It is not unusual for a country like Saudi Arabia to try to play a leading role in the region’s politics, but for a tiny nation like Qatar – with a native population of no more than 200,000 people – it is remarkable.
Due mainly to its vast oil and gas wealth, the small Gulf peninsula is able to stand among the region’s central powers. Qatar has been successful in leveraging its economic fortune and al-Jazeera media empire to bolster its reputation as a regional superpower.
In the years prior to the Arab uprising, Qatar adhered to a pragmatic diplomacy, building strong relationships with sworn enemies like the US and Iran or Hamas and Israel. In a sense, Doha preceded Turkey in successfully implementing a “zero problems” foreign policy.
Today, however, Qatar has moved more boldly, taking sides in the upheavals sweeping the Arab world and unleashing al-Jazeera against its enemies. It has effectively placed itself in the eye of the storm.
After its media support of the revolutionaries, Doha is getting cozy with Egypt and Tunisia’s new Islamist rulers. In Libya, Qatar was at the forefront of Arab military and financial support for the NATO and Libyan rebel forces that unseated Muammar Gaddafi. In Syria, the emir is risking everything to bring down the Bashar al-Assad regime.
At the center of Qatar’s strategy is its historic ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, who have become the main beneficiaries of the Arab uprisings. Betting on the Brotherhood, however, has its risks – particularly among the other Gulf states, who view them as a greater threat than Iran.
The Brotherhood in Qatar
The presence of the Muslim Brotherhood from a number of Arab countries in Qatar dates back to the 1950s, when many of its members were forced into exile, in particular from Gamal Abdul-Nasser’s Egypt. In 1999, the Qatari branch of the Muslim Brotherhood dissolved itself, with it leader Jassem Sultan declaring in 2003 that the state was adequately fulfilling its religious obligations.
Similar attempts to reconcile the Brotherhood with the ruling family in the United Arab Emirates were not as successful. The UAE branch of the Brotherhood, called al-Islah, was allowed to operate as a charitable organization, but had to cease its political activities.
Over time, ties between Qatar and prominent Brotherhood members grew, most notably with Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi and a long list of Islamist journalists and activists who flooded the ranks of al-Jazeera, including its former general manager Wadah Khanfar (Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood) and Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafiq Abdul-Salam, who headed up the channel’s research center.
Qatar has wasted no time in coming to the support of the new Muslim Brotherhood regimes by filling their coffers. Contrary to other Gulf states, which reduced their investments in Egypt after Mubarak’s fall, Doha has promised to raise its share to $18 billion in the coming years.
Qatar’s lavish spending on the Islamists also succeeded in luring Palestinian Hamas away from Iran and Syria. In a recent trip to the Gaza Strip, the country’s emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani launched investments and initiated projects that amounted to a quarter of a billion dollars.
Qatar’s embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood is a source of discontent among its Gulf neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This is not the first time Doha has ruffled feathers in the area, as it was once on the best of terms – primarily for economic reasons – with Iran.
But the remaining Gulf monarchies are growing increasingly wary of the rise of the Brotherhood in the region. Some view the Brotherhood as a greater threat than Iran. The UAE’s recent arrest of dozens of Islah members for allegedly plotting to overthrow the regime is but one example.
Saudi media are becoming more open in their criticism of Qatar’s relationship with the Brotherhood and the UAE is in the process of launching a television station directed against them. Kuwait has yet to send even a symbolic amount of aid to buffet Egypt’s ailing economy.
This situation has made Qatar careful not to upset its Gulf neighbors, putting out any fires before they spread. When Qaradawi, for example, publicly criticized the UAE for deporting Syrians to Egypt in May 2012, al-Thani appeared in Abu Dhabi the next day for damage control.
Qatar’s policy in the Gulf appears to be an extension of its earlier pragmatic approach of allying itself with bitter enemies, reconciling between its Gulf partners and its patronage of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, in other parts of the Arab world, like Syria, it is playing a new and potentially dangerous game of staking all in favor of one side against the other.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.
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