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Wahhabism vs. Wahhabism: Qatar Challenges Saudi Arabia (Part 2)

Turning the page?

When Tamim took over the reins of power in June 2013, he inherited a state that his father ensured was tightly controlled by his wing of the Al Thanis. Hamad created institutions and

government offices that were populated by loyalists as well as his offspring and bore the characteristics of autocracy: centralized and personalized decision-making, reliance on

patronage networks and an absence of transparency and accountability.[1]

Few Qataris question the achievements of Hamad. With those accomplishments notwithstanding, conservative segments of Qatari society, with whom Sheikh Tamim at times appeared to empathize, have questioned some of the side effects of the former emir’s policies, including:

(i) Huge expenditure on a bold foreign policy that put Qatar at the forefront of regional demands for greater freedom and change but also earned it significant criticism and embarrassment;

(ii) Unfulfilled promises of change at home that would give Qataris a greater say in their country’s affairs;

(iii) A stark increase in foreign labor to complete ambitious infrastructure projects, many of which are World Cup-related, that have exposed Qatar for the first time to real external pressure for social change;

(iv) More liberal catering to Western expatriates by allowing the controlled sale of alcohol and pork;

(v) Potential tacit concessions Qatar may have to make to non-Muslim soccer fans during the World Cup, including expanded areas where consumption of alcohol will be allowed, public rowdiness and dress codes largely unseen in the Gulf state, and the presence of gays.

A discussion in Qatar about possibly transferring ownership of soccer clubs from prominent Qataris, including members of the ruling family, to publicly held companies because of lack of

Qatari interest in “the sheikh’s club” illustrates a degree of sensitivity to popular criticism. Tamim has however enhanced his popularity by his close relationship to Qatari tribes, his upholding of Islamic morals, exemplified by the fact that alcohol is not served in luxury hotels that he owns, and his accessibility similar to that of Saudi King Abdullah. Tamim was also the driving force behind the replacement in 2012 of English by Arabic as the main language of instruction at Qatar University. He is further believed to have been empathetic to unprecedented on-line protest campaigns by Qatari activists against the state-owned

telecommunications company and Qatar Airways. Hamad appeared to anticipate a potentially different tone under Tamim by urging Qataris “to preserve our civilized traditional and cultural values.” If Hamad used initial promises of greater liberalization to garner support within his fractured tribe, one of the first to settle in Qatar in the eighteenth century, Tamim may well employ his conservatism to rally the wagons.

The Saudi counter-revolutionary campaign in Egypt and Syria, barely a month after Tamim’s ascension, constituted a serious foreign policy crisis for the new emir. The Saudi-backed coup

in Egypt was Saudi Arabia’s third successful counter-revolutionary strike in a matter of weeks against the wave of change in the Middle East and North Africa, and its most important defeat of Qatari support of popular revolts and the Brotherhood. As the anti-Morsi protests erupted in Egypt, Qatari-backed Syrian National Council (SNC) Prime Minister-in-exile Ghassan Hitto resigned under Saudi pressure, and Saudi-backed Ahmed Assi Al-Jerba defeated his Qatar-supported rival, Adib Shishakly, in SNC presidential elections. Earlier, Saudi Arabia succeeded in restricting Qatari support for the Brotherhood within the SNC and the Free Syrian Army as

well as for more radical Islamists by agreeing with the Obama administration that it would be allowed to supply non-US surface-to-air missiles to Syrian rebels as long as distribution is handled by the rebel Supreme Military Council to ensure that weapons did not flow to jihadist

forces. Qatar is likely to have little choice but to follow suit. The Saudi success followed its support in crushing a popular uprising in 2011 in Bahrain, massive financial assistance to less wealthy fellow monarchs in Oman, Jordan, and Morocco, and its effort to dominate transition in Yemen after the fall of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The stakes for Saudi Arabia and Qatar in Egypt were high. A successful Brotherhood-led democratic transition would have cemented the success of popular uprisings and alongside Turkey the role of Islamists in implementing change. It would have also restored Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation, to its traditional leadership role in the region in competition with Saudi Arabia. Thwarting the revolt and the Brotherhood would not only eliminate these threats but constitute a substantial bodily blow to Qatari encouragement of change in the Middle East and North Africa.

The Saudi’s moves left Qatar with little choice but to congratulate the Egyptian military on its intervention, asserting that it accepted the will of the Egyptian people. But unlike Saudi Arabia and the fiercely anti-Islamist United Arab Emirates, who remained silent after the killing, days after the coup of 54 Morsi supporters by Egyptian security, and granted Egypt a day later $8 billion in grants and loans, Qatar in a bid to retain its independent position expressed regret at the incident but urged self-restraint and dialogue. At about the same time, Qaradawi, who runs one of Al Jazeera’s most popular shows, “Ash-Shariah wal-Hayat” (Sharia and Life),[2] called on the network and in a fatwa issued in Doha for Morsi’s reinstatement. Qaradawi declared the coup unconstitutional and in violation of Islamic law.[3] Ironically, Qaradawi’s own son, Abdelrahman Al-Qaradawi, took his own father to task on his support for Morsi. Abdelrahman noted that Qaradawi had long argued that a ruler is bound by the opinion of a majority of those who swear loyalty to him. He argued further that the sheikh had taught him that freedom superseded Islamic law.[4]

Saudi countering of Qatari policy followed a gradual turning of the tide in countries where it had helped topple an autocratic leader. Yemeni President Saleh rejected Qatari participation in the Saudi-led Gulf effort to resolve the crisis in his country after Qatar became the first regional power to call for his resignation. Qatari funding of multiple armed Islamist groups in Libya sparked outrage after documents were discovered disclosing the extent of its support. Then oil and finance minister Ali Tarhouni made a thinly veiled reference to Qatar when he declared in October 2011 that “it’s time we publicly declare that anyone who wants to come to our house has to knock on our front door first.”[5] A month later, relations with Algeria turned sour after Hamad, according to Arab media, warned Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medleci to “stop defending Syria because your time will come, and perhaps you will need us.”[6] Hamad broke off a visit to Mauritania in January 2012 hours after arriving in the country after President Mohammad Ould Abdel Aziz rejected his demandthat he initiate democratic reform and a dialogue with Islamists.[7]

Qatari foreign policy setbacks are paralleled by Al Jazeera’s mounting problems resulting from perceptions that it is promoting the Brotherhood[8] and changes in the pan-Arab

television market. The network experienced a boom as the primary news source in the heyday of the Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, but

has since seen its viewership numbers decline with Arabs turning increasingly to a plethora of newly established local news broadcasters. Market research company Sigma Conseil reported that Al Jazeera’s market share in Tunisia had dropped from 10.7 per cent in 2011 to 4.8 per cent in 2012 and that the Qatari network was no longer among Egypt’s ten most watched channels. Tunisia’s 3C Institute of Marketing, Media and Opinion Studies said that Al Jazeera Sports was the only brand of the network that ranked in January among the country’s five most watched channels. Al Jazeera reporters are increasingly harassed as they seek to do their jobs in countries like Tunisia and Egypt. Protests that erupted after the 2013 assassination of prominent opposition leader Shukri Belaid charged that “Al Jazeera is a slave

of Qatar,” accusing it of biased reporting on the murder because of the Gulf state’s support for Ennahada, the country’s dominant Islamist grouping.[9] In July 2013, Egyptian colleagues expelled Al Jazeera Cairo bureau chief Abdel Fattah Fayed from a news conference in Cairo organized by the military and the police against whom the prosecutor general issued an arrest warrant on charges of threatening national security and public order by airing inflammatory news. Twenty-two journalists resigned from Al Jazeera’s Egyptian affiliate days earlier in protest against its alleged bias towards the Brotherhood.

The Qatari setbacks raise the question of whether the idiosyncratic Gulf state will be able to sustain its activist support of popular revolts and endorsement of political Islam in the Middle East and North Africa. They also call into question Qatar’s continued ability in opposition to Saudi Arabia to support change in the region as long as it does not occur in the conservative, oil-rich Gulf’s own backyard.

Sports, a double edged sword

Qatar’s emphasis on soft power contrasts starkly with Saudi Arabia fledgling attempts to follow suit by among other things staging cultural exhibitions. The emirate’s strategy like its

support for the Brotherhood and popular revolts in the region and its emphasis on country branding constitutes an integral part of its foreign and defense policy, designed to put Qatar

on the cutting edge of history and to ensure that the nation is embedded in the international community in a way that enhances the chances that foreign nations will come to its aid in a time of need. In doing so, it like the United Arab Emirates challenges, as Kristian Coates Ulrichsen noted, traditional academic wisdom on the limits on the ability of small states to project power and the assumption of an automatic link between size and power.[10]

Qatar’s soft power approach is based on the realization that no matter what quantity of sophisticated weaponry it purchases or number of foreigners the Gulf State drafts into its military force, it will not be able to defend itself, nor can it rely on Saudi Arabia. The approach also stems from uncertainty over how reliable the United States is as the guarantor of last resort of its security. That concern has been reinforced by the United States’ economic

problems, its reluctance to engage militarily post-Iraq and Afghanistan and its likely emergence by the end of this decade as the world’s largest oil exporter.

Soft power puts Qatar regularly at loggerheads with Saudi Arabia and raises concerns in the kingdom on how far Qatar may go. The hosting of the 2022 World Cup has already made it more vulnerable to criticism of restrictions on alcohol consumption, the banning of homosexuality, and working conditions of foreign labour. Qatar’s responses, particularly with regard to alcohol and foreign labour, threaten to sharpen differences with the kingdom and highlight the fact that it is lagging behind in addressing concerns about foreign workers’ conditions, which in turn, has made it more difficult for Saudi Arabia to recruit abroad.

Moreover, Qatar’s projection of itself as a global sports hub and the role of soccer fans in the popular revolts in North Africa has reverberated in the sports sector in the kingdom particularly with regard to fan power and women’s sports, reaffirming the role of sports in the development of the Middle East and North Africa since the late 19th century.[11]

Qatar and Jordan were driving forces in the launch of a campaign in 2012 by Middle Eastern soccer associations grouped in the West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) to put women’s soccer on par with men’s football in a region in which a woman’s right to play and pursue an athletic career remains controversial. Saudi Arabia was conspicuously absent at the launch. The campaign defined “an athletic woman” as “an empowered woman who further empowers

her community.” In a rebuttal of opposition to women’s soccer by the kingdom and some Islamists across the region, the campaign stressed that women’s soccer did not demean cultural and traditional values. Contradicting Saudi policy, the campaign endorsed the principle of a woman’s right to play soccer irrespective of culture, religion and race; a women’s right to opt for soccer as a career rather than only as a sport; and soccer’s ability to promote gender equality and level the playing field on and off the pitch.[12]

To be sure, Qatar has been slow in encouraging women’s sports, and like Saudi Arabia, was pressured in 2012 by the International Olympic Committee to, for the first time, field women at an international tournament during the London Olympics.

The WAFF campaign came on the back of a Human Rights Watch report[13] that accused Saudi Arabia of kowtowing to assertions by the country's powerful conservative Muslim clerics that female sports constitute "steps of the devil" that will encourage immorality and reduce women's chances of meeting the requirements for marriage. The charges in the report entitled “’Steps of the Devil’ came on the heels of Saudi Arabia backtracking on a plan to build its first stadium especially designed to allow women who are currently barred from attending soccer matches because of the kingdom’s strict public gender segregation to watch games. The planned stadium was supposed to open in 2014.[14]

Qatar’s endorsement of women’s sports has made Saudi Arabia the only Arab and virtually the only Muslim state that refuses to embrace the concept. Spanish consultants developing the kingdom’s first ever national sports plan were instructed to develop a program for men only.[15] Opposition to women's sports is reinforced by the fact that physical education classes are banned in state-run Saudi girl’s schools. Public sports facilities are exclusively for men and sports associations offer competitions and support for athletes in international competitions only to men.

Saudi opposition to women’s sports and participation in international tournaments was further challenged by a decision by the International Football Association Board (IFAB), backed by Qatar and other Middle Eastern soccer associations, to allow women to wear a hijab that

met safety and security standards in international matches. It also came as Saudi women, encouraged by the winds of change in the region, the advancement of women’s sports in Qatar and elsewhere and the support of liberal members of the royal family, were pushing the

envelope despite being slammed in Saudi media “for going against their natural role” and being “shameless” because they cause embarrassment to their families.[16]

Similarly, fan pressure forced the resignation of Prince Nawaf bin Feisal in 2012 as head of the Saudi Football Federation (SFF) in an unprecedented move that echoed the toppling of Arab

leaders in which militant soccer fans were front row players. Nawaf was replaced by a commoner, renowned former soccer player Ahmed Eid Alharbi, as the first freely chosen head of the SFF in a country that views free and fair polling as an alien Western concept.[17] Fan pressure erupted after Australia's defeat of the kingdom’s football team in a 2014 World Cup qualifier. Nawaf’s resignation broke a mold in a nation governed as an absolute monarchy and a region that sees control of soccer as a key tool in preventing the pitch from becoming a venue for anti-government protests, a distraction from widespread grievances, and a tool to

manipulate national emotions. It also marked the first time that a member of the ruling elite saw association with a national team's failure as a risk to be avoided rather than one best dealt with by firing the coach or in extreme cases like Saddam Hussein's Iraq or Moammar Qaddafi's Libya, brutally punishing players.

The Saudi royal family, like autocratic leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa, has associated itself with soccer, the only institution in pre-revolt countries that traditionally evokes the same deep-seated passion as religion. Nawaf’s resignation constituted the first time an autocratic regime sought to put the beautiful game at arm’s length while maintaining control. The ruling family nonetheless retained its grip on sports, with Nawaf staying on as head of the Saudi Olympic Committee and as the senior official responsible for youth welfare, on which the SFF depends alongside television broadcast rights for funding. Major soccer clubs moreover continue to be the playground of princes who at times micro manage matches by phoning mid-game their team's coaches with instructions on which players to replace.

“Words such as freedom of choice, equality, human rights, rational thinking, democracy and elections, are terms we came to view with high concern and suspicion. We treat them as alien

ideas that are trying to sneak within our society from the outside world. But last week, an amazing and irregular event took place, in one of our sporting landmarks. The members of the

General Assembly of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) have elected through popular voting, their first president,” wrote columnist Mohammed AlSaif in the Arab News.[18]

Alharbi, a former goalkeeper of Al Ahli SC, the soccer team of the Red Sea port of Jeddah, who is widely seen as a reformer and proponent of women’s soccer, narrowly won the election widely covered by Saudi media. “Saudis were witnessing for the very first time in their lives a government official being elected through what they used to consider as a western ballot system. People eagerly followed a televised presidential debate between the two candidates the previous day,” AlSaif wrote.


Qatar’s foreign policy and soft power strategy effectively puts it at loggerheads with Saudi Arabia. Whether the Saudi-Qatari rivalry will contribute to spark changes in the kingdom or reinforce monarchial autocracy in the region is likely to be as much decided in Qatar itself as by the political rivalry between the two elsewhere in the region. Saudi-backed Qatari conservatives have questioned the emir’s right to rule by decree, organized online boycotts of state-run companies, and led by the crown prince, forced Qatar University to replace English with Arabic as the main language of instruction.

Qatar’s embrace of the Brotherhood, positioning it at the cutting edge of change across the region in addition to its soft power diplomacy, offers opportunities for Saudi Arabia to counter what it perceives as a dangerous policy that the emirate has exploited in Egypt and Syria. Fault lines in Egypt have deepened with the toppling of President Morsi, weakened Qatar’s regional influence and made its Brotherhood allies in other Arab nations in the throes of change reluctant to assume sole government responsibility. Jordan’s Brotherhood-related Islamic Action Front (IAF) officially boycotted parliamentary elections in January 2013 because

of alleged gerrymandering. Privately, the IAF, with an eye on Egypt, is believed to have shied away from getting too big a share of the pie for their taste. Mounting opposition to the

Brotherhood’s ruling Tunisian affiliate, Ennahada, and the assassination in 2013 of two prominent opposition politician prompted the Islamists to negotiate their replacement by a

government of technocrats.[19]

Similarly, Qatar’s victory of the right to host the World Cup may have opened the Pandora’s Box of demographic change that could reverberate throughout the Gulf, a region populated by states whose nationals often constitute minorities in their own countries. Under increasing pressure from international trade unions which have the clout to make true on a threat to

boycott the 2022 World Cup, the status of foreign nationals could become a monkey wrench.

Resolution of the dispute with the unions raises the specter of foreigners gaining greater rights and having a greater stake in countries that have sought to protect national identity and the rights of local nationals by ensuring that foreigners do not sprout roots. That effort, so far, goes as far as soccer clubs opting for near empty stadiums because there are not enough locals to fill them rather than offering the population at large something that even remotely could give them a sense of belonging.

As a result, Qatar’s foreign, sports and culture policy seems forward looking despite Saudi-backed conservative opposition at home and at first glance appears to put the tiny Gulf state in a category of its own. Yet, the challenge it poses to Saudi Arabia is increasingly proving to be a challenge to itself.

[1] Ibid. Kamrava [2] [3] Yusuf al-Qaradawi, القرضاوي يفتي بوجوب تأييد الرئيس المصري المنتخب محمد مرسي, July 7, 2013, [4] Abdelrahman Al-Qaradawi, عبد الرحمن يوسف القرضاوى يكتب: عفوا أبى الحبيب ... مرسى لا شرعية ل, Al-Yawm Al-Sabi, July 7, 2013, [5] Sam Dagher. Charles Levinson and Margaret Coker, ‘Tiny Kingdom's Huge Role in Libya Draws Concern,’ The Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2011, [6] Hassan Masiky, ‘Qatar Chastises Algeria for defending Assad in Syria,’ Morocco News Board, November 15, 2011, [7] Al-Mokhtar Ould Mohammad, ‘Dispute Mars Emir of Qatar’s Mauritania Visit,’ Al Akhbar English, January 9, 2012, [8] Sultan Al Qassemi, ‘Al Jazeera's Awful Week,’ July 11, 2013, Foreign Policy,; The Economist, ‘Must Do Better,’ January 12, 2013, charges of threatening national security and public order by airing inflammatory news, ttp://; Alain Gresh, ‘Gulf cools towards Muslim Brothers,’ November 2102, Le Monde Diplomatique, [9] James M. Dorsey, ‘Al Jazeera targets Spain amid dropping viewer numbers in its heartland,’ April 4, 2013, [10][10] Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, ‘Small States with a Big Role: Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in the Wake of the Arab Spring, 2012, HH Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah Publication Series, Kuwait, October 2012 [11] Shaun Lopez, On Race, Sports and Identity: Picking Up the Ball in Middle East Studies, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 41, 2009, p. 359-361 [12] James M. Dorsey, January 14,2013, Middle East soccer associations campaign for women’s right to play, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, [13] Human Rights Watch. 2012. Steps of the Devil, Denial of Women’s and Girls’ Rights to Sport in Saudi Arabia, [14] Ibid. Dorsey [15] Author interviews with the consultants [16] James M. Dorsey. March 4, 2012. Muslim players win hijab battle in their struggle for women’s rights, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, [17] James M. Dorsey, December 26, 2012. Ground-breaking election of Saudi s occer chief masks Arab revolt fears, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, [18] Mohammed AlSaif. December 24, 2012. A healthy election, Arab News, [19] Bouazza Ben Bouazza, ‘Tunisia Compromise May Head off Gov't Crisis,’ 22 August 2013, AP/ABC News, ttp://

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