The Struggle for Egypt: Saudi Arabia’s Regional Role

RSIS presents the following commentary The Struggle for Egypt: Saudi Arabia’s
Regional Role by James M. Dorsey. It is also available online at this link. (To print
it, click on this link.). Kindly forward any comments or feedback to the Editor RSIS Commentaries, at

No. 130/2013 dated 16 July 2013

The Struggle for Egypt:
Saudi Arabia’s Regional Role

By James M. Dorsey


Recent events in Egypt and Syria suggest a concerted Saudi effort to contain the
wave of calls for change across the Middle East and North Africa. The move has
led to the rise of Saudi allies in Egypt and Syria and the adoption of procedures
that favour the kingdom and put the Muslim Brotherhood’s main foreign backer,
Qatar, under its new emir, on the defensive.


WHEN EGYPT’s military chief General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi declared last week
that President Mohammed Morsi had been deposed, standing next to him were
leaders of the Saudi-backed Salafist Nour Party. This endorsement signalled Saudi
support for the coup and gave the military the fig leaf it needed to assert that its
intervention was against the Brotherhood rather than the rise of political Islam.

The Salafists’ key role in doing the bidding of the Saudis was reinforced by their
successful rejection of liberal opposition politician Mohammed el-Baradei as prime
minister and the military’s pledge to retain all references to Islamic law in the
constitution. The Egyptian military coup was Saudi Arabia’s third successful
counter-strike in recent weeks against the wave of change in the Middle East and
North Africa and its most important defeat to date of Qatari support for popular
revolts and the Brotherhood.

Saudi’s wider regional role
The role of the Salafists was coupled with a Saudi effort to counter Qatar’s financial
backing by withdrawing its comparatively limited financial support for the Morsi
government and pledging to shield the Egyptian military from any international
financial fallout from its intervention, including a possible US cut in military aid.

As the anti-Morsi protests erupted in Egypt, the Qatari-backed Syrian National
Council (SNC) Prime Minister-in-exile Ghassan Hitto resigned under Saudi pressure
and Saudi-backed Ahmed Assi Al-Jerba defeated his Qatar-supported rival, Adib
Shishakly, in the SNC presidential elections. Earlier, Saudi Arabia succeeded in
restricting Qatari support for the Brotherhood within the SNC and the Free Syrian
Army as well as for more radical Islamists.

It did so by securing approval by the Obama administration to supply non-US
surface-to-air missiles to Syrian rebels. US consent was on the condition that
distribution of the missiles was handled by the rebel Supreme Military Council to
ensure that weapons did not flow to jihadist forces. Qatar is likely to have little
choice but to follow suit.

Qatar’s activist foreign policy

The Qatari setbacks raise the question of whether the Gulf state, seeking to carve
out an identity and place of its own in the shadow of Saudi Arabia - the Gulf’s
dominant power - will be able to sustain its activist support of popular revolts and
endorsement of political Islam in the Middle East and North Africa. They also call
into question Qatar’s ability, in opposition to Saudi Arabia, to continuously support
change in the region as long as it does not occur in its own backyard.

To be sure, it is too early to suggest that Qatar’s new emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad
al-Thani, who last month took over the reins as ruler from his father, Sheikh Hamad
bin Khalifa al-Thani, will adopt a policy more in line with Saudi Arabia and  other
Gulf states. There are however hints of change.

Host to the largest US military base in the Middle East, Qatar, like Saudi Arabia
congratulated the Egyptian military for its ousting of Morsi. But unlike Saudi Arabia
and the United Arab Emirates who remained silent after the killing last week of 54
Morsi supporters and extended Egypt US$3 billion in grants and loans, Qatar
expressed regret at the incident and urged self-restraint and dialogue.

Qatar’s expression of regret was nonetheless significantly different from the tone
that Sheikh Tamim adopted in his first speech after taking office. Tamim pledged in
his inaugural address that Qatar would continue to side with the “aspirations (of the
people) to live in freedom and dignity, away from corruption and tyranny” and that
his country would “remain the Kaaba (Islam’s holiest shrine in Mecca) of the
Despite the setbacks and the downfall of Morsi, Qatar is however unlikely to break
its ties with the Brotherhood. Qatar’s relationship with the group is longstanding and
deep-seated, particularly with Doha-based, Egyptian-born Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi,
one of the world’s most important Islamic thinkers and a significant influence in Qatar
as well as within the Brotherhood. "Saudi Arabia has Mecca and Medina. We have
Qaradawi,” former Qatari justice minister and prominent lawyer Najeeb al Nauimi told
The Wall Street Journal a decade ago.

Qaradawi’s stunning speech

In the absence of an indigenous Qatari class of Islamic legal scholars, Qaradawi and to
a lesser extent Libyan Muslim Brother Ali Al Salabi, while in exile in Doha, filled a void
to influence policy. They helped shield Qatar, the only other Wahhabi state besides Saudi Arabia, against becoming totally dependent on the kingdom’s ultra-conservative clergy.

A stunning speech by Qaradawi in late May before the ascension of Tamim, who was in
recent years Qatar’s main interlocutor with the Saudi kingdom, hinted that change may
be in the air. In line with Saudi encouragement of the divide between Sunni and Shia
Muslims, Qaradawi urged Muslims with military training to join the anti-Bashar al-Assad struggle in Syria. His condemnation of Lebanese Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah (Party
of God) was immediately endorsed by Saudi grand mufti Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh as was his assertion that al-Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, was "more infidel than Christians and Jews."

As a result, the downfall of the Brotherhood and the recent counter-response by Saudi
Arabia may not deprive the group of its main foreign backer but could well change the
tone and approach of Qatari policy towards popular revolts in the Middle East and North
Africa. It could also raise the bar for revolutionary forces in the region - a struggle that
is certain to shape the Middle East and North Africa’s identity and future.

James M. Dorsey is Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies
(RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of
Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent
World of Middle East Soccer.

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