By Azfar Mohammad
The announcement on June 5,2017 by Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates & Bahrain to cut diplomatic ties with the State of Qatar sent shock waves across the general populace in the region. However- for someone who has closely followed developments in the region over the past few decades would find considerable evidence of developing fissures and divergence of interests between Qatar and other GCC countries over a multitude of issues.
If we rewind to 2011, the advent of Arab Spring brought about a series of regime changes in Tunisia, Egypt & Libya by popular dissent & revolutionary movements in which, use of social media played a very critical role in internationalising the movement. Within GCC, Saudi Arabia and UAE also feared the spread of revolution within its borders. In order to control such tendencies both the nations doled out multi-billion dollar social reform packages to tame discontent and frustrations amidst its population in poorer provinces. One nation that stood out in this entire saga was Qatar.Thanks to its low indigenous population (313,000 Qatari citizens) coupled with high gas export revenues from 1995 onwards, it remained relatively insulated from the turmoil which affected the rest of the region, as the Qatari government bought out its legitimacy to rule by doling out unparalleled social benefits to its local population and in turn keeping them passive. Qatar boasts of the highest per capita income in the world at USD 140,470/person compared to Saudi Arabia which is at USD 54,730/person ( approximately 3 times less) and UAE at USD 70,570 which is half as much as Qatar. This has emboldened Qatar to follow an independent foreign policy which is generally at odds with the rest of the GCC and “punch above its weight” in regional affairs.
What antagonises GCC countries the most is Qatar’s continuing patronage and support of Muslim Brotherhood by not only providing safe-haven to its members in Doha but also regularly funding Muslim Brotherhood affiliates such as Hamas. This deepening of relationship is not a recent post arab spring development which can be cut overnight. Instead, it runs deep within the social fabric of Qatari state and is pretty much institutionalised over last 60 years or so. The area of Qatari society that Muslim Brotherhood has been successful in penetrating gradually but steadily is the education sector and its bureaucracy
Muslim Brotherhood members started moving into the Arabian Peninsula during early 1950’s and 1960’s after being persecuted, suppressed and exiled during the reign of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. During this time, the education sector in Qatar was largely informal and not institutionalised. One of the first Muslim Brotherhood scholars who took up the major assignment in Qatar as Director of Education and later President of Qatar National Library was Abdul Badi Saqr who along with Sheikh Zuhair Al Shawish (another senior Muslim Brotherhood luminary) oversaw the expansion of Qatari schools and bureaucracy within the Education Department.During this period- most of the schools were staffed by teachers hired directly from Cairo and had a vital role in the direction of shaping Qatar’s education policy. In 1958, a respected Brotherhood scholar by the name of Ezzeddin Ibrahim was appointed as Assistant Director of Knowledge and was given the critical task of designing the school syllabus in Qatar which gave great influence and legitimacy to the Muslim Brotherhood ideology in the peninsular state. The octogenarian Yusuf Al Qaradawi, who is a prominent Muslim Brotherhood scholar and cleric continues to reside in Doha even today. He first moved to Doha is 1961 when he was one amongst the many school teachers then hired directly from Cairo by Abullah Bin Turki Al Subaiy (early Muslim Brotherhood member) who brought in a plethora of scholars from the famous Al Azhar University into Doha in early 1960. Yusuf Al Qaradawi comes from a relatively hard-line wing of the Muslim Brotherhood and is known for propagating strong views on the situations and conditions affecting the region. With this we can imagine how well ingrained the Muslim Brotherhood has become into the Qatari society.
The launch of Al Jazeera Channel in Nov 1996 with the subsequent rise in gas export revenue provided Qatar considerable opportunity for soft power projection in the region and punch above its weight in regional politics. This channel has been part-funded by the Qatari ruling family since its inception. Most of the staff who were hired by Al Jazeera Channel were previously associated with BBC Arabia (which was owned by King Fahd’s cousin,Prince Khalid Ibn Abdullah) which was pulled off air for news coverage critical of Saudi Arabian government. Specially during the Arab Spring, Al Jazeera Channel played a prominent role in supporting the rise of revolutionary forces (read islamists) in Egypt , Tunisia & Libya which led to the toppling of long held dictatorships in these countries. A show hosted by Yusuf Al Qaradawi called “Shariah and Life” on Al Jazeera propagates fundamental islam and has a viewership of over 700 million people worldwide. At times, Al Qaradawi is known to make controversial comments on issues of apostasy and homosexuality.
Qatar has pledged billions of dollars in aid to the post-revolution Tunisia in telecommunication, tourism,banking and hydrocarbons sector with a pledge to create 20,000 jobs for tunisians in Qatar.Rachid Ghannouchi of the Ennahda Party (an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood) in Tunisia which led the Arab Spring revolution is a frequent visitor to Doha and gets substantial airtime on the Qatari news channel. Ghannouchi’s son in law (Rafik Abdessalam), who was the Head of Research at Al Jazeera’s studies centre was later appointed as the Foreign Minister of Tunisia after the revolution hence playing a vital role in further strengthening ties between Qatar and Tunisia. Similarly , when Mohamed Morsi led Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt in 2012 Qatar wasted no time in pledging its support to the new government by declaring that it would provide Egypt with USD 2 billion immediately as aid. Apart from this , investors from Qatar also pledged to invest USD 10 billion in egyptian infrastructure projects. This could be only partially fulfilled since less than a year into power the Muslim brotherhood government was overturned by an Egyptian Army led counter-coup.
Turkey is another major country with which Qatar has deepened its ties, especially since the Islamist party (Justice and Development Party aka AKP) came to power. Although diplomatic relations between Qatar and Turkey have been in place since early 1970s , they received a boost especially since Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power. From a bi-lateral trade of less than USD 38 million in 2000 it has moved unto USD 750 million by 2014 which is a 20 fold increase. The two nations have converging interests, especially in the unfolding Syrian Civil War and the Egyptian Crisis and are supporting the same forces in these nations.Turkey is in the process of establishing a military base in Qatar (which is the first ever for Turkey in the Persian Gulf). An agreement in this regard was signed in 2014 and ratified by Turkish parliament in 2015. Around 3000 turkish troops are likely to be stationed at the Qatari base. Apart from this discussions are under-way to construct a gas pipeline between Qatar and Turkey in order to meet Turkey’s growing gas needs.
The most delicate and rather volatile triangular relationship in the region has been between Saudi Arabia,Qatar & Iran. Two behemoths of the region i.e Saudi Arabia and Iran have been ideological rivals vying for the crown of the regional hegemon since a long time and the tussle continues to this day. Qatar being the tinier of the three players and considering the fact that it is sandwiched between the two larger countries geographically, has tried to walk a thin-rope by keeping cordial terms with Iran while remaining committed to the GCC union. Saudi Arabia has dominated the GCC since its creation whereas Qatar has played a much smaller role. However, with the gas export windfall since late 1990s Qatar has become more independent and has tried to come out of the shadow of Saudi Arabia. This has not gone down too well with Saudi Arabia and there have been a series of incidents which point towards the growing friction between the two sides. At the same time Qatar (Sunni) has kept cordial relations with Iran (Shia) although has been less vocal about the same in order to avoid antagonising the fellow GCC nations. However off late the differences are more palpable than they ever were in the past. Qatar and Iran have many converging regional interests. Both the countries support rise of “Political Islam” in the region whether it be Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennahda in Tunisia or the brotherhood faction in Libya.The reason Qatar supports political islam so boldly is because it does not fear such forces to overthrow the monarchy in Qatar due to a very small Qatari population who are relatively well off and have no interest in disturbing the status quo. However other GCC countries have different and less favourable demographics which can create conditions for destabilizing the regimes.Iran and Qatar share the largest gas field in the world (North Dome Gas Condensate Field) which covers approximately 97000 square km and both nations would want to keep cordial relations in order to get maximum benefit out of this natural resource in their respective zones.Iran is capitalising on the recent fallout between Qatar and other GCC countries by supplying Qatar with more than 100 tonnes of fruits and vegetables daily and other goods of necessity through air cargo as other GCC states stop shipment of food and other FMCG cargo into Doha. Hence-Iran is using this opportunity to embrace Qatar more closely while the GCC union goes through this crisis.
Last few years have brought about monumental changes in the region. A lot of post-colonial regimes which had ruled for decades in places like Egypt,Tunisia,Libya have collapsed with the leader being deposed and unable to pass the reins within the family. A new generation is taking over it remains to be seen which direction the region is likely to head in. Since the onset of recession, oil prices have collapsed, unemployment has shot up and discontent among the public is on the rise. GCC nations which have enjoyed oil windfall for decades and used this sovereign wealth to buy influence in the region and world centres of power would cease to be as influential as they were before going forward, considering rising budget deficits and dependence on overseas borrowing to meet local commitments. There is no doubt that the changes we would witness in the region in next 5 years would be much more profound than what we would have seen in last 50 years or so but it would be difficult to say which direction the wind would blow in. Amidst all of this, Qatar will have to put its complete diplomatic capital into use in order to refrain from antagonising any of the major regional powers but at the same time get its share of respect which it feels the region and world owes to it.