Arab awakening: Qatar’s controversial alliance with Arab Islamists

Tension with its Gulf neighbours began to rise from 2006 when Qatar and Al Jazeera stood with Lebanese Shi’ite group Hizbullah during its war with Israel, while western allied states clearly hoped to see the Iranian-backed militia wiped out.

Secular activists and politicians in Egypt and officials in Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - each for their own reasons - have watched with alarm as the Gulf state, Qatar, and its pan-Arab media arm Al Jazeera have promoted the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and allied Islamist groups such as Ennahda in Tunisia.

Islamists, critics charge, are determined to impose their control on the political scene and have acted in a cavalier majoritarian manner that has brought both countries into conflicts with leftist and other forces who oppose Islamist rule. The constant street fighting in Egypt has raised the possibility of a further descent into communal violence and economic ruin, though Qatar has given Egypt $1 billion in grants, deposited $4 billion in the central bank and hinted at investments of much more in value.

Meanwhile, those Gulf states fear that Brotherhood-inspired Islamists in their midst will, under orders from Cairo, increase their activism for parliamentary government and challenge the entrenched power systems in place.

Qatar has been troubling its Gulf Arab peers since 1995. The father of the current emir, Hamad bin Khalifa, had been reluctant to transform a sleepy backwater very much in the Saudi orbit into something more, but, with their eye on vast natural gas resources and emerging liquefication technology, his son and others in the family including foreign minister Hamad bin Jassim saw other possibilities. After a coup in that year, the new team embarked on a series of moves to set Qatar apart as an independent polity making itself important to as many regional and international players as possible and developing links with political groups in the Arab world that cut across regime lines. The United States was invited to establish the Udaid airbase, Israelis were allowed to open a trade liaison office, and various Arab and Muslim opposition figures were offered a sanctuary of sorts in Doha.

Tension with its Gulf neighbours began to rise from 2006 when Qatar and Al Jazeera stood with Lebanese Shi’ite group Hizbullah during its war with Israel, while western allied states such as Saudi Arabia, and Egypt at the time, clearly hoped to see the Iranian-backed militia wiped out. In 2011 Qatar even won the right to host the 2022 football World Cup, despite summer temperatures of 40 C, humidity over 70 percent, and a population of less than 300,000 Qatari nationals among a total 1.9 million people now living there – a population so small that Asian residents are paid to fill seats at its football stadiums.

But there was another strand to the Qatar story, one that is now alarming its Arab neighbours more than at any time since it all began 17 years ago: its promotion of Arab Islamist political parties linked to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Al Jazeera always had a strong contingent of Islamist-leaning broadcasters and journalists and it hosted from the beginning the Brotherhood-linked Egyptian cleric Yousef al-Qaradawi, a long-time Doha resident who had developed close ties with the ruling family. Come the uprisings of 2011, Qatar was in a position to take on the mantle of enabler of distant revolts and supporter of Islamist groups linked to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.  

Thus, relations between Qatar and other Gulf states are at their most tense in a while since the street violence erupted in November between pro- and anti-Brotherhood forces in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates’ arrest and trial of 94 Islamists on charges of forming a group aiming to overthrow the system of government. The “question of Qatar” has become a favourite parlour game. Influenced by this pervasive anti-Brotherhood atmosphere in their host countries, diplomats, analysts, policy makers and journalists in places like Dubai or Abu Dhabi feverishly debate the opaque decision-making processes in Qatar and wonder if Qatar as a state or perhaps the emir himself are going to pay some kind of price for the insolence of their dissonant tone in an era of febrile fear and loathing. The emir came by coup, he could leave by one too, commentators say in private.

Yet, if there’s a major policy rethink in the offing, truth be told there is little sign of it inside Qatar itself. At last week’s Arab summit in Doha, the emir and his foreign minister strutted triumphantly, commanding more attention at the annual gathering of Arab leaders than in a long time. The emir had before him leaders of countries Qatar has helped ‘coach’ in one way or another through the Arab Spring – Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya, and Morocco and Yemen where it has subtle ties to Islamist parties now with a place in government.

Qatar provided the critical political and financial muscle for operations that brought down Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi – formerly a close friend of the emir – and which Qatar still hopes will bring down Syrian president Bashar al-Assad – another close friend. Just days before, Qatar had done it again – sidelining the head of the Syrian National Coalition Moaz al-Khatib, who had been in favour of negotiations with the Assad regime, by coordinating with the Syrian Brotherhood to have a US-based Brotherhood figure Ghassan Hito appointed head of an interim Syrian government-in-exile.

Egypt’s Islamist president Mohammed Morsi, a veteran Brotherhood figure, sat opposite the emir with something of a smirk on this face before dozing off to sleep: for his critics, nothing could better symbolize his delivery of Egypt to a new Gulf patron.

At a post-summit press conference, Hamad bin Jassim, Qatar’s foreign minister since 1992, took a possibly planted question from an Egyptian journalist about Qatar’s penchant for the Brotherhood. He picked up on the most ridiculous of the rumours in the fevered environment of Egypt, that Qatar would ‘buy’ the Pyramids or ‘rent’ the Suez Canal, in order to easily knock them down, arguing that Qatar's help for post-uprising Egypt began during the rule of the military before the Brotherhood won elections. “There are people who want to spread these rumours, like buying the Pyramids or renting the Suez Canal. Egypt’s affairs are Egypt’s and nothing to do with us. Qatar deals with governments not individuals,” he said, in confident tones. “Qatar didn’t call for these revolutions but they started because of circumstances there, authoritarianism, and the desire for leaders to pass on their rule (to their sons). Qatar has given support to Arab Spring countries without consideration of who rules them.”

Doha remains for now a mini Ikhwanistan, an oasis of Islamism where suppressed debates elsewhere – such as ‘will Al Saud survive the uprisings?’ or ‘is the ongoing trial of 94 Islamists and rights activists in the UAE a sham?’ – are fair game for public discussion.

Islamists from around the region are a notable presence in university departments, think tanks and other non-government organisations and there is a constant flow of Islamist politicians to Doha seminars and forums. Mohammed al-Mukhtar al-Shangiti, a Mauritanian Islamic studies professor who often comments on Al Jazeera, launched into a scathing critique of Saudi Arabia when I visited him at the Qatar Foundation. “The Saudi state is a disaster for Islam and for Saudi people, and I hope it will change peaceably and gradually, otherwise it will change violently,” he said. “These are explosive youth and they cannot let the situation go on like this. Saudi Arabia as it is today cannot continue.”

Salah Alzein, a Sudanese analyst who heads the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, suggested the UAE would soon face pressure to change tack and accept the Brotherhood: “For how long can the UAE continue aggressively standing against the Muslim Brotherhood and making that the basis of its policy? You start having problems with Egypt and Qatar, and maybe Turkey. How much will you achieve with that?” You don’t often hear such opinions expressed so bluntly and openly in the Gulf.

Qatar has no formal Brotherhood branch, or front organization like Islah in the UAE, after the local chapter of the Brotherhood dissolved itself a decade ago. But its promotion of the group regionally and hosting of so many sympathisers seems unconcerned that they might try to organize amongst Qataris, who, ironically, given Al Jazeera and its remit to educate the Arabs about the Arabs, are among perhaps the most depoliticized people in the entire Arab world. Yet there are Qataris who as individuals espouse Brotherhood thought. Jassim Sultan runs a study centre (Tanmiya for Studies and Consulting) and website that promotes a “nahda”, or “renaissance”, in the Arab world. The word is significant; it is a key term in the lexicon of modern political Islam, the same word in the name of the Tunisian Ennahda party and the slogan Egyptian Islamist president Mohammed Morsi and his Freedom and Justice Party also used in election campaigns over the past two years. Sultan’s NGO was involved in organising a conference of Islamists in Kuwait two years ago that was scrapped after Saudi pressure.

Gulf fears of the Brotherhood, and Qatar’s policy towards them, are exaggerated, Sultan said, chatting one morning in the offices of his study centre in the old, skyscraper-free downtown area of Doha. “Nothing has changed in the Islamists’ thinking about the existing regimes. Most of the Brotherhood people in the Gulf are from ruling families or are close to the ruling families so they are hardly subversive groups,” he said. “They are not populist movements like in Egypt or other places and they do not have a major cause to fight for; there’s no pressing economic circumstance causing people to formulate specific demands and in the light of the abundant capital in the Gulf, the ceiling of people’s dreams for political participation is very low. It might rise with some elites but they don’t have widespread support.”

Peppering his speech with reverential references to Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna or its infamous ideologue Sayed Qutb, who was executed under Nasser, Sultan thinks both Islamists and their opponents could be excused for political immaturity after decades of repressive rule. “I’m not disappointed with the Islamists in general because I know that they have not had a chance to review thinking that has remained unchanged since the movement was founded. I fear that this is not something for Islamists only but leftists too. There is a big nostalgia for the former socialist situation in Egypt and you find a tense language used towards capitalism and economic systems in the world,” he said, displaying the neo-liberal sympathies that dominate Brotherhood thinking today.

Some Qataris are disturbed by their country’s Islamist shift, but the concern is restricted to a narrow band of liberal intellectuals and puritanical Salafis, who have always found Qaradawi and the Brotherhood way too moderate in the scheme of Islamist politics. The big question is if this policy is based on a strategic reading of how to maximize Qatar’s importance, or perhaps reflects an ideological tendency among the senior members of the ruling Al Thani family. “It’s a difficult question. Perhaps it’s to support Arab peoples, to support the oppressed, to encourage Qatar’s role in the Arab world. It’s complex and it’s not clear. The Qatari people don’t take political decisions. There is no parliament, this is the direction of individuals in the state and the people are distanced from it,” said Hassan Al Sayed, a constitutional law professor at Qatar University. “Maybe most people support it, but intellectuals ask, where will this lead? – though that’s a minority. Some think it could lead to disasters, politically, financially, even on a personal level.”

Within Qatar, the authorities have tried to strike a balance among different ideological forces in society, including Salafism, Muslim Brotherhood thought and liberals. When Brotherhood and other Egyptian cadres moved over in the 1950s and 1960s, Qatar’s emirs also brought over Wahhabi clerics from Saudi Arabia. A large mosque in the name of Mohammed Ibn Abdulwahhab, the Salafi ideologue who helped found the modern Saudi state and gave his name to Wahhabism, was opened in 2011 in Doha, in an apparent effort to mollify Salafis over liberal and Brotherhood gains. “It’s more realpolitik and balancing than promoting a specific group,” said Shangiti. “The Religious Endowment Ministry is in the hands of the Salafis and part of society has this tendency. You find a big presence of Brotherhood in some institutions like Al Jazeera, but not just the Brotherhood, Islamists in general. The Qatari ministry of culture is dominated by Arab nationalists.”

Defenders argue that it is not only Islamists who have a place in Qatar, it is Arab nationalists too – part of a vision pursuing a new Arab renaissance, the same reasoning the regime has always given for setting up Al Jazeera, or Doha’s prestigious Museum of Islamic Art or more recent contemporary Arab art museum Mathaf. “Qatar is trying to promote what they call the ‘elements of strength’ of the Arab nation, that’s their vision – meaning Islamists and Arab nationalists,” says Shangiti. “They think they have a historic responsibility to strengthen these elements in Arab societies. Tactics change, they can be on good or bad terms with this or that leader, but the broad vision is there. (The emir) is looking at it as a moral responsibility, that’s why they are paying a lot. They never give up and now the Arab Spring is giving them more strength not to give up.”

The question is, given the reach of the Brotherhood regionally and its long historic ties in Qatar, how easy would it be for the ruling clique to ditch the Islamists, even if they wanted to? Qatar was able to pick up, and then drop, Hizbullah. When Hizbullah survived the war in 2006, Qatar rode the wave of popularity that its leader Hassan Nasrallah then had. Similarly, in 2008 when Israel tried and failed to crush Hamas in Gaza, Qatar was there cheerleading them on, sensing the pulse of the Arab street.

But things changed radically once the uprisings erupted. The Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad was a key player in the ‘axis of resistance’ to western hegemony that included Iran and Hamas. Qatar turned against Assad, Hizbullah stood with him. It wouldn’t be as easy for the emir to order Al Jazeera to switch off the Brotherhood.

About the author

Andrew Hammond is a writer based in the Middle East. He is the author of The Islamic Utopia: The Illusion of Reform in Saudi Arabia and was Reuters bureau chief in Saudi Arabia. Find him on Twitter @Hammonda1