In light of the present Saudi-Qatari tensions over Doha’s pronounced support of the Muslim Brotherhood, Kuwait’s Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah predictably called for “Arab unity” at last week’s Arab League summit. For Saudi Arabia, the Brotherhood presents a strategic threat to its model of governance because the group opposes the hereditary power structures of the Arab monarchies, including of the House of Saud. Also, between the Egyptian military’s struggle with the Brotherhood and Iran’s alleged attempts to encircle Saudi strategic interests by supporting Shia groups throughout the region, Riyadh found itself under siege, as it had not been able to successfully redefine its strategic partnership with Washington over converging policies on Syria and Iran. Within this context, Saudi Arabia’s strategic maneuverability was limited and therefore sought to influence events where it could, demanding that its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies comply with its foreign policy priorities, which explains the recent uncharacteristic decision to withdraw its ambassador from Qatar. Despite the unresolved Saudi-Qatari differences over whether the Brotherhood should be designated a “terrorist organization,” Doha has over the past year moved closer to Riyadh’s position on Syria by reducing its support for regional Islamist groups.
For Qatar, supporting regional Islamist groups had previously enabled it to carve out an independent foreign policy by moving it out of the shadow of its mighty neighbor. However, these groups’ failure to seize the opportunities the Arab Spring created has led Qatar to reconsider its approach. Also, last year the tides of the Syrian conflict began turning in favor of the Syrian government, as the rebels Qatar had supported could not sustain the progress they had achieved. Similarly, the Egyptian crisis provided another lesson for Qatar when the Muslim Brotherhood, which Qatar’s previous ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, had generously bankrolled, was removed from the presidency by the country’s military. These misadventures in Syria and Egypt appear to have taught Qatar’s new emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, an important lesson: for his country to keep some of its hard-won regional influence, strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia will be paramount, and Doha is left with little choice but to overcome its recent public spat with Riyadh. Given Qatar’s limited room to act, Sheikh Tamim will likely over time be forced to follow in Riyadh’s footsteps. Despite the present rift, the sheikh had already taken concrete steps in the past year to reduce his support for regional Islamist groups.
This shift can be partially explained by events in Syria and Sheikh Hamad’s failure to foresee the extent of Russian and Iranian support for the Syrian government. Sheikh Hamad found himself increasingly vulnerable as his wide-ranging support for the rebels failed to bring President Bashar al-Assad to his knees. This became particularly apparent after government troops, in close cooperation with Hezbollah fighters, successfully recaptured the strategically important town of Qusayr in June 2013. As Iran and Saudi Arabia doubled down their support for the competing entities in Syria, the emir was further outmaneuvered when Saudi-backed Ahmad Jarba became leader of the main opposition, defeating Qatar-backed candidates. Sheikh Tamim has had little choice but to walk back his father’s support for Islamist fighters. With the situation changing, Saudi Arabia would take the lead on Arab support for Syrian rebel groups, and Qatar would take a back seat. Sheikh Tamim has also had to backtrack from the initial Saudi-Qatari rivalry that left the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) divided. And fearing that Qatar’s support for Islamist rebels could lead to a U.S. and Saudi backlash, Qatar effectively adopted Riyadh’s position by calling for GCC unity on Syria. Sheikh Tamim has also had to pressure reluctant Islamist SNC members to attend last month’s peace talks in Geneva.
These trends, it should be noted, were well in place prior to the current Saudi-Qatari rift. From opposing negotiations with Assad altogether, Qatar dispatched its foreign minister, Khalid bin Mohammad al-Attiyah, to Geneva. Qatar’s space for supporting Sunni Islamists inside Syria has indeed shrunk with the resumption of U.S.-Iran talks, partially explaining its 180-degree turnaround in supporting the Geneva talks. Economic considerations may account for some of the thinking behind this shift: Qatar shares a gas field with Iran in the Persian Gulf, and may feel it needs Saudi protection to maintain access to this field in the event that global energy markets respond adversely to its rivalry with Iran in Syria. However, Qatar remains influential on the ground with extremist groups like Liwa al-Tawhid, which controls large areas and coordinates with the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. It is also doubtful that Qatar will cut off funding for Islamist groups that hold onto large swaths of territory, despite its rhetorical support for a reconciliation process.
Amid these developments, Qatar is facing another geopolitical defeat in Egypt. From the outset of the Egyptian revolution, the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera channel had provided favorable coverage of the Muslim Brotherhood and their quest for the presidency. Qatar became the only Gulf monarchy to bankroll the Muslim Brotherhood government, and since the events of July 2013, Qatar’s image has taken a big hit in Egypt because of this support. The arrest in December of nineteen Al-Jazeera journalists accused of having links to “terrorist organizations” shows the seriousness of the Egyptian-Qatari crisis. Although the Egyptian military has widely cracked down on media freedoms, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi not only sees Al-Jazeera as a Qatari foreign policy tool but also has clearly not forgotten its partisan coverage of the recent showdown between the military and the Brotherhood.
Qatar has also had to distance itself from other initiatives dear to its heart, including support for Hamas. In 2012, Sheikh Hamad became the first Arab leader to visit the Gaza strip, pledging $400 million in assistance to the Hamas government. Furthermore, Sheikh Hamad didn’t honor his initial pledge to pay Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas a follow-up visit to Ramallah, highlighting his support for one Palestinian faction over another. Given the GCC’s support for Abbas, Qatar has had to turn away from any support for Hamas that would further place them at odds with its GCC allies and with Saudi Arabia in particular. Since his father’s policies in Syria and Egypt had backfired, Sheikh Tamim has so far avoided a potential entanglement in Palestinian affairs.
These setbacks, coupled with the present Saudi-Qatari rift, have shown that Doha is unable to drive a regional diplomatic agenda. Qatar can no longer afford to antagonize Saudi Arabia, and Sheikh Tamim is left with little choice but to reach an understanding with Riyadh by coordinating future foreign policy priorities. Given these constraints, Qatar is likely to seek to influence a GCC consensus on regional strategy, a clear break from Sheikh Hamad’s demonstrated unilateral approach. Improving ties with Iran is also expected to be a priority for Sheikh Tamim, as stability in the Persian Gulf is a strategic necessity for Qatar.
Sigurd Neubauer is a Washington, DC-based Middle East analyst.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Ahmad Jarba did replaced interim leader George Sabra as leader of the main opposition, defeating Ghassan Hitto.