Wahhabism vs. Wahhabism: Qatar Challenges Saudi Arabia (Part 2)

Turning the page?
When Tamim took over the reins of power in June 2013, he
inherited a state that his father ensured was tightly controlled
by his wing of the Al Thanis. Hamad created institutions and
government offices that were populated by loyalists as well as
his offspring and bore the characteristics of autocracy:
centralized and personalized decision-making, reliance on
patronage networks and an absence of transparency and

Few Qataris question the achievements of Hamad.
With those accomplishments notwithstanding,
conservative segments of Qatari society, with whom Sheikh
Tamim at times appeared to empathize, have questioned
some of the side effects of the former emir’s policies,

     (i)            Huge expenditure on a bold foreign policy that put
Qatar at the forefront of regional demands for greater
freedom and change but also earned it significant
criticism and embarrassment;
   (ii)            Unfulfilled promises of change at home that would give
Qataris a greater say in their country’s affairs;
 (iii)            A stark increase in foreign labor to complete ambitious
infrastructure projects, many of which are World Cup-
related, that have exposed Qatar for the first time to real
external pressure for social change;
  (iv)            More liberal catering to Western expatriates by allowing
the controlled sale of alcohol and pork;
    (v)            Potential tacit concessions Qatar may have to make to
non-Muslim soccer fans during the World Cup, including
expanded areas where consumption of alcohol will be
allowed, public rowdiness and dress codes largely unseen
in the Gulf state, and the presence of gays.

A discussion in Qatar about possibly transferring ownership of
soccer clubs from prominent Qataris, including members of the
ruling family, to publicly held companies because of lack of
Qatari interest in “the sheikh’s club” illustrates a degree of
sensitivity to popular criticism. Tamim has however
enhanced his popularity by his close relationship to Qatari
tribes, his upholding of Islamic morals, exemplified by the fact
that alcohol is not served in luxury hotels that he owns, and
his accessibility similar to that of Saudi King Abdullah.
Tamim was also the driving force behind the replacement in 2
012 of English by Arabic as the main language of instruction
at Qatar University. He is further believed to have been
empathetic to unprecedented on-line protest campaigns
by Qatari activists against the state-owned
telecommunications company and Qatar Airways.
Hamad appeared to anticipate a potentially different tone
under Tamim by urging Qataris “to preserve our civilized
traditional and cultural values.” If Hamad used initial promises
of greater liberalization to garner support within his fractured
tribe, one of the first to settle in Qatar in the eighteenth
century, Tamim may well employ his conservatism to rally
the wagons.

The Saudi counter-revolutionary campaign in Egypt and Syria,
barely a month after Tamim’s ascension, constituted a serious
foreign policy crisis for the new emir. The Saudi-backed coup
in Egypt was Saudi Arabia’s third successful counter-
revolutionary strike in a matter of weeks against the wave of
change in the Middle East and North Africa, and its most
important defeat of Qatari support of popular revolts and
the Brotherhood. As the anti-Morsi protests erupted in Egypt,
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 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 by agreeing with the
Obama administration that it would be allowed to supply
non-US surface-to-air missiles to Syrian rebels as long as
distribution is 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.
The Saudi success followed its support in crushing a popular
uprising in 2011 in Bahrain, massive financial assistance to
less wealthy fellow monarchs in Oman, Jordan, and Morocco,
and its effort to dominate transition in Yemen after the fall
of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The stakes for Saudi Arabia and Qatar in Egypt were high.
A successful Brotherhood-led democratic transition would
have cemented the success of popular uprisings and
alongside Turkey the role of Islamists in implementing change.
It would have also restored Egypt, the Arab world’s most
populous nation, to its traditional leadership role in the
region in competition with Saudi Arabia. Thwarting the
revolt and the Brotherhood would not only eliminate
these threats but constitute a substantial bodily blow to
Qatari encouragement of change in the Middle East and
North Africa.

The Saudi’s moves left Qatar with little choice but to
congratulate the Egyptian military on its intervention,
asserting that it accepted the will of the Egyptian people.
But unlike Saudi Arabia and the fiercely anti-Islamist
United Arab Emirates, who remained silent after the killing,
days after the coup of 54 Morsi supporters by Egyptian
security, and granted Egypt a day later $8 billion in grants and
loans, Qatar in a bid to retain its independent position
expressed regret at the incident but urged self-restraint and
dialogue. At about the same time, Qaradawi, who runs one
of Al Jazeera’s most popular shows, “Ash-Shariah wal-Hayat
(Sharia and Life),[2] called on the network and in a
fatwa issued in Doha for Morsi’s reinstatement.
Qaradawi declared the coup unconstitutional and in
violation of Islamic law.[3] Ironically, Qaradawi’s own son,
Abdelrahman Al-Qaradawi, took his own father to
task on his support for Morsi. Abdelrahman noted that
Qaradawi had long argued that a ruler is bound by the
opinion of a majority of those who swear loyalty to him.
He argued further that the sheikh had taught him that
freedom superseded Islamic law.[4]

Saudi countering of Qatari policy followed a gradual turning
of the tide in countries where it had helped topple an
autocratic leader. Yemeni President Saleh rejected Qatari
participation in the Saudi-led Gulf effort to resolve the
crisis in his country after Qatar became the first regional
power to call for his resignation. Qatari funding of multiple
armed Islamist groups in Libya sparked outrage after
documents were discovered disclosing the extent of its
support. Then oil and finance minister Ali Tarhouni made a
thinly veiled reference to Qatar when he declared in
October 2011 that “it’s time we publicly declare that
anyone who wants to come to our house has to knock on
our front door first.”[5] A month later, relations with
Algeria turned sour after Hamad, according to Arab
media, warned Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medleci to
“stop defending Syria because your time will come, and perhaps
you will need us.”[6] Hamad broke off a visit to Mauritania in
January 2012 hours after arriving in the country after
President Mohammad Ould Abdel Aziz rejected his
demandthat he initiate democratic reform and a dialogue
with Islamists.[7]

Qatari foreign policy setbacks are paralleled by Al Jazeera’s
mounting problems resulting from perceptions that it is
promoting the Brotherhood[8] and changes in the pan-Arab
television market. The network experienced a boom as
the primary news source in the heyday of the Arab revolts that
toppled the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, but
has since seen its viewership numbers decline with Arabs turning
increasingly to a plethora of newly established local news
broadcasters. Market research company Sigma Conseil reported
that Al Jazeera’s market share in Tunisia had dropped from 10.7
per cent in 2011 to 4.8 per cent in 2012 and that the Qatari
network was no longer among Egypt’s ten most watched channels.
Tunisia’s 3C Institute of Marketing, Media and Opinion Studies
said that Al Jazeera Sports was the only brand of the network
that ranked in January among the country’s five most
watched channels. Al Jazeera reporters are increasingly harassed
as they seek to do their jobs in countries like Tunisia and Egypt.
Protests that erupted after the 2013 assassination of prominent
opposition leader Shukri Belaid charged that “Al Jazeera is a slave
of Qatar,” accusing it of biased reporting on the murder because
of the Gulf state’s support for Ennahada, the country’s dominant
Islamist grouping.[9] In July 2013, Egyptian colleagues expelled
Al Jazeera Cairo bureau chief Abdel Fattah Fayed from a news
conference in Cairo organized by the military and the police
against whom the prosecutor general issued an arrest warrant
on charges of threatening national security and public order by
airing inflammatory news. Twenty-two journalists resigned
from Al Jazeera’s Egyptian affiliate days earlier in protest against
its alleged bias towards the Brotherhood.

The Qatari setbacks raise the question of whether the idiosyncratic
Gulf state 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 continued ability
in opposition to Saudi Arabia to support change in the region as
long as it does not occur in the conservative, oil-rich Gulf’s own

Sports, a double edged sword
Qatar’s emphasis on soft power contrasts starkly with Saudi
Arabia fledgling attempts to follow suit by among other things
staging cultural exhibitions. The emirate’s strategy like its
support for the Brotherhood and popular revolts in the region
and its emphasis on country branding constitutes an integral
part of its foreign and defense policy, designed to put Qatar
on the cutting edge of history and to ensure that the nation is
embedded in the international community in a way that
enhances the chances that foreign nations will come to its aid
in a time of need. In doing so, it like the United Arab Emirates
challenges, as Kristian Coates Ulrichsen noted, traditional
academic wisdom on the limits on the ability of small
states to project power and the assumption of an automatic
link between size and power.[10]

Qatar’s soft power approach is based on the realization that
no matter what quantity of sophisticated weaponry it purchases
or number of foreigners the Gulf State drafts into its military force,
it will not be able to defend itself, nor can it rely on Saudi Arabia.
The approach 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.

Soft power puts Qatar regularly at loggerheads with Saudi Arabia
and raises concerns in the kingdom on how far Qatar may go. The
hosting of the 2022 World Cup has already made it more
vulnerable to criticism of restrictions on alcohol consumption,
the banning of homosexuality, and working conditions of foreign
labour. Qatar’s responses, particularly with regard to alcohol and
foreign labour, threaten to sharpen differences with the kingdom
and highlight the fact that it is lagging behind in addressing
concerns about foreign workers’ conditions, which in turn, has made
it more difficult for Saudi Arabia to recruit abroad.

Moreover, Qatar’s projection of itself as a global sports hub and
the role of soccer fans in the popular revolts in North Africa has
reverberated in the sports sector in the kingdom particularly with
regard to fan power and women’s sports, reaffirming the role of
sports in the development of the Middle East and North Africa
since the late 19th century.[11]

Qatar and Jordan were driving forces in the launch of a campaign
in 2012 by Middle Eastern soccer associations grouped in the West
Asian Football Federation (WAFF) to put women’s soccer on par
with men’s football in a region in which a woman’s right to play and
pursue an athletic career remains controversial. Saudi Arabia was
conspicuously absent at the launch. The campaign defined “an
athletic woman” as “an empowered woman who further empowers
her community.” In a rebuttal of opposition to women’s soccer by
the kingdom and some Islamists across the region, the campaign
stressed that women’s soccer did not demean cultural and traditional
values. Contradicting Saudi policy, the campaign endorsed the principle
of a woman’s right to play soccer irrespective of culture, religion and
race; a women’s right to opt for soccer as a career rather than only
as a sport; and soccer’s ability to promote gender equality and
level the playing field on and off the pitch.[12]

To be sure, Qatar has been slow in encouraging women’s sports,
and like Saudi Arabia, was pressured in 2012 by the International
Olympic Committee to, for the first time, field women at an
international tournament during the London Olympics.

The WAFF campaign came on the back of a Human Rights Watch
report[13] that accused Saudi Arabia of kowtowing to assertions
by the country's powerful conservative Muslim clerics that female
sports constitute "steps of the devil" that will encourage
immorality and reduce women's chances of meeting the
requirements for marriage. The charges in the report entitled
“’Steps of the Devil’ came on the heels of Saudi Arabia backtracking
on a plan to build its first stadium especially designed to allow
women who are currently barred from attending soccer matches
because of the kingdom’s strict public gender segregation to
watch games. The planned stadium was supposed to open in

Qatar’s endorsement of women’s sports has made Saudi Arabia
the only Arab and virtually the only Muslim state that refuses to
embrace the concept. Spanish consultants developing the kingdom’s
first ever national sports plan were instructed to develop a
program for men only.[15] Opposition to women's sports is reinforced
by the fact that physical education classes are banned in state-run
Saudi girl’s schools. Public sports facilities are exclusively for men and
sports associations offer competitions and support for athletes
in international competitions only to men.

Saudi opposition to women’s sports and participation
in international tournaments was further challenged
by a decision by the International Football Association
Board (IFAB), backed by Qatar and other Middle Eastern
soccer associations, to allow women to wear a hijab that
met safety and security standards in international
matches. It also came as Saudi women, encouraged by the
winds of change in the region, the advancement of
women’s sports in Qatar and elsewhere and the support
of liberal members of the royal family, were pushing the
envelope despite being slammed in Saudi media “for going
against their natural role” and being “shameless” because
they cause embarrassment to their families.[16]

Similarly, fan pressure forced the resignation of Prince Nawaf
bin Feisal in 2012 as head of the Saudi Football Federation (SFF)
in an unprecedented move that echoed the toppling of Arab
leaders in which militant soccer fans were front row players.
Nawaf was replaced by a commoner, renowned former soccer
player Ahmed Eid Alharbi, as the first freely chosen head of
the SFF in a country that views free and fair polling as an
alien Western concept.[17] Fan pressure erupted after
Australia's defeat of the kingdom’s football team in a 2014
World Cup qualifier. Nawaf’s resignation broke a mold in a
nation governed as an absolute monarchy and a region that
sees control of soccer as a key tool in preventing the pitch from
becoming a venue for anti-government protests, a
distraction from widespread grievances, and a tool to
manipulate national emotions. It also marked the first time
that a member of the ruling elite saw association with a
national team's failure as a risk to be avoided rather than
one best dealt with by firing the coach or in extreme
cases like Saddam Hussein's Iraq or Moammar Qaddafi's
Libya, brutally punishing players.

The Saudi royal family, like autocratic leaders throughout
the Middle East and North Africa, has associated itself with
soccer, the only institution in pre-revolt countries that
traditionally evokes the same deep-seated passion as
religion. Nawaf’s resignation constituted the first time an
autocratic regime sought to put the beautiful game at arm’s
length while maintaining control. The ruling family
nonetheless retained its grip on sports, with Nawaf staying
on as head of the Saudi Olympic Committee and as the senior
official responsible for youth welfare, on which the SFF
depends alongside television broadcast rights for funding.
Major soccer clubs moreover continue to be the playground
of princes who at times micro manage matches by phoning
mid-game their team's coaches with instructions on which
players to replace.

“Words such as freedom of choice, equality, human rights,
rational thinking, democracy and elections, are terms we came
to view with high concern and suspicion. We treat them as alien
ideas that are trying to sneak within our society from the
outside world. But last week, an amazing and irregular event took
place, in one of our sporting landmarks. The members of the
General Assembly of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation
(SAFF) have elected through popular voting, their first
president,” wrote columnist Mohammed AlSaif in the Arab News.[18]

Alharbi, a former goalkeeper of Al Ahli SC, the soccer team of the Red
Sea port of Jeddah, who is widely seen as a reformer and proponent
of women’s soccer, narrowly won the election widely covered by Saudi
media. “Saudis were witnessing for the very first time in their lives a
government official being elected through what they used to consider
as a western ballot system. People eagerly followed a televised presidential
debate between the two candidates the previous day,” AlSaif wrote.

Qatar’s foreign policy and soft power strategy effectively puts it at
loggerheads with Saudi Arabia. Whether the Saudi-Qatari rivalry
will contribute to spark changes in the kingdom or reinforce
monarchial autocracy in the region is likely to be as much decided in
Qatar itself as by the political rivalry between the two elsewhere in the
region. Saudi-backed Qatari conservatives have questioned the emir’s
right to rule by decree, organized online boycotts of state-run
companies, and led by the crown prince, forced Qatar University
to replace English with Arabic as the main language of instruction.

Qatar’s embrace of the Brotherhood, positioning it at the cutting
edge of change across the region in addition to its soft power
diplomacy, offers opportunities for Saudi Arabia to counter what it
perceives as a dangerous policy that the emirate has exploited in
Egypt and Syria. Fault lines in Egypt have deepened with the
toppling of President Morsi, weakened Qatar’s regional influence
and made its Brotherhood allies in other Arab nations in the throes
of change reluctant to assume sole government responsibility.
Jordan’s Brotherhood-related Islamic Action Front (IAF) officially
boycotted parliamentary elections in January 2013 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. Mounting opposition to the
Brotherhood’s ruling Tunisian affiliate, Ennahada, and the
assassination in 2013 of two prominent opposition politician
prompted the Islamists to negotiate their replacement by a
government of technocrats.[19]

Similarly, Qatar’s victory of the right to host the World Cup
may have opened the Pandora’s Box of demographic
change that could reverberate throughout the Gulf, a region
populated by states whose nationals often constitute minorities in
their own countries. Under increasing pressure from international
trade unions which have the clout to make true on a threat to
boycott the 2022 World Cup, the status of foreign nationals could
become a monkey wrench.

Resolution of the dispute with the unions raises the specter of
foreigners gaining greater rights and having a greater stake in
countries that have sought to protect national identity and the
rights of local nationals by ensuring that foreigners do not sprout
roots. That effort, so far, 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 even
remotely could give them a sense of belonging.

As a result, Qatar’s foreign, sports and culture policy seems
forward looking despite Saudi-backed conservative opposition
at home and at first glance appears to put the tiny Gulf state in a
category of its own. Yet, the challenge it poses to Saudi Arabia is
increasingly proving to be a challenge to itself.

[1] Ibid. Kamrava
[3] Yusuf al-Qaradawi, القرضاوي يفتي بوجوب تأييد الرئيس المصري المنتخب محمد مرسي,
[4] Abdelrahman Al-Qaradawi,
 عبد الرحمن يوسف القرضاوى يكتب: عفوا أبى الحبيب ... مرسى لا شرعية ل, Al-Yawm Al-Sabi,
[5] Sam Dagher. Charles Levinson and Margaret Coker, ‘Tiny Kingdom's Huge
Role in Libya Draws Concern,’ The Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2011, https://global.factiva.com/ha/default.aspx
[6] Hassan Masiky, ‘Qatar Chastises Algeria for defending Assad in Syria,’ 
Morocco News Board, November 15, 2011,
[7] Al-Mokhtar Ould Mohammad, ‘Dispute Mars Emir of Qatar’s Mauritania
Visit,’ Al Akhbar English, January 9, 2012,
[8] Sultan Al Qassemi, ‘Al Jazeera's Awful Week,’ July 11, 2013, Foreign Policy, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/07/11/al_jazeera_egypt_qatar_muslim_brotherhood?page=full; The Economist, ‘Must Do Better,’ January 12, 2013, charges 
of threatening national security and public order by airing inflammatory news,
cools towards Muslim Brothers,’ November 2102, Le Monde Diplomatique,
[9] James M. Dorsey, ‘Al Jazeera targets Spain amid dropping viewer
numbers in its heartland,’ April 4, 2013,
[10][10] Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, ‘Small States with a Big Role: Qatar and the
United Arab Emirates in the Wake of the Arab Spring, 2012, HH Sheikh Nasser
al-Mohammad al-Sabah Publication Series, Kuwait, October 2012
[11] Shaun Lopez, On Race, Sports and Identity: Picking Up the Ball in 
Middle East Studies, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 
Vol. 41, 2009, p. 359-361
[12] James M. Dorsey, January 14,2013, Middle East soccer associations 
campaign for women’s right to play, The Turbulent World of Middle 
East Soccer, 
[13] Human Rights Watch. 2012. Steps of the Devil, Denial of Women’s and 
[14] Ibid. Dorsey
[15] Author interviews with the consultants
[16] James M. Dorsey. March 4, 2012. Muslim players win hijab battle in
their struggle for women’s rights, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, http://mideastsoccer.blogspot.com/2012/03/muslim-players-win-hijab-battle-in.html
[17] James M. Dorsey, December 26, 2012. Ground-breaking election of Saudi s
occer chief masks Arab revolt fears, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, http://mideastsoccer.blogspot.com/2012/12/ground-breaking-election-of-saudi.html
[18] Mohammed AlSaif. December 24, 2012. A healthy election,
[19] Bouazza Ben Bouazza, ‘Tunisia Compromise May Head off Gov't Crisis,’
22 August 2013, AP/ABC News,


Popular posts from this blog

Pakistan caught in the middle as China’s OBOR becomes Saudi-Iranian-Indian battleground

Israeli & Palestinian war crimes? Yes. Genocide? Maybe. A talk with Omer Bartov

Saudi religious diplomacy targets Jerusalem