RSIS presents the following commentary Qatar’s Challenge to Saudi Arabia: An
alternative view of Wahhabism by James M. Dorsey. It is also available online at this link.
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RSIS Commentaries, at RSISPublication@ntu.edu.sg
No. 017/2013 dated 30 January 2013
Qatar’s Challenge to Saudi Arabia:
An alternative view of Wahhabism
By James M. Dorsey
Qatar, whose native population adheres to the Wahhabi creed, poses a major
challenge to the puritanical interpretation of Islam of Saudi Arabia, which seeks
to make itself impervious to the push for greater freedom, transparency and
accountability sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.
THE GULF STATE of Qatar, despite its conservatism is hardly a mirror image of
Saudi Arabia, with its stark way of life, absolute gender segregation, total ban on
alcohol and refusal to accommodate alternative lifestyles or religious practices.
Qatar’s encouragement of women’s advancement in society, less strict separation
of genders, allowing non-Muslims to consume alcohol and pork, sponsorship of
Western arts like the Tribeca Film Festival, and hosting of the 2022 World Cup with
its expected influx of Western fans with their un-Islamic ways, offers young Saudis a
vision of a conservative Wahhabi society that is less constrained and permits
individuals irrespective of gender greater control over their lives.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s diverging world views have manifested themselves in
differing policies towards the popular revolts and protests sweeping the region. While
Saudi Arabia has adjusted to regional change incrementally Qatar has sought to
embrace it as long as it is not at home. Like Saudi Arabia, it seeks to maintain the
status quo in its immediate neighborhood, witness the life sentence handed a Qatari
poet for criticising the royal family.
At the core of the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar are fundamentally
different strategies of self-preservation. While the royal families of both have sought
to buffer themselves by lavish social spending, Saudi Arabia has opted for maintenance
of the status quo where possible and limited engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood
in Egypt and Syria, toward which it harbours deep-seated distrust.
In contrast Qatar seeks to be on the cutting edge of history and has exercised a
sophisticated soft diplomacy with its winning bid to host the World Cup, positioning
itself as global hub by developing a comprehensive sports sector, creation of world
class museums and sponsorship of the arts. In effect, Qatari support for the Muslim
Brotherhood and popular revolts in the region constitutes an integral part of its foreign
and defence policy, designed to embed itself in the international community so as to
enhance the chances that other nations will come to its aid in time of need.
That policy is based on Qatar’s realisation that no matter what quantity of
sophisticated weaponry it purchases or foreigners it recruits into its military force,
it will not be able to truly defend itself. It also stems from uncertainty over how reliable
the United States is as the guarantor of last resort of its security. That concern has
been reinforced by the United States’ economic problems, its reluctance to engage
militarily post-Iraq and Afghanistan and its likely emergence by the end of this decade
as the world’s largest oil exporter.
At loggerheads with Saudis
Qatar’s strategy effectively puts it at loggerheads with Saudi Arabia. Whether the
Saudi-Qatari rivalry will precipitate change in the kingdom or reinforce monarchical
autocracy in the region is likely to be decided in Qatar itself rather than elsewhere in
the region. Qatar has already a foretaste of potential battles to come with Saudi-backed
conservatives who also enjoy support of some Qatari royals. They have twice boycotted
major state-owned companies, and voiced opposition to the sale of alcohol and pork in
the country and questioning the emir’s authority to rule by decree.
Qatar’s strategy of embracing the Muslim Brotherhood and putting itself at the cutting
edge of change elsewhere in the region as well as it soft diplomacy contain risks that
Saudi Arabia is likely to exploit. Fault lines in Egypt have deepened and hardened as it
teeters on the brink under President Mohammed Morsi, making Muslim Brothers in Arab
nations in the throes of change reluctant to assume sole government responsibility.
Jordan’s Brotherhood-related Islamic Action Front (IAF) boycotted parliamentary elections
in January 2013 official because of alleged gerrymandering. Privately, the IAF, with an eye
on Egypt is believed to have shied away from getting too big a share of the pie for their taste.
Opening a Pandora’s Box
Similarly, Qatar’s winning of the right to host the 2022 World Cup may have opened a
Pandora’s Box of change that could reverberate throughout the Gulf starting with the
status of foreign workers who constitute a majority in some of the smaller Gulf states
serving as the monkey wrench. Under increasing pressure from international trade unions
who have the clout to come through on a threat to boycott the Gulf state, Qatar has
suggested it would allow the formation of independent unions created to engage in
If Qatar proves true to its word, it raises the spectre of foreigners gaining greater rights and
having a greater stake in countries that have sought to protect their national identity and the
rights of local nationals by ensuring that foreigners do not sink roots. That effort even goes as
far as soccer clubs opting for near empty stadiums because there are not enough locals to fill
them rather than offering the population at large something that could even remotely give them
a sense of belonging.
At first glance Qatar’s foreign, sports and culture policy seems forward looking despite
conservative opposition at home and appears to put the tiny Gulf state in a category of its own.
Yet, the challenge it poses to Saudi Arabia ultimately could prove a challenge to itself. It buys
Qatar time but in the final analysis fails to address fundamental issues underlying the wave of
protests as well as demographic issues looming in the Gulf.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies,
co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Wuerzburg and the author of
The Turbulent blog.
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