Qatar pays the price for betting on the Brotherhood

Ahead of his heralded trip to Saudi Arabia last month, Mr Donald Trump and his aides portentously trailed plans to build an Arab Nato to counter Islamist extremism. In the event, the US President instead sold US$110 billion (S$152 billion) worth of arms to the Saudis, and called on Sunni Arab states to unite in isolating Shi'ite Iran. Only weeks later, Saudi Arabia and its allies have united all right: to isolate their tiny neighbour Qatar.

The Saudis, seconded vociferously by the United Arab Emirates, accuse the gas-rich emirate of seeking to destabilise the region. The row erupted last month, triggered by remarks attributed to Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, suggesting Iran was a force for regional stability, defending Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group, and speculating how long Mr Trump would last as President.

Qatari officials insist that the website of state-run Qatar News Agency was hacked. But hostilities hurried quickly past any interest in establishing whether this was true. The Saudis accused Qatar's Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, of holding a secret meeting in Baghdad with General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Al-Quds Force, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's spearhead in Arab territory, tantamount in their eyes to supping with the devil.

The Saudis and their allies were also enraged by huge payments to ransom hostages in Syria, which they say end up in the coffers of Al-Qaeda affiliates such as the former Nusra Front, as well as with Gen Soleimani's paymasters.

Now Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen have severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and are moving to break physical links by land, sea or air. Although not wholly without precedent, this is nonetheless extraordinary. Qatar is a member in good standing of the 36-year-old Gulf Cooperation Council(GCC). It hosts the biggest US air base in the region at Al-Udeid (though the US Navy's Fifth Fleet is headquartered in Bahrain). Qatar's sovereign wealth fund is a market-moving international investor, and the emirate is host for the 2022 World Cup.

True, in 2014, the GCC hawks - Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain - withdrew their ambassadors for nine months, in a vain bid to change Qatar's policies and test the young Sheikh Tamim, who had been emir for less than a year after his father's 2013 abdication. What is different now?

A banner bearing portraits of former emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani (right), and his son and current Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, at Souq Waqif in the Qatari capital Doha. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Saudi Arabia has long feuded with Qatar. The emirate's Al-Thani rulers, though adherents of the same Wahhabi version of Islam as the House of Saud, have tended to strike out on their own. Caught between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two great rivals for Gulf and regional hegemony, they have manoeuvred to diversify risk and dependency. Qatar, for instance, keeps lines open to both Iran and Israel. Doha gave Syrian President Bashar al-Assad an Airbus in 2008, a sweetener to resolve a crisis in Lebanon, but from 2011 backed an assortment of Sunni rebels fighting to overthrow him.

Indeed, Qatar's real crime, in the eyes of its Gulf neighbours and Egypt, is to have bet on the Muslim Brotherhood as a tide of rebellion ripped through the Arab world from 2011. The Brothers were briefly in power in Egypt after Hosni Mubarak's overthrow, only to be toppled by the army after a year. For the Saudis and UAE, they represent a rival brand of pan-Islam that threateningly ignores dynasty. That Al Jazeera, Qatar's pan-Arab broadcaster, regularly criticised them while tiptoeing around the Al-Thani just deepened their resentment. Now, there are no rhetorical holds barred.

Yet there is more than a bit of hypocrisy in this bid to make Qatar a pariah. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have both backed Salafi Islamist forces in Syria, for example, the main difference being that Iranian and Russian support for the Assad regime has driven a lot of Qatari-backed fighters into Al-Qaeda's ranks.

A more important difference is that, however irritating and irresponsible Qatar may have been in its freelancing, Saudi Arabia has done immeasurably more to fuel Islamist extremism by exporting its Wahhabi sectarianism to the region and the Muslim world. For all that Iran has exploited Western interventions and Arab divisions to strengthen its Shi'ite proxy forces in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, the world's present terror plague is Sunni and rooted in the exclusivist bigotry of Wahhabism.

Saudi Arabia and its friends were doubtless emboldened by President Trump's reckless incitement of a jihad against Iran to go after a dissident minnow within Sunni ranks. They should be careful about using Qatar as a lightning rod. The absolute monarchies of the Gulf are not like, say, the Hashemites in Jordan, where the late King Hussein could run through 56 prime ministers in 46 years, useful scapegoats for misfired policies. The Al-Thani are a dynasty as much as the House of Saud. They cannot be laid off without weakening dynastic legitimacy all around.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 08, 2017, with the headline 'Qatar pays the price for betting on the Brotherhood'. Subscribe