsat, 18 June 2013, [lii] Najib Ghadbian, Democratization and the Islamist Challenge in the Arab World, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997, p.51 [liii] US Embassy Abu Dhabi, UAE Minimizing Influence of Islamic Extremists, 10 November 2004, [liv] Fanack Chronicle, UAE and the Muslim Brotherhood: A Story of Rivalry and Hatred, 16 July 2017, [lv] Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, Qatar's Brotherhood Ties Alienate Fellow Gulf States, Al-Monitor, 23 January 2013, [lvi] Ibid. US Embassy Abu Dhabi [lvii] The National, Brotherhood 'sought Islamist state in UAE,' 21 September 2012, [lviii] Galip Dalay, Arab monarchies and the illusion of stability, Al Sharq Forum, 10 July 2017, [lix] Arfad Al Janabi, Qatar plotted to destabilize the UAE, ex-Muslim Brotherhood member confesses, Al Arabiya,


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