Wahhabism vs. Wahhabism: Qatar Challenges Saudi Arabia (Part 1)
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Wahhabism vs. Wahhabism: Qatar Challenges Saudi Arabia
James M. Dorsey
S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies Singapore 06 September 2013
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Qatar, a tiny energy-rich state in terms of territory and population, has exploded on to the world map as a major rival to the region’s behemoth, Saudi Arabia. By projecting itself through an activist foreign policy, an acclaimed and at times controversial global broadcaster, an airline that has turned it into a transportation hub and a host of mega sporting events, Qatar has sought to develop the soft power needed to compensate for its inability to ensure its security, safety and defence militarily. In doing so, it has demonstrated that size no longer necessarily is the determining factor for a state’s ability to enhance its influence and power. Its challenge to Saudi Arabia is magnified by the fact that it alongside the kingdom is the world’s only state that adheres to Wahhabism, an austere interpretation in Islam. Qatari conservatism is however 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. Qatar’s alternative adaptation of Wahhabism coupled with its lack of an indigenous clergy and long-standing relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, the region’s only organised opposition force, complicate its relationship with Saudi Arabia and elevate it to a potentially serious threat.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg in Germany, and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. A version of this paper was presented at the Gulf Research Meeting in Cambridge, UK, in July 2013.
Wahhabism vs. Wahhabism: Qatar Challenges Saudi Arabia
As Saudi Arabia seeks to inoculate itself against the push for greater freedom, transparency and accountability sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, a major challenge to the kingdom’s puritan interpretation of Islam sits on its doorstep: Qatar, the only other country whose native population is Wahhabi and that adheres to the Wahhabi creed. It is a
challenge that is rooted in historical tensions that go back to Qatari efforts in the nineteenth century to carve out an identity of its own. It also stems from long-standing differences in religious interpretations that are traceable to Qatar’s geography, patterns of trade and history; and a partially deliberate failure to groom a class of popular Muslim legal scholars of its own. More recently, Qatar’s development of an activist foreign policy promoting Islamist-led political change in the Middle East and North Africa as well as a soft power strategy designed to reduce its dependence on a Saudi defence umbrella was prompted by a perception that it no longer can assume that the kingdom would be able to effectively protect it. Although long existent, the challenge has never been as stark as it is now, at a time of massive change in the region. The differences are being fought out in Syria and Arab nations who, have in recent years, toppled their autocratic leaders, Egypt being one of the first and foremost.
While the differences in social, foreign and security policies cannot be hidden, Qatar, which hosts the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia have nevertheless
moved in recent years from a cold war to a modicum of good neighbourly relations and cooperation with clearly defined albeit unspoken red lines to outright proxy confrontation. In the process, Qatar has emerged as living proof that Wahhabism, the puritan version of Islam developed by the eighteenth century preacher, Mohammed Abdul Wahhab, that dictates life in Saudi Arabia since its creation, can be somewhat forward and outward looking rather than repressive and restrictive. It is a testimony that is by definition subversive and is likely to serve much more than the case of freewheeling Dubai as an inspiration for conservative Saudi society that acknowledges its roots but in which various social groups are increasingly voicing their desire for change. The subversive nature of Qatar’s approach is symbolized by its long-standing, deep-seated ties to the Muslim Brotherhood that faces one of its most serious litmus tests at a time of the ascension of a new emir and a successful Saudi counter-revolutionary
campaign that helped topple the government of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013, and that same month, curtailed Qatari influence within the rebel movement opposed to embattled Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
Everything but a mirror image
A multi-domed, sand-coloured, architectural marvel, Doha’s newest and biggest mosque, symbolizes Qatar’s complex and volatile relationship with Saudi Arabia as well as its bold
soft power policy designed to propel it to the cutting edge of the twenty first century. It is not the mosque itself that has raised eyebrows but its naming after an eighteenth century warrior priest, Sheikh Mohammed Abdul Wahhab, the founder of Islam’s most puritan sect.
The naming of the mosque that overlooks the Qatar Sports Club in Doha’s Jubailat district was intended to pacify more traditional segments of Qatari society as well as Saudi Arabia, which sees the tiny Gulf state, the only other country whose native population is Wahhabi, as a troublesome and dangerous gadfly on its doorstep challenging its puritan interpretation of Islam as well as its counterrevolutionary strategy in the Middle East and North Africa. Qatar’s social revolution in the past two decades challenges Saudi efforts to maintain as much as possible of its status quo while impregnating itself against the push for greater freedom,
transparency and accountability sweeping the region. By naming the mosque after Abdul Wahhab, Qatar reaffirmed its adherence to the Wahhabi creed that goes back to nineteenth century Saudi support and the ultimate rise to dominance of the Al Thani clan, the country’s hereditary monarchs until today who account for an estimated twenty per cent of the population.
Yet, 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. Political scientists Birol Baskan and
Steven Wright argue that on a political level, Qatar has a secular character similar to Turkey and in sharp contrast to Saudi Arabia, which they attribute to Qatar’s lack of a class of Muslim legal scholars. The absence of 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 maneuverability.by ensuring that they did not have to give a clergy a say in political and social affairs. As a result, Qatar lacks the institutions that often hold the kingdom back. In contrast to Saudi Arabia, Qatari rulers do not derive their legitimacy from a clerical class. Qatar’s College of Sharia (Islamic Law) was established only in 1973 and the majority of its students remain women who become teachers or employees of the endowments ministry rather than clergymen. Similarly, Qatar does not have a religious force that polices public morality. Nor are any of its families known for producing religious scholars. Qatari religious schools are run by the ministry of education not as in the Saudi kingdom by the religious affairs authority. They are staffed by expatriates rather than Qataris and attended by less than one percent of the total student body and only ten per cent of those are Qatari nationals. Similarly, Qatari religious authority is not institutionally vested. Qatar has for example no Grand Mufti as does Saudi Arabia and various other Arab nations; it only created a ministry of Islamic Affairs and Endowments 22 years after achieving independence.
The lack of influential native religious scholars allowed Qatar to advance women in society, and enable them to drive and travel independently; permit non-Muslims to consume alcohol
and pork; sponsor Western arts like the Tribeca Film Festival; develop world-class art museums; host the Al Jazeera television network that revolutionized the region’s controlled
media landscape and has become one of the world’s foremost global broadcasters;, and prepare to accommodate Western soccer fans with un-Islamic practices during the 2022 World Cup. The absence of an indigenous clerical class risked enhancing the influence of Saudi and other foreign scholars, particularly among more conservative segments of Qatari society.
In doing so, Qatar projects to young Saudis and others a vision of a less restrictive and less choking conservative Wahhabi society that grants individuals irrespective of gender a greater
degree of control over their lives. Qatari women, in the mid-1990s, were like in Saudi Arabia: banned from driving, voting or holding government jobs. Today, they occupy prominent
positions in multiple sectors of society in what effectively amounted to a social revolution. It’s a picture that juxtaposes starkly with that of its only Wahhabi brother. In doing so, Qatar threw down a gauntlet for the kingdom’s interpretation of nominally shared religious and cultural beliefs. "I consider myself a good Wahhabi and can still be modern, understanding Islam in an open way. We take into account the changes in the world and do not have the closed-minded mentality as they do in Saudi Arabia,” Abdelhameed Al Ansari, the dean of Qatar University's College of Sharia, a leader of the paradigm shift, told The Wall Street Journal in 2002. Twenty years earlier Al Ansari was denounced as an "apostate" by Qatar's Saudi-trained chief religious judge for advocating women’s rights. "All those people who attacked me, most of them have died, and the rest keep quiet," Al Ansari said.
Qatar’s long-standing projection of an alternative is particularly sensitive at a time that Saudi Arabia is implicitly debating the very fundaments of the social and political arrangements that the Qataris call into question. The kingdom’s conservative ulema and Salafis worry that key members of the ruling family, including King Abdullah; his son, Prince Mutaib, who heads the National Guard; and Prince Turki al-Faisal, former head of intelligence and ambassador to the United States and Britain, are toying with the idea of a separation of state and religion in a state that was founded on a pact between the ruling Al-Sauds and the clergy and sees itself as the model of Islamic rule. The clergy voiced its concern in the spring of 2013 in a meeting with the king two days after Prince Mutaib declared that “religion (should) not enter into politics.” Prince Turki first hinted at possible separation 11 years ago when he cited verse 4:59 of the Quran: “O you who have believed, obey God and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you.” Prince Turki suggested that the verse referred exclusively to temporal authority rather than both religious and political authority. Responding to Prince Mutaib in a tweet, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al-Tarifi warned that “whoever says there is no relationship between religion and politics worships two gods, one in the heavens and one on earth.”
To be sure, Qatar’s greater liberalism hardly means freedoms as defined in Western societies. Qatar’s former emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who abdicated in June 2013 in favour of his son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Khalifa, silenced opposition to reforms. Sheikh Hamad, for example, arrested in 1998 the religious scholar, Abdulrahman al Nuaimi, who criticized his advancement of women rights. Al Nuaimi was released three years later on condition that he no longer would speak out publicly. Qatari poet Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, was sentenced in November 2011 to life in prison in what legal and human rights activists said was a “grossly unfair trial that flagrantly violates the right to free expression” on charges of “inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime.” His sentence was subsequently reduced to 15 years in prison. Al-Ajami’s crime appeared to be a poem that he wrote, as well as his earlier recitation of poems that included passages disparaging senior members of Qatar’s ruling family. The poem was entitled “Tunisian Jasmine”. It celebrated the overthrow of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. A draft media law approved by the Qatari cabinet would prohibit publishing or broadcasting information that would “throw relations between the state and the Arab and friendly states into confusion” or “abuse the regime or offend the ruling family or cause serious harm to the national or higher interests of the state.” Violators would face stiff financial penalties of up to one million Qatari riyals (US $275,000). In a rare public
criticism, Qatari journalists demanded in June 2013 greater freedoms and criticized the absence of a media law and press association.
Ring-fencing the Gulf
With the reforms and their implicit challenge to the kingdom notwithstanding, Qatar shares with Saudi Arabia a firm will to ring-fence the Gulf against the popular uprisings in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa. The two countries’ diverging world views have however manifested themselves in differing approaches towards the popular revolts and protests sweeping the region. While Saudi Arabia has adjusted to regional change on a reactive case-by-case basis by recently launching a successful counter-revolutionary effort in Egypt and trying to counter the Brotherhood’s influence among Syria rebels, Qatar has sought to embrace it head on as long as it is not at home or in its Gulf neighbourhood. For that reason, Qatar supported the dispatch to Bahrain in 2011 of a Saudi-led force to help quell a popular uprising in its own backyard.
The rift between Saudi Arabia and its major Gulf allies was evident in a commentary by Abd al-Rahman Al-Rashed, the general manager of Al Arabiya, the Saudi network established to counter Qatar’s Al Jazeera. Accusing Qatar, the only Gulf state critical of the Egyptian
military’s crackdown, of fuelling the flames of the Muslim Brotherhood campaign against the Egyptian military’s toppling of Morsi in the summer of 2013, Al-Rashed wrote: "We find it really hard to understand Qatar’s political logic in a country (Egypt) to which it is not linked at the level of regimes or ideologically or economically. Egyptians in Qatar moreover are only a minority. Qatar’s insistence that the moving force of the army and Egyptian political parties accept the Brotherhood’s demands is not only impossible but also has dangerous repercussions. Supporting the Brotherhood at this current phase increases (the Brotherhood’s) stubborn insistence to stick to its guns and creates an extremely dangerous situation. So why is Qatar doing it? We really don’t understand why! Historically and over a period of around 20 years, Qatar has always adopted stances that oppose the positions of its Gulf brothers, and all of Qatar’s opposing policies have ended up unsuccessful.” In scathing
remarks criticizing those opposed to the Egyptian military’s removal of Morsi, Saudi King Abdullah referred to Qatar without naming it: “Let it be known to those who interfered in Egypt’s internal affairs that they themselves are fanning the fire of sedition and are promoting the terrorism which they call for fighting, I hope they will come to their senses before it is too
late; for the Egypt of Islam, Arabism, and honourable history will not be altered by what some may say or what positions others may take.” the monarch said.
By maintaining support for the Brotherhood as it fought for its survival, Qatar aligned itself with the very Islamists in its own backyard who were challenging Gulf regimes and that the
Saudi-led bloc was seeking to suppress. In doing so, it also identified with Gulf Islamists who were exploiting their criticism of Gulf backing of the Egyptian coup to campaign for increased support for anti-Assad rebels in Syria.by comparing Egyptian military leader General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to Assad. The often blunt criticism by Gulf Islamists speaking from the pulpit in mosques and on Twitter resonated with the public, as tweets and videos of sermons went viral. Qatar’s positioning implicitly recognized attempts by Saudi Arabia to co-opt Islamist forces like the Sahwa, a powerful Islamist network nurtured by members of the Brotherhood that had supported the government in the early days of the Arab popular revolts, was failing. The widening rift between the Islamists and the ruling Al-Saud family was further highlighted
by the death of Mohamed Al Hadlaq, a nephew of the kingdom’s terrorist rehabilitation program who died in Syria fighting as part of a jihadist rebel group.
The Brotherhood, the only organized opposition force in the kingdom, albeit clandestinely, stands at the core of differences between Qatar and Saudi Arabia over Syria even though they coordinated to become the first Arab states to withdraw their ambassadors from Damascus in 2011. Their divergence over the Brotherhood posed however a dilemma for the kingdom which gravitated towards more secular as well as Salafi rebels in its bid to topple Assad’s secular Alawite (read Shiite and heretic in Saudi eyes) regime; weaken Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah; and thwart a power grab by the Syrian Brotherhood. Support of Salafi
forces risked a repeat the fallout of Saudi aid to Afghan mujahedeen fighting the Soviets in the 1980s who once intoxicated by their defeat of a superpower turned against the kingdom and its allies. In contrast to the kingdom, Qatar has proven more willing to risk engagement with jihadi groups on the grounds that its priority was to see the Assad regime overthrown
sooner than later and that their exclusion would only aggravate Syria’s grief. “I am very much against excluding anyone at this stage, or bracketing them as terrorists, or bracketing them as al-Qaeda. What we are doing is only creating a sleeping monster, and this is wrong. We should bring them all together, we should treat them all equally, and we should work on them to change their ideology, i.e. put more effort altogether to change their thinking. If we exclude anything from the Syrian elements today, we are only doing worse to Syria. Then we are opening the door again for intervention to chase the monster,” Qatari Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah told an international security conference in Manama in late December 2012. The official played down the jihadi character of some of the Syrian rebel groups. “They are only close to God now because what they are seeing from blood – and I am saying this for all of Syria. Muslims, Christians, Jews – whenever they have a crisis, they come close to God. This is the nature of man. If we see that someone is calling Allahu Akbar (God is great), the other soldier from the regime is also calling Allahu Akbar when he faces him. This is not a sign of extremism or terrorism,” Al-Attiyah said.
The fundamentally different strategies of self-preservation of Qatar and the Gulf states are rooted in a Qatari perception that the role of the Saudi clergy in policymaking has resulted in
Saudi Arabia failing in its ambition to provide the region with vision and effective leadership that would have allowed it to perhaps pre-empt the wave of change and resolve problems on its own. That perception has reinforced Qatar’s raison d’etre: a state that maintains its distinction and tribal independence from the region’s behemoth, Saudi Arabia, with whom it is entangled in regional shadow boxing match.
While the ruling families of both have sought to buffer themselves against protests by boosting social spending, Saudi Arabia has opted for maintenance of the status quo
wherever possible and limited engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere, overshadowed by its deep-seated distrust of the group. Saudi Arabia’s attitude
towards the Brotherhood is informed by a fear that Islamic government in other nations could threaten its political and religious claim to leadership of the Muslim world based on the fact that it is home to Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest cities, its puritan interpretation of Islamic dogma, and its self-image as a nation ruled on the basis of Islamic law with the Quran as its constitution. The threat posed by the Brotherhood and Qatari promotion of political activism is reinforced by the fact that concepts of violent jihad have largely been replaced by Islamist civic action across the Middle East and North Africa in demand of civil, human and political rights. That hits close to home. Saudi efforts to co-opt the Sahwa movement in the kingdom whose positions are akin to those of the Brotherhood have only succeeded partially. Sahwa leader Salman al-Odeh warned the government in an open letter in March 2013 against ignoring widespread public discontent.
By contrast, Qatar’s pragmatic relationship to Wahhabism eased the early forging of a close relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar’s ties to the Brotherhood may be less
motivated by ideology than by a determination to distinguish itself from the kingdom and back what at times appeared to be a winning horse. Ironically, Qatar is joined by Bahrain, one of, if
not the Gulf state closest to Saudi Arabia, in bucking the region’s trend and maintaining close ties to the Brotherhood. The Bahraini Brotherhood’s political arm, the Al-Minbar Islamic Society, has been allowed to operate openly. The group, which has largely supported the government, is widely believed to be funded by the island’s minority Sunni Muslim ruling family and Islamic finance sector in a bid to counter political forces
that represent its Shiite Muslim majority.
Qatar’s relationship with the Brotherhood was moreover facilitated by the fact that key figures from the group like Egyptian-born Yusuf Al Qaradawi, a major influence in a country with no real clergy of its own, Libyan imam Ali Al Salabi, fellow Egyptian Sheikh Ahmed Assal and Sheikh Abdel Moez Abdul Sattar have had a base in exile in Doha for decades. Qaradawi, who has been resident in Doha since the 1970s, wields intellectual and theological influence within the Brotherhood but insists that he is not a member. "Saudi Arabia has Mecca and Medina. We have Qaradawi -- and all his daughters drive cars and work,” said former Qatari justice minister and prominent lawyer Najeeb al Nauimi.
Qaradawi, a controversial figure in the West, is widely credited for Qatar’s early backing of opponents to Syrian president Assad. He noted in the early days of the Syrian uprising that historic links between Egypt and Syria put Syria in protesters’ firing line. Qaradawi was immediately accused by Syrian officials of fostering sectarianism. The Qatari support ended the close ties Hamad had forged in the first decade of the twenty first century as a result of his strained relations with the Saudis with Assad, a leader of the more radical bloc in the Arab world.
Qaradawi took his advocacy of resistance to Assad a significant step further by effectively endorsing the sectarian Sunni-Shia Muslim divide in a speech in late May 2013 before the ascension of Tamim, who under his father was Qatar’s main interlocutor with the kingdom. By doing so, Qaradawi hinted at a possible change in Qatari policy once Tamim took over the reins. In line with Saudi encouragement of the divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims, Qaradawi urged Muslims with military training to join the anti-Bashar al-Assad struggle in Syria. His condemnation of Lebanese Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah (Party of God) as
the “party of Satan” was immediately endorsed by Saudi grand mufti Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, as was his assertion that al-Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, was "more infidel than
Christians and Jews." In a surprising gesture to Saudi Arabia, Qaradawi went on to say that "I defended the so-called (Hezbollah leader Hassan) Nasrallah and his party, the party of tyranny... in front of clerics in Saudi Arabia. It seems that the clerics of Saudi Arabia were more mature than me."
Promoting Islamist activism
Ironically, the setting up of Qatar’s state-owned Al Jazeera television network which handles Gulf states with velvet gloves, parallels the structuring of the Gulf state’s ties to the Brotherhood: the group, which dismantled its operations in Qatar in the late 1990s, was allowed to operate everywhere except for in Qatar itself. Instead of allowing a Qatari branch
of the Brotherhood, Qatar moved to fund 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 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.’ Al Nahda cooperates closely with the London
and Doha-based Academy of Change (AOC) that focuses on the study of “social, cultural, and political transformations especially in the Arabic and Islamic region.” AOC appears 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. The Brotherhood campaigned for AOC founder Hisham Morsy’s release after he was detained during the popular revolt in 2011 that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The threat to Saudi Arabia posed by Qatar’s fostering of popular protest was compounded by the nature of the social contract in the kingdom and other energy-rich rentier Gulf states. The state’s generous cradle-to-grave welfare and social and no taxation policy approach in exchange for the surrender of political rights meant that the Brotherhood challenged ruling families on issues that they were most vulnerable to: culture, ideology and civic society. The Qatari government’s support of Al Nahda and AOC was part of its effort, in contrast to other Gulf states, to control the world of national non-governmental organizations. In doing so, it targeted what, according to Hootan Shambayati, effectively amounts to the Gulf states’ Achilles Heel. “The rentier nature of the state limited the regime's ability to legitimize
itself through its economic performance… Consequently, culture and moral values became sources of conflict between the state and segments of the civil society,” Shambayati wrote.
The government’s support for activists paralleled Qatar’s earlier bypassing of Arab elites by initially appealing to the public across the region with its groundbreaking free-wheeling
reporting and debate on Al Jazeera that, at its peak, captivated an Arabic speaking audience of 60 million.
Sharpening the rivalry
Beyond historic differences in religious experience and practice, two more events sharpened the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar: the 1991 U.S.-led expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait and the rise to power in a 1995 bloodless coup of Sheikh Hamad. The U.S.-led invasion called into question Qatar’s alignment with Saudi Arabia since its independence in 1971, which involved Saudi’s guarantee to protect the tiny emirate. To the Qataris, the invasion demonstrated that Qatar could not rely, for its defence, on a country that was not capable of
defending itself. That realization coupled with Kuwait’s ability to rally the international community to its assistance reinforced Hamad’s belief that Qatar’s security was best enhanced by embedding and branding itself in the international community as a cutting-edge, moderate, knowledge-based nation.
The rift with the kingdom was further widened by Saudi outrage at a son revolting against his father that translated into efforts to undermine the new ruler, including attempts to unseat him, sabotage Qatar’s endeavours to export natural gas to other states in the region, and build a bridge linking it with the United Arab Emirates. By all accounts, Hamad’s voluntary abdication in favour of Tamim should have provoked similar ire from the Saudis in a region in which rulers hang on to power until death even if they at times have experienced a deterioration of health that has incapacitated them not only physically but also mentally. One reason it may not is the fact that Saudi officials appreciated Tamim’s more accommodating interaction with them and the fact that his ascension held out the hope of a down toning of the activist and adventurist nature of his father’s foreign policy.
Relations between the two countries had nonetheless already virtually ruptured before Hamad’s 1995 coup after border skirmishes in 1992 and 1994 rooted in long-standing
disputes over Saudi projections of itself as first among the region’s Bedouins. They further deteriorated as a result of several allegedly Saudi-backed coup attempts in the late 1990s. The attempts prompted Qatar to strip some 6,000 members of the Al-Gufran clan of their Qatari nationalities because they had patrolled the border on behalf of the Saudis.
The deteriorating relationship with its big brother made it even more imperative for Qatar to strike out on its own – the very thing Saudi Arabia thought to thwart. A struggle for a multi-billion dollar Qatari project to supply gas to Kuwait symbolized Saudi power. Asked in 2003
why the Kuwait project was stalled, then Qatar’s industry and energy minister Abdullah Bin Hamad Al-Attiyah said: "We have received no clearance from Saudi Arabia. Hence it is not feasible." It took a rollercoaster of repeated Saudi denials and approvals for the project to
be finally completed in 2008.
If the natural gas deal was emblematic of Qatari-Saudi relations, so was a London libel case in which the wife of the wife of the former and mother of the new emir, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, sued Saudi-owned Ash Sharq al Awsat newspaper for falsely reporting that her husband had secretly visited Israel. In her petition to the court, the Sheikha charged that the paper was "controlled by Saudi intelligence paymasters who used the newspaper as a mouthpiece for a propaganda campaign against Qatar and its leadership."
Saudi and Qatari national interests diverge further when it comes to Iran, with whom Qatar shares the world’s largest gas field. Saudi Arabia sees Iran as a major rival that is instigating
civil unrest in the region. It is also the spiritual home of theShiites, the sect most despised by Saudi Wahhabis. To navigate this minefield, Qatar has projected itself in the first decade of the twenty first century as the mediator of the wider region’s conflicts and prompted it to forge relationships with other Saudi nemeses such as Israel and Hezbollah.
Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, when he was still crown prince, refused to attend an Arab summit in 2000 because of the presence of an Israeli trade office in Doha. The appearance of Saudi dissidents on Al Jazeera two years later persuaded the kingdom to withdraw its ambassador to Qatar. In 2009, the two countries held rival Arab summits within a day of each other despite an improvement in relations in the two preceding years that included a deal allowing Al Jazeera to open a bureau in Riyadh provided it did not air dissident Saudi voices. Seemingly improved relations were highlighted when the emir amnestied several Qataris-turned Saudi nationals convicted of their alleged involvement in the 1996 Saudi-inspired
The improvement in relations was a reflection of Saudi leverage. That leverage was enhanced by Qatar’s own success in deploying soft power. The winning of the hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup meant, for example, that Qatar needed to project stability in its backyard. Saudi Arabia could undermine that perception. Support for the Syrian rebels had a similar potential downside. Qatari backing could backfire on its relations with Iran, driving Qatar in turn closer to the kingdom. While a majority of Qataris are likely to back improved relations, they also appeared to remain ambiguous. Qataris participating in a 2009 broadcast of the BBC’s Doha Debates overwhelmingly described their country’s relations with the kingdom as a ‘cold war.’ University students often glorify past Qatari tribal defence of Qatar’s only land border that separates it from Saudi Arabia.
Finally, while few have any doubt about Saudi Arabia’s policy goals – maintenance of the status quo to the greatest degree possible, retention of its leadership role, limiting of the
rise of Islamist forces, preservation of monarchial rule and restrictive political reform – Qatar’s actions have raised questions about what it is trying to achieve.
Politicians and analysts grappled, for example, to get a grip on how Qatar’s competition with Saudi Arabia for influence played out in Yemen, a strategic nation at the southern tip of the peninsular. Questions they were trying to wrap their heads around included Qatar’s ties to the powerful Islamist Brotherhood-related Al-Islah movement and its emergence as a mediator in Yemen. Qatar’s role, for example, in the release of a kidnapped Swiss teacher made it rather than Saudi Arabia, the go-to-address in a country in which kidnapping for political and criminal purposes are a fixture of life.
Qatar’s influence in Yemen was both remarkable and sensitive given long-standing Saudi bankrolling of the government of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh as well as the country’s major tribes, including the president’s own tribe, the Hashid tribal confederation. Qatar’s close ties to the Brotherhood as well as a history of mediation in Yemen dating back to the 1990s allowed it to make significant inroads into what the Saudis perceived as their preserve. By competing in Yemen, Qatar benefited from the fact that it was a tiny nation rather than the
egion’s giant and was not a supplier of jihadists to Yemen-based Al Qa’ida in the Arabian Gulf (AQAP). Qatar’s influence was sufficiently significant to prompt tribal leaders, including prominent businessmen and politician Hamid al-Ahmar, to balance their relations between the two Gulf rivals once they broke off with Saleh during the 2011 popular uprising against him and joined the opposition.
On the back of its relationship with the Brotherhood, Qatar forged ties to other key Yemeni players, including Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a Muslim Brother and powerful advisor to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Hadi succeeded Saleh in 2012 in a deal with the opposition mediated by Gulf states under Saudi leadership that was designed to preserve the core structure of the outgoing president’s regime. Qatar initially participated in the diplomatic
effort but later pulled out because of "indecision and delays in the signature of the proposed agreement" and "the intensity of clashes" in Yemen. In an interview with Russia today, Saleh had warned a month earlier that "the state of Qatar is funding chaos in Yemen and in Egypt and Syria and throughout the Arab world. We reserve the right not to sign (the Gulf-negotiated deal) if the representatives of Qatar are present" at the ceremony.
The divergence of Qatari and Saudi goals was also symbolized by Qatar’s ties to Nobel Prize winner and prominent Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karma, who emerged as the face of the popular revolt against Saleh. Gen. Al Ahmar’s first armored division, which joined the mass anti-Saleh protesters in early 2011, played a key role in the president’s ultimate demise after 30 years in office, when it attacked the presidential palace in 2012, killing several senior officials and severely wounding the embattled Yemeni leader and various of his key aids. Qatar’s relationship to Al Ahmar dates back to 2008/2009 when it was mediating an end to the armed confrontation with rebel Houthi tribesmen in the north. The general was the Saleh government’s negotiator. Qatar further garnered popularity among Saleh’s opponents by becoming the first Arab country in 2011 to call on the president to step down in response to the demand of protesters camped out on the capital Sana’a’s Change Square. In response, Saleh thundered in a speech: “We derive our legitimacy from the strength of our glorious Yemeni people, not from Qatar, whose initiative we reject.”
Qatar’s success in breaking the Saudi political monopoly in Yemen was evident to all in July 2013 when Hadi stopped in Doha on his way to Washington for an official visit. Hadi was
accompanied by General Al-Ahmar. Similarly, when Al Islah leader Muhammad al-Yadumi travelled to Doha in 2012 to thank the government for its support, he did not include Saudi
Arabia on his itinerary. It was a glaring omission given Saudi Arabia’s key role in brokering the agreement that eased Saleh out of office.
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