The simmering rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia has challenged each other for greater authority throughout the Middle East and North Africa as the Arabs awoke this by investing monetary funds in different ventures. Qatar, in support of the Muslim Brotherhood tries to make itself as the organizations’ primary monetary benefactor. While Saudi Arabia saw the Muslim brotherhood to be a threat to the House of Saudi’s religious authority within and beyond the Kingdom, and has generally supported rival political parties that have the opposition.
This last month’s occurrences in two countries suggest that the ups and downs in the heartbeat will shift towards one side, being biased towards Riyadh. Riyadh has always used the Brotherhood as a veto power in larger conflicts against nationalist and left-wing forces in the Islamic world. When Saudi Arabia and Nasser’s Egypt used their veto power in the Middle East, the Muslim Brotherhood was given Saudi support, as the movement that was used to undermine the socialism and leftist nationalism Nasser sought to spread across the Arab world. A Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mamoum Al Hodeiby, even became one of Prince Nayef’s advisers.
After Qatar began funding Muslim Brotherhood intellectual forums, Saudi’s feared the group’s growing influence on their doorstep. With respect to this, Mohammed Morsi’s fall last week constituted a geostrategic gain for Saudi Arabia. This week, Saudi Arabia announced it would provide Egypt with $5 billion in aid, in conjunction with the $4 billion granted by Kuwait and $3 billion from the United Arab Emirates. This action underscores how some GCC states share an anti-Muslim Brotherhood philosophy and desire to make gains in the Egyptian arena at Qatar and Turkey’s expense.
A month ago the Syrian Army regained control of Qusayr, along with its Hezbollah allies, after several weeks of fight. Syrian government forces have also encircled the rebels in the outskirts of Damascus, and the Syrian military appears on the verge of scoring a decisive victory in Homs. Another setback to Assad’s enemies was the decision recently made by the U.S. House of Representatives to suspend the transfer of arms that President Obama approved after the retaking of Qusayr. The verdict made this week by the Russian government of proof that the rebels were responsible for the use of Sarin gas attacks over the past several months gives additional doubt about whether President Obama’s proposed arms transfer to the rebels will occur as planned.
Assuming the Syrian government regains control over Homs, the fight to regain control of Aleppo will be the next important step for the Syrian military, but the Assad power control and Hezbollah will find this difficult given the strategic depth that Turkey provides the rebels. If the opposition fails to unite — which seems increasingly likely — Qatar and Saudi Arabia will need to admit that Assad’s prospects for remaining in power long-term will rise, and along with it, Iran’s influence.
The rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia pits two strategic U.S. allies against one another. Washington surely understands that the conflicts in Egypt and Syria extend beyond an Islamist/secular divide, as disputes among Sunni Islamists prove increasingly influential in shaping the course of events. The Obama administration will be forced to make difficult decisions if this rivalry continues to define Doha and Riyadh’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Egypt and Syria. Qatar hosts the United States Central Command and, despite ongoing difficulties, Doha is attempting to play a role in the pending peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban before NATO’s expected withdrawal from Afghanistan next year. At the same time, Saudi Arabia continues to have a central role in Washington’s grander strategy of containing Iran.
While the Syrian military and Hezbollah have achieved crucial gains in recent weeks, a prolonged hands going on in Syria should be expected, and Egypt’s future remains far from certain. As the region’s turmoil remains fluid it is difficult to forecast which direction the Qatari-Saudi rivalry will move, and how intra-GCC tension will influence the Syrian and Egyptian crises. For now, at least, Saudi Arabia is riding a wave that enables Riyadh to conduct a more assertive foreign policy. However, with Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq’s political landscape growing increasingly fragile as foreign powers continue to pour gasoline on Syria’s fire, the Saudis may soon also feel the heat.
Saudi Arabia and its other s have issued a threatening 13-point ultimatum to Qatar as the price for lifting a two-week trade and diplomatic embargo of the country, in a marked escalation of the Gulf’s worst diplomatic dispute in decades.
On Friday a White House spokesman told the Guardian: “The United States is still accessing the list and we are in communication with all parties. As we have said, we want to see the parties resolve this dispute and restore unity among our partners in the region, while ensuring all countries are stopping funding for terrorist groups.”
The State Department spokesperson also declined to take a position on the specific Saudi demands, focusing instead on the need for the involved parties to resolve the dispute themselves through dialogue.
“We understand the Kuwaitis, in their mediation capacity, have delivered a list of demands to the Qataris,” a spokesperson said. “We encourage all parties to exercise restraint to allow for productive, diplomatic discussions.”
The US has a major military base in Qatar and risks seeing Qatar forced into an alliance with Iran if its enforced isolation continues, an outcome that would be a major strategic blow to Washington as well as a further threat to the security of the region.
Qatar’s UN ambassador, Sheikha Alya Ahmed bin Saif al-Thani, said the allegations that her country supports terrorism are “sabotaging our relationship with the world, with the west, tarnishing our reputation in a way by using the terrorism card”.
She said: “The blockade they have imposed is illegal. They used the terrorism card as a way of attracting attention. But the main objectives are more about criticising our media, al-Jazeera, and our openness.”
Al-Thani added: “We are small, but we have integrity.” She said on US broadcaster CBS that she believed the Saudi positioning was softening, but not that of the UAE. She hopes for a resolution but fears a prolonged chill: “They continue to escalate even though both Kuwait and the United States are playing an important role. We are confident of the US position toward the blockade.”
Al-Jazeera has condemned the call for its closure as “nothing but an attempt to end freedom of expression in the region, and suppress the right to information”.