Foreign Policy Blogs

The Saudi and Emirati response to Qatar is all about domestic unrest


Qatar’s financial habits have been the subject of a lot of media coverage lately due to the successes of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and the setbacks the Syrian opposition actors the Gulf states were pinning their hopes on have suffered at the hands of ISIS. Kuwait, through its relative openness, plays a similar role as well to the consternation of its neighbors and — for unclear reasons — seems to get more of a pass on it than Qatar. The most comprehensive reporting to date on both countries, by Elizabeth Dickinson, shows how Qatar has “not only outsourced the work but also the liability of meddling” in Egypt, Syria, Gaza, and Libya since 2011. In Kuwait’s case, much of the politics in its role as a financial clearinghouse are local. Qatar is unique from both Kuwait and the other GCC members in that despite its government’s (in)actions, it does not have the same sort of mechanisms as its neighbors do to intervene in other countries’ affairs.

“Lacking their own infrastructure,” Dickinson writes, “Qatar sought to amplify its impact by working through its network of Brotherhood and Salafi allies.”

The character of those allies is what drives Emirati and Saudi efforts to bring their fellow monarchy into line. Precisely because their allies are Muslim Brothers and Salafists, the other Gulf states fear that Qatar’s profligate spending on them will bring down considerable domestic turmoil on them all. Kuwait, it seems, is already learning a hard lesson that offering foreign adventurism as an outlet for firebrands and the politically conscious can get out of hand.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia are no slouches when it comes to influence peddling and arms deals in the region. Despite their well-documented dislike of Qatar’s actions they originally worked together for common goals in Libya and Syria. Saudi Arabia’s network of religious fundraisers is well established. For decades, charities and international conferences have been pouring money into Wahhabi initiatives all over the Muslim world, and the government allows for lower-level donations and collection drives in mosques because it lets off steam that they will not allow their citizens to express at home. Aside from those efforts, and the registered lobbying work done in the Beltway and Whitehall on defense, construction, and energy projects, the Saudis will also pledge millions to arm regional militaries or clandestinely provide material support through their intelligence services.

Though money and arms are still flowing to Syrian rebel groups from the Kingdom, the amounts are nowhere near those poured into the Soviet-Afghan War. And unlike then, the Saudis appear to be more receptive to the limits the U.S. has imposed on aiding the rebels. If there is any one animating reason behind this approach, it would be the Saudis’ painful awareness that unrestricted spending and sermonizing made AQAP possible. Though the loss of life inside Saudi Arabia at the height (2005–07) of the al Qaeda campaign there was minimal compared to the situations in Iraq and (subsequently) Yemen, it was nonetheless the first serious internal crisis the Kingdom had faced since the 1970s.

One would think that the UAE would be well-placed to throw its weight around like Qatar does, given how much it spends on lobbying in the U.S. and how its role as a global cargo hub have historically provided movers and shakers with plenty of deniable outsourcing options. These options, the result of several emirates’ particular preferences, have been employed in Somalia, Syria and Libya, but not to the same extent that Qatar has made use of similar agents. The UAE has gone with Saudi flow in Egypt and Syria, got on (then off) the bus with Qatar in Libya, and is content to provide some direct aid to Somalia while relying on local forces and PMCs to do the heavy lifting.

Part of the reason for this is that the UAE’s leadership is an association of princely families who can operate their domains as they see fit, unlike in Qatar, where national-level decision making takes place among just a handful of palace worthies. Other issues also seem to occupy the Emiratis more than their fellow GCC members, such as hosting Western institutions and diversifying the economy. But it would be a mistake to think that such projects are proof that the Emirates’ leaders just do not value the influence that guns and money can buy just as much as their neighbors. They do. Emirati policy is simply not as ambitious as Qatar’s is because they, like the Saudis, are not looking to be the GCC spoiler or innovator.

The Emiratis have never faced an internal foe like AQAP, or even civil unrest on the scale of the protests that sometimes take place in the Saudis’ Eastern Province. But the response of the UAE to alleged Muslim Brotherhood activity inside their country has been swift — harsh sentences are meted out to preempt the Brothers’ from organizing inside the country. Suspected and actual Brothers in Saudi Arabia face the same fate. Qatar’s close ties to these men and women — coupled with Doha’s dismissive and arrogant attitude overall — in no small part contributes to the way Qatar’s neighbors react with undisguised glee or contempt every time Doha suffers a foreign policy reverse or humiliating disclosure about its abysmal human rights record and lackadaisical financing of non-state actors. But pride and schadenfreude are not at heart of these poor relations: The UAE and Saudi Arabia would not be grandstanding and threatening their neighbor if they did not sincerely fear that Qatar’s relationships with Salafists fighting abroad and Brotherhood operatives throughout the Islamic world will help them present alternatives to the way the monarchies run things.

Qatar itself, it should be noted, would not be immune — they just do not seem to care as much. Qatar is more homogenous than other Gulf states and has a small population; there are just fewer people to please and to dissident. Much of Qatar’s behavior can be explained by the personal preferences of the recently-departed emir and his close confidants for confrontation and trail-blazing. It does not fall neatly into any social sciences model.

The fear of the Brothers stems from their particular interpretation and practice of political Islamism. Though it did not get very far in Egypt, the system set up before the 2013 summer coup was dominated by the organization’s cadres and moving to restrict the public space that help propel it to power. The Brotherhood showed it would strike compromises with the security forces to limit democracy while dismantling the old guard’s stranglehold on the best jobs and apartments. Interestingly, the Egyptian military is with Saudi and Emirati backing now pursuing a reverse course here, striking compromises with the clergy and media to bring anti-Islamist (and anti-foreign, especially anti-Palestinian) sentiment to a boil.

If the Brothers’ Egyptian model was implemented among any of the Arab monarchies, this would mean removing the princely aristocracy for a nomenklatura headed by top party personnel. What unnerves the monarchies’ religious and royal establishments the most is that such a party-centric system would allow most of the bureaucracy and any dissenting clergy to participate. Such beancounters and preachers are, after the security services and their dependents, the people most invested in the current order. And as we saw in Egypt, the army becomes the kingmaker when the professional and religious classes go down to the square. Even though the Gulf states’ militaries are officered by the various royal houses, no king or emir would want to risk open conflict in the streets between his troops and an organized protest movement.

The Brothers offer an alternative semi-democratic model to the Emirati or Saudi models. The salafists are harder to pin down, because they offer many competing visions, as there is no “one” salafist movement. But, as AQAP and the Grand Mosque seizure show, the biggest concern is that militant salafists will decide that after they did their part “purifying” the corrupted in the Levant, they ought to administer a dose of that cure at home: how long before the have-nots begin drawing analogies between the Roman orgies of Assad’s regime and the lifestyles of the countries’ own rich and famous? The typical GCC response to this question is that an ounce of pounding is the best cure, i.e., mass detention and censorship of both religiously- and secularly-minded activists. Which is hardly a productive anti-terrorism policy, considering the resentment it breeds and how it reinforces the distance between these people and the “haves” of the Saudi state who will, in the new order inspired by the “caliph” of the Islamic State (or by whatever petty warlord or war tourist they served under in Syria), lose it all so that the truly righteous may gain.

So, the interim solution is to continue paying out the dole, lavishing millions on the national guards and religious schools, and preventing the Brothers (or anyone, really) from organizing such unlicensed horrors as mutual aid societies, trade unions, or student discussion groups. This is not to be flippant: a student discussion group, it must be remembered, actually mustered enough small arms and courage to occupy the Grand Mosque of Mecca in 1979.