• Tom Leijnse

The Role of Islamism in the Qatar-Saudi Arabia Diplomatic Conflict

On 5 June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing the country of supporting terrorism. Additionally, they imposed an air, sea, and land blockade on Qatar, and gave Qatari citizens on their soil two weeks to return home. This diplomatic conflict followed reports by the state-run Qatar News Agency (QNA) on 23 May which alleged that Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the emir of Qatar, had made a speech at a military graduation ceremony earlier that day in which he reaffirmed Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas and criticised the United States. Despite Qatar’s denial of the authenticity of these reports and claim that the QNA website had been hacked, a regional diplomatic crisis ensued, which endures to this day. [1] There has been little progress toward a resolution, and Saudi Arabia has announced plans to dig a canal along its border with Qatar, turning the emirate into an island and symbolically restating its intention to isolate its neighbour internationally.


This diplomatic rift is not the first time Qatar and its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members are clashing. Saudi Arabia and its allies have long criticised Qatar’s relations with and support for Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, the political stances of its state-owned broadcaster Al Jazeera, and its close relations with Iran. In fact, tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and its allies (including the UAE and Bahrain) can be dated back to the late 1990s, when under Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani Qatar started to pursue an increasingly independent foreign policy, “transforming itself from Saudi appendage to rival.” [2] After Saudi Arabia’s withdrawal of its ambassador to Qatar between 2002 and 2008, and the 2014 Saudi-Qatari rift during which Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, the current diplomatic conflict can be considered the latest chapter in the ‘Second Arab Cold War’. [3] The Saudi bloc’s discourse around this most recent episode has primarily focused on Qatar’s “insistence on aligning itself with Islamists,” [4] whom it considers terrorists, and the conflict has been framed as battle between a pro-Islamist camp and an anti-Islamist side. However, this overstates the role of Islamism in the Qatar-Saudi Arabia diplomatic conflict. Saudi Arabia’s struggle against Islamism has little to do with ideology, but is driven by concerns about regime security and internal and regional stability. Similarly, it is questionable to what extent Qatar’s dealings with Islamist factions are ideologically motivated, and it is more compelling to view them in light of the emirate’s pragmatic and opportunistic foreign policy.


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which considers itself the leader of the (Sunni) Muslim world, and whose king officially bears the title of ‘Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’ (in Mecca and Medina), has been increasingly suspicious of Islamist movements in recent decades, regarding them as a threat to its leadership. While the kingdom historically viewed Islamist factions as allies in its fight against pan-Arabism and communism, and financially contributed to the rise and expansion of the Muslim Brotherhood, this changed when a number of Islamist factions backed the Iranian Revolution and criticised Saudi Arabia’s cooperation with the West during the Gulf War. The kingdom has since then actively cracked down on Islamist movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood and its Saudi offshoot Sahwa. [5]


The revolutionary wave that shook the Arab world between December 2010 and December 2012 and that has come to be known as the Arab Spring made the Saudis more suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood and affiliated groups than ever before. Various long-time autocrats were deposed across the Arab world, often being succeeded by Islamist governments. In Tunisia, long-time president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted and succeeded by a government led by the Islamist Ennahda Party, and in Egypt, the democratic elections that were called after the resignation of autocrat Hosni Mubarak saw the rise to power of Muslim Brotherhood-backed Mohammed Morsi. The revolutionary spirit of the Arab Spring did not leave the Gulf region unaffected: in Saudi Arabia, the Sahwa movement released a number of manifestos demanding political reform, and in Manama, the capital city of GCC member Bahrain, anti-government protestors clashed repeatedly with security forces. The conservative Gulf monarchies considered the region-wide revolutionary spirit as an existential threat to their regime security, understanding the risk of a domino effect, and launched an uncompromising counterrevolution against the Arab Spring. Although Islamism was by no means at the root of the Arab Spring, Islamists in several countries managed to exploit the unrest and fill the power vacuums that had emerged thanks to their high degree of organisation and opportunism, ‘hijacking,’ as some would say, the Arab Spring revolts. [6] For that reason, the Saudi-led counterrevolution was aimed primarily against Islamism, and Saudi Arabia formally declared the Muslim Brotherhood a ‘terrorist group’. [7]


Qatar, in contrast to its GCC neighbours, openly supported the Arab Spring revolts and the Islamist forces and governments that emerged. It funded Islamist groups fighting General Haftar in Libya and Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and supported Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda Party and Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-backed government in Egypt with tens of billions of dollars of investment, loans, and free liquified natural gas. Moreover, Qatari state-owned broadcaster Al Jazeera played a key role in covering the Arab Spring protests, providing a platform for revolutionaries, and even set up a 24-hour a day Cairo-based live news channel covering Morsi’s Egypt. [8]


Such relationships between Qatar and Islamist movements are not new: during the past decades, Qatar has developed “institutional ties, personal elite level relations, and basic modus operandi” [9] with a variety of Islamist actors across the region, including Hamas, the Taliban, the Houthis, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, Al Jazeera has been accused of promoting an Islamist agenda, favouring the Muslim Brotherhood, and providing a platform for controversial Islamists such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has been based in Doha since 1961 and was given his own programme on Al Jazeera. [10] However, while Qatar has consequently often been presented as a state with “an ‘Islamist’ agenda at the heart of its foreign policy,” [11] it is questionable whether Qatar can be considered an Islamist actor. Besides the fact that the Islamist establishment in Qatar itself is relatively insignificant and uninfluential, Qatar encourages western universities to establish campuses in Doha, thus allowing secular mixed education, and has not banned alcohol and pork products. [12] Most importantly, however, it is simply more plausible to explain Qatar’s interactions with Islamist parties from a political perspective, noting that the emirate has an interest in maintaining ties with well-organised, transnational networks to compensate for its small size.


Besides being situated at the heart of one of the most tense and economically important regions in the world, right between regional hegemons and rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, Qatar’s population of 2.6 million is one of the smallest in the Arab world. Moreover, roughly 88 percent of its already small population consists of foreign nationals, and the country’s lack of qualified and experienced personnel has led to overstretched ministries and a largely underdeveloped foreign policy network. [13] Despite these shortcomings, Qatar has sought to leverage its strategic geographic location and the volume of its hydrocarbon reserves. The emirate has signed defence pacts with the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, and the US besides maintains two military bases in Qatar, one of which, Al Udeid Air Base, is the largest American military base in the Middle East. Furthermore, despite its small size, Qatar possesses the world’s third-largest proven natural gas reserve, and thus has ample financial resources. These have been used to create a generous welfare and social security system, which appeases the population and ensures internal stability. [14]


The lack of domestic opposition and the strong sense of security from external threats that the presence of the Al Udeid Airbase provides have allowed Qatar to pursue an independent and ambitious foreign policy and translate its wealth into international influence. Besides military intervention in Libya and Syria, Qatar’s strategies to exert its influence in the region have focused around soft power: the emirate has attracted leading western universities and think-tanks to set up campuses in Doha, established numerous charitable and educational programmes, and even won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup. Moreover, Qatar has been an active mediator in regional and intra-national conflicts in the Middle East and parts of Africa, resulting in an image of a reliable peace broker. [15] Another powerful Qatari tool to cultivate soft power is Al Jazeera. The state-owned broadcaster was the Arab world’s first 24-hour news network and the first Arab alternative to global channels like CNN, and functions as a powerful medium for the Qatari state to promote its interests to regional and global audiences. [16]


Qatar’s dealings with Islamists should also be seen in the context of its bid for international influence, as the emirate has adopted a strategy of developing ‘Islamist soft power’. As a small state with big ambitions, it is in Qatar’s interest to establish informal networks with large, well-developed, influential transnational organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, “if a small country wants to make a bet and put its resources behind any one sociopolitical organization in the Arab world, there is practically speaking no better one to support. There is no competitor organization that has a century of history, can claim hundreds of thousands of members, and whose branches can be found throughout the Middle East.” [17]


Moreover, since it initially appeared that the Arab Spring might shape a new political system in the region, Qatar’s decision to throw in its lot with the revolutionary forces fitted in with its strategy to “identify emerging trends (and actors) and create a place for itself within those trends in order to maintain political currency.” [18] Because Qatar has for decades welcomed fleeing members of the Muslim Brotherhood, motivated by a need for educated and experienced personnel, it was easy to expand and deepen the already existing connections. Since Qatar – unlike Saudi Arabia – does not have a problematic history with Islamism, and there are no Islamist parties inside Qatar challenging the state’s sovereignty, there was no reason not to engage in such a practical partnership. [19] Interestingly, Qatar did not immediately express its support for the Arab Spring movements and initially called for stability rather than revolution in Egypt and Syria. However, as soon as it realised that the uprisings in those countries were likely to topple their regimes, Qatar changed its public stance, quickly adapting to the new rules of the political game. [20] This responsive change of stance demonstrates the Qatari regime’s pragmatic outlook, and supports the argument that Qatar’s foreign policy is shaped by pragmatism and opportunism rather than by ideology.


In light of Qatar’s pragmatic foreign policy, the emirate’s leadership may determine that the costs of its support for Islamist factions are starting to outweigh the benefits, and deem rapprochement with its GCC neighbours preferable. While the Qatari economy has so far managed to absorb the impacts of the blockade relatively well, low oil prices and the long-term consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic will reshape the geopolitical environment in the Gulf and demand greater regional cooperation.


At the time of writing, Tom Leijnse is an MA student at SOAS University of London, where he studies Near and Middle Eastern Studies and Intensive Arabic. His interests include the geopolitics of the Middle East and North Africa and Islamic history and thought.


[1] David B. Roberts, “A Dustup in the Gulf,” Foreign Affairs (13 June 2017), https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2017-06-13/dustup-gulf.


[2] Max Fisher, “How the Saudi-Qatar Rivalry, Now Combusting, Reshaped the Middle East,” The New York Times (13 June 2017).


[3] Fatima-Zohra Er-Rafia, “The Middle East at a Crossroads: The Eurasian Rising Powers Are Redrawing the Global Landscape,” Rising Powers in Global Governance (12 October 2017).


[4] Hassan Hassan, “Qatar's Troubles Are Rooted in Its Support for Islamists,” The National (The National, 30 May 2017).


[5] Stéphane Lacroix, “Saudi Arabia’s Muslim Brotherhood Predicament,” The Qatar Crisis (Project on Middle East Political Science, October 2017), 51-53; Stéphane Lacroix and George Holoch, Awakening Islam: the Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 37-38.


[6] John R. Bradley, After the Arab Spring: How Islamists Hijacked the Middle East Revolts (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).


[7] Sebastian Usher, “Saudi Arabia Declares Muslim Brotherhood 'Terrorist Group',” BBC News (BBC, 7 March 2014).


[8] David B. Roberts, “Reflecting on Qatar's ‘Islamist’ Soft Power,” The Geopolitics of Religious Soft Power (The Brookings Institution and Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs at Georgetown University, April 2019), 3.


[9] Ibid.


[10] Robert Mogielnicki, Kristin Smith Diwan, and Ali Alfoneh, “Why America Turned Off Al Jazeera,” Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, 19 February 2016).


[11] Roberts, “Reflecting on Qatar's ‘Islamist’ Soft Power,” 3.


[12] Ibid., 6.


[13] Ibid.


[14] Lina Khatib, “Qatar's Foreign Policy: The Limits of Pragmatism”, International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-) 89, no. 2 (2013): 421; Mehran Kamrava, Qatar: Small State, Big Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015).


[15] Mehran Kamrava, “Mediation and Qatari Foreign Policy”, Middle East Journal 65, no. 4 (2011): 539-556.


[16] Khalid S. Almezaini and Jean-Marc Rickli, Small Gulf States: Foreign and Security Policies before and after the Arab Spring (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), 3; Khatib, “Qatar's Foreign Policy”, 417-431.


[17] Roberts, “Reflecting on Qatar's ‘Islamist’ Soft Power,” 8.


[18] Khatib, “Qatar's Foreign Policy”, 420.


[19] Roberts, “Reflecting on Qatar's ‘Islamist’ Soft Power,” 7-8.


[20] Khatib, “Qatar's Foreign Policy”, 421-422.


Cover image from "No end in sight: The GCC-Qatar crisis," The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2017, https://www.eiu.com/public/topical_report.aspx?campaignid=GCCQATAR2017 (KYTan/Shutterstock).

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