Wahhabism vs. Wahhabism: Qatar Challenges Saudi Arabia (Part 1)

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No. 262

Wahhabism vs. Wahhabism:
Qatar Challenges Saudi Arabia

James M. Dorsey

S. Rajaratnam School of International
Studies Singapore

06 September 2013

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Qatar, a tiny energy-rich state in terms of territory and
population, has exploded on to the world map as a major
rival to the region’s behemoth, Saudi Arabia. By projecting
itself through an activist foreign policy, an acclaimed and
at times controversial global broadcaster, an airline that has
turned it into a transportation hub and a host of mega
sporting events, Qatar has sought to develop the soft power
needed to compensate for its inability to ensure its security,
safety and defence militarily. In doing so, it has demonstrated
that size no longer necessarily is the determining factor for a
state’s ability to enhance its influence and power. Its challenge
to Saudi Arabia is magnified by the fact that it alongside the
kingdom is the world’s only state that adheres to Wahhabism,
an austere interpretation in Islam. Qatari conservatism is
however everything but a mirror image of Saudi Arabia’s stark
way of life with its powerful, conservative clergy, absolute
gender segregation; total ban on alcohol and houses of
worship for adherents of other religions, and refusal to
accommodate alternative lifestyles or religious practices.
Qatar’s alternative adaptation of Wahhabism coupled with
its lack of an indigenous clergy and long-standing relationship
with the Muslim Brotherhood, the region’s only organised
opposition force, complicate its relationship with Saudi Arabia
and elevate it to a potentially serious threat.


James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School
of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in
Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the
University of Würzburg in Germany, and the author of the blog,
paper was presented at the Gulf Research Meeting in Cambridge,
UK, in July 2013.

Wahhabism vs. Wahhabism: Qatar Challenges Saudi
As Saudi Arabia seeks to inoculate itself against the push for
greater freedom, transparency and accountability sweeping
the Middle East and North Africa, a major challenge to the
kingdom’s puritan interpretation of Islam sits on its doorstep:
Qatar, the only other country whose native population is
Wahhabi and that adheres to the Wahhabi creed. It is a
challenge that is rooted in historical tensions that go back to
Qatari efforts in the nineteenth century to carve out an
identity of its own. It also stems from long-standing
differences in religious interpretations that are traceable to
Qatar’s geography, patterns of trade and history; and a
partially deliberate failure to groom a class of popular
Muslim legal scholars of its own. More recently, Qatar’s
development of an activist foreign policy promoting
Islamist-led political change in the Middle East and North
Africa as well as a soft power strategy designed to
reduce its dependence on a Saudi defence umbrella was
prompted by a perception that it no longer can assume
that the kingdom would be able to effectively protect
it. Although long existent, the challenge has never been as
stark as it is now, at a time of massive change in the region.
The differences are being fought out in Syria and Arab
nations who, have in recent years, toppled their autocratic
leaders, Egypt being one of the first and foremost.

While the differences in social, foreign and security policies
cannot be hidden, Qatar, which hosts the largest U.S. military
base in the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia have nevertheless
moved in recent years from a cold war to a modicum of
good neighbourly relations and cooperation with clearly defined
albeit unspoken red lines to outright proxy confrontation. In the
process, Qatar has emerged as living proof that Wahhabism,
the puritan version of Islam developed by the eighteenth
century preacher, Mohammed Abdul Wahhab, that dictates
life in Saudi Arabia since its creation, can be somewhat
orward and outward looking rather than repressive and
restrictive. It is a testimony that is by definition subversive and
is likely to serve much more than the case of freewheeling
Dubai as an inspiration for conservative Saudi society that
acknowledges its roots but in which various social groups
are increasingly voicing their desire for change. The subversive
nature of Qatar’s approach is symbolized by its long-standing,
deep-seated ties to the Muslim Brotherhood that faces one
of its most serious litmus tests at a time of the ascension of
a new emir and a successful Saudi counter-revolutionary
campaign that helped topple the government of Egyptian
President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013, and that same
month, curtailed Qatari influence within the rebel movement
opposed to embattled Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

Everything but a mirror image
A multi-domed, sand-coloured, architectural marvel, Doha’s
newest and biggest mosque, symbolizes Qatar’s complex
and volatile relationship with Saudi Arabia as well as its bold
soft power policy designed to propel it to the cutting edge
of the twenty first century. It is not the mosque itself
that has raised eyebrows but its naming after an eighteenth
century warrior priest, Sheikh Mohammed Abdul Wahhab,
the founder of Islam’s most puritan sect.

The naming of the mosque that overlooks the Qatar Sports
Club in Doha’s Jubailat district was intended to pacify more
traditional segments of Qatari society as well as Saudi Arabia,
which sees the tiny Gulf state, the only other country whose
native population is Wahhabi, as a troublesome and
dangerous gadfly on its doorstep challenging its puritan
interpretation of Islam as well as its counterrevolutionary
strategy in the Middle East and North Africa. Qatar’s social
revolution in the past two decades challenges Saudi efforts
to maintain as much as possible of its status quo while
impregnating itself against the push for greater freedom,
transparency and accountability sweeping the region. By
naming the mosque after Abdul Wahhab, Qatar reaffirmed
its adherence to the Wahhabi creed that goes back to
nineteenth century Saudi support and the ultimate rise to
dominance of the Al Thani clan, the country’s hereditary
monarchs until today who account for an estimated twenty
per cent of the population.[1]

Yet, despite being a traditional Gulf state, Qatari conservatism
is everything but a mirror image of Saudi Arabia’s stark way
of life with its powerful, conservative clergy, absolute gender
segregation; total ban on alcohol and houses of worship for
adherents of other religions, and refusal to accommodate
alternative lifestyles or religious practices. Qataris
privately distinguish between their “Wahhabism of the sea”
as opposed to Saudi Arabia’s “Wahhabism of the land,”
a reference to the fact that the Saudi government has less
control of an empowered clergy compared to Qatar that
has no indigenous clergy with a social base to speak of; a
Saudi history of tribal strife over oases as opposed to one
of communal life in Qatar, and Qatar’s outward looking
maritime trade history. Political scientists Birol Baskan and
Steven Wright argue that on a political level, Qatar has a
secular character similar to Turkey and in sharp contrast
to Saudi Arabia, which they attribute to Qatar’s lack of a
class of Muslim legal scholars.[2] The absence of scholars
was in part a reflection of Qatari ambivalence towards
Wahhabism that it viewed as both an opportunity and a
threat: on the one hand it served as a tool to legitimise
domestic rule, on the other it was a potential monkey
wrench Saudi Arabia could employ to assert control. Opting
to generate a clerical class of its own would have enhanced
the threat because Qatar would have been dependent on
Saudi clergymen to develop its own. That would have
produced a clergy steeped in the kingdom’s austere theology
and inspired by its history of political power-sharing that
would have advocated a Saudi-style, state-defined form of
political Islam.

By steering clear of the grooming of an indigenous
clergy of their own, Qatari leaders ensured that they
had greater maneuverability.by ensuring that they did not
have to give a clergy a say in political and social
affairs. As a result, Qatar lacks the institutions that often
hold the kingdom back. In contrast to Saudi Arabia,
Qatari rulers do not derive their legitimacy from a clerical
class. Qatar’s College of Sharia (Islamic Law) was established
only in 1973 and the majority of its students remain
women who become teachers or employees of the
endowments ministry rather than clergymen.[3] Similarly,
Qatar does not have a religious force that polices public
morality. Nor are any of its families known for producing
religious scholars. Qatari religious schools are run by the
ministry of education not as in the Saudi kingdom by the
religious affairs authority. They are staffed by expatriates
rather than Qataris and attended by less than one per
cent of the total student body and only ten per cent of those
are Qatari nationals.[4] Similarly, Qatari religious authority is
not institutionally vested. Qatar has for example no Grand
Mufti as does Saudi Arabia and various other Arab nations; it
only created a ministry of Islamic Affairs and Endowments
22 years after achieving independence.

The lack of influential native religious scholars allowed Qatar
to advance women in society, and enable them to drive and
travel independently; permit non-Muslims to consume alcohol
and pork; sponsor Western arts like the Tribeca Film
Festival; develop world-class art museums; host the Al Jazeera
television network that revolutionized the region’s controlled
media landscape and has become one of the world’s foremost
global broadcasters;, and prepare to accommodate Western
soccer fans with un-Islamic practices during the 2022 World
Cup. The absence of an indigenous clerical class risked enhancing
the influence of Saudi and other foreign scholars, particularly
among more conservative segments of Qatari society.

In doing so, Qatar projects to young Saudis and others a vision
of a less restrictive and less choking conservative Wahhabi
society that grants individuals irrespective of gender a greater
degree of control over their lives. Qatari women, in the mid-
1990s, were like in Saudi Arabia: banned from driving, voting
or holding government jobs. Today, they occupy prominent
positions in multiple sectors of society in what effectively
amounted to a social revolution. It’s a picture that juxtaposes
starkly with that of its only Wahhabi brother. In doing so,
Qatar threw down a gauntlet for the kingdom’s interpretation
of nominally shared religious and cultural beliefs. "I consider
myself a good Wahhabi and can still be modern, understanding
Islam in an open way. We take into account the changes in the
world and do not have the closed-minded mentality as
they do in Saudi Arabia,” Abdelhameed Al Ansari, the dean of
Qatar University's College of Sharia, a leader of the paradigm
shift, told The Wall Street Journal in 2002.[5] Twenty years earlier
Al Ansari was denounced as an "apostate" by Qatar's Saudi-trained
chief religious judge for advocating women’s rights. "All those
people who attacked me, most of them have died, and the rest keep
quiet," Al Ansari said.

Qatar’s long-standing projection of an alternative is particularly
sensitive at a time that Saudi Arabia is implicitly debating the very
fundaments of the social and political arrangements that the Qataris
call into question. The kingdom’s conservative ulema and Salafis
worry that key members of the ruling family, including King
Abdullah; his son, Prince Mutaib, who heads the National Guard; and
Prince Turki al-Faisal, former head of intelligence and ambassador
to the United States and Britain, are toying with the idea of a
separation of state and religion in a state that was founded on a pact
between the ruling Al-Sauds and the clergy and sees itself as the
model of Islamic rule. The clergy voiced its concern in the spring of
2013 in a meeting with the king two days after Prince Mutaib
declared that “religion (should) not enter into politics.” Prince Turki
first hinted at possible separation 11 years ago when he cited verse
4:59 of the Quran: “O you who have believed, obey God and obey the
Messenger and those in authority among you.” Prince Turki
suggested that the verse referred exclusively to temporal authority
rather than both religious and political authority. Responding to
Prince Mutaib in a tweet, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al-Tarifi
warned that “whoever says there is no relationship between religion
and politics worships two gods, one in the heavens and one on earth.”[6]

To be sure, Qatar’s greater liberalism hardly means freedoms
as defined in Western societies. Qatar’s former emir, Hamad
bin Khalifa Al Thani, who abdicated in June 2013 in favour
of his son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Khalifa, silenced
opposition to reforms. Sheikh Hamad, for example, arrested in
1998 the religious scholar, Abdulrahman al Nuaimi, who
criticized his advancement of women rights. Al Nuaimi was
released three years later on condition that he no longer would
speak out publicly. Qatari poet Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-
Ajami, was sentenced in November 2011 to life in prison in
what legal and human rights activists said was a “grossly unfair
trial that flagrantly violates the right to free expression” on
charges of “inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime.” His
sentence was subsequently reduced to 15 years in prison. Al-
Ajami’s crime appeared to be a poem that he wrote, as
well as his earlier recitation of poems that included passages
disparaging senior members of Qatar’s ruling family. The
poem was entitled “Tunisian Jasmine”. It celebrated the
overthrow of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. A draft
media law approved by the Qatari cabinet would prohibit
publishing or broadcasting information that would “throw
relations between the state and the Arab and friendly states into
confusion” or “abuse the regime or offend the ruling family or
cause serious harm to the national or higher interests of the
state.” Violators would face stiff financial penalties of up to
one million Qatari riyals (US $275,000).[7] In a rare public
criticism, Qatari journalists demanded in June 2013 greater
freedoms and criticized the absence of a media law and press

Ring-fencing the Gulf
With the reforms and their implicit challenge to the kingdom
notwithstanding, Qatar shares with Saudi Arabia a firm will to
ring-fence the Gulf against the popular uprisings in other parts of
the Middle East and North Africa. The two countries’ diverging
world views have however manifested themselves in differing
approaches towards the popular revolts and protests sweeping
the region. While Saudi Arabia has adjusted to regional change
on a reactive case-by-case basis by recently launching a
successful counter-revolutionary effort in Egypt and trying to
counter the Brotherhood’s influence among Syria rebels, Qatar
has sought to embrace it head on as long as it is not at home or
in its Gulf neighbourhood. For that reason, Qatar supported the
dispatch to Bahrain in 2011 of a Saudi-led force to help quell a
popular uprising in its own backyard.

The rift between Saudi Arabia and its major Gulf allies was evident
in a commentary by Abd al-Rahman Al-Rashed, the general manager
of Al Arabiya, the Saudi network established to counter Qatar’s Al
Jazeera. Accusing Qatar, the only Gulf state critical of the Egyptian
military’s crackdown, of fuelling the flames of the Muslim
Brotherhood campaign against the Egyptian military’s toppling of
Morsi in the summer of 2013, Al-Rashed wrote: "We find it
really hard to understand Qatar’s political logic in a country (Egypt)
to which it is not linked at the level of regimes or ideologically or
economically. Egyptians in Qatar moreover are only a minority.
Qatar’s insistence that the moving force of the army and Egyptian
political parties accept the Brotherhood’s demands is not only
 impossible but also has dangerous repercussions. Supporting
the Brotherhood at this current phase increases (the Brotherhood’s)
stubborn insistence to stick to its guns and creates an extremely
dangerous situation. So why is Qatar doing it? We really don’t
understand why! Historically and over a period of around 20
years, Qatar has always adopted stances that oppose the
positions of its Gulf brothers, and all of Qatar’s
opposing policies have ended up unsuccessful.”[9] In scathing
remarks criticizing those opposed to the Egyptian military’s
removal of Morsi, Saudi King Abdullah referred to Qatar without
naming it: “Let it be known to those who interfered in Egypt’s
internal affairs that they themselves are fanning the fire of
sedition and are promoting the terrorism which they call for
fighting, I hope they will come to their senses before it is too
late; for the Egypt of Islam, Arabism, and honourable history
will not be altered by what some may say or what positions
others may take.” the monarch said.[10]

By maintaining support for the Brotherhood as it fought for its
survival, Qatar aligned itself with the very Islamists in its
own backyard who were challenging Gulf regimes and that the
Saudi-led bloc was seeking to suppress. In doing so, it also
identified with Gulf Islamists who were exploiting their
criticism of Gulf backing of the Egyptian coup to campaign for
increased support for anti-Assad rebels in Syria.by comparing
Egyptian military leader General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to Assad.
The often blunt criticism by Gulf Islamists speaking from the
pulpit in mosques and on Twitter resonated with the public,
as tweets and videos of sermons went viral. Qatar’s
positioning implicitly recognized attempts by Saudi Arabia to
co-opt Islamist forces like the Sahwa, a powerful Islamist
network nurtured by members of the Brotherhood that
had supported the government in the early days of the Arab
popular revolts, was failing. The widening rift between the
Islamists and the ruling Al-Saud family was further highlighted
by the death of Mohamed Al Hadlaq, a nephew of the
kingdom’s terrorist rehabilitation program who died in Syria
fighting as part of a jihadist rebel group.[11]

The Brotherhood, the only organized opposition force in the
kingdom, albeit clandestinely, stands at the core of differences
between Qatar and Saudi Arabia over Syria even though they
coordinated to become the first Arab states to withdraw their
ambassadors from Damascus in 2011. Their divergence
over the Brotherhood posed however a dilemma for the kingdom
which gravitated towards more secular as well as Salafi rebels
in its bid to topple Assad’s secular Alawite (read Shiite and heretic
in Saudi eyes) regime; weaken Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah; and
thwart a power grab by the Syrian Brotherhood. Support of Salafi
forces risked a repeat the fallout of Saudi aid to Afghan
mujahedeen fighting the Soviets in the 1980s who once
intoxicated by their defeat of a superpower turned against the
kingdom and its allies. In contrast to the kingdom, Qatar has
proven more willing to risk engagement with jihadi groups on the
grounds that its priority was to see the Assad regime overthrown
sooner than later and that their exclusion would only aggravate
Syria’s grief. “I am very much against excluding anyone at this
stage, or bracketing them as terrorists, or bracketing them as al-
Qaeda. What we are doing is only creating a sleeping monster, and
this is wrong. We should bring them all together, we should treat
them all equally, and we should work on them to change their
ideology, i.e. put more effort altogether to change their
thinking. If we exclude anything from the Syrian elements today,
we are only doing worse to Syria. Then we are opening the door
again for intervention to chase the monster,” Qatari Minister
of State for Foreign Affairs Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah
told an international security conference in Manama in late
December 2012. The official played down the jihadi character
of some of the Syrian rebel groups. “They are only close to God
now because what they are seeing from blood – and I am
saying this for all of Syria. Muslims, Christians, Jews – whenever
they have a crisis, they come close to God. This is the nature of man.
If we see that someone is calling Allahu Akbar (God is great), the
other soldier from the regime is also calling Allahu Akbar when he
faces him. This is not a sign of extremism or terrorism,” Al-Attiyah

The fundamentally different strategies of self-preservation of
Qatar and the Gulf states are rooted in a Qatari perception that
the role of the Saudi clergy in policymaking has resulted in
Saudi Arabia failing in its ambition to provide the region with vision
and effective leadership that would have allowed it to perhaps
pre-empt the wave of change and resolve problems on its
own. That perception has reinforced Qatar’s raison d’etre:
a state that maintains its distinction and tribal independence from
the region’s behemoth, Saudi Arabia, with whom it is entangled in
regional shadow boxing match.

While the ruling families of both have sought to buffer
themselves against protests by boosting social spending, Saudi
Arabia has opted for maintenance of the status quo
wherever possible and limited engagement with the Muslim
Brotherhood in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere, overshadowed by
its deep-seated distrust of the group. Saudi Arabia’s attitude
towards the Brotherhood is informed by a fear that Islamic
government in other nations could threaten its political and
religious claim to leadership of the Muslim world based on the
fact that it is home to Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two
holiest cities, its puritan interpretation of Islamic dogma, and
its self-image as a nation ruled on the basis of Islamic law with
the Quran as its constitution. The threat posed by the
Brotherhood and Qatari promotion of political activism is
reinforced by the fact that concepts of violent jihad have largely
been replaced by Islamist civic action across the Middle East and
North Africa in demand of civil, human and political rights.
That hits close to home. Saudi efforts to co-opt the Sahwa
movement in the kingdom whose positions are akin to those of
the Brotherhood have only succeeded partially. Sahwa leader
Salman al-Odeh warned the government in an open letter in
March 2013 against ignoring widespread public discontent.[13]

By contrast, Qatar’s pragmatic relationship to Wahhabism
eased the early forging of a close relationship with the Muslim
Brotherhood. Qatar’s ties to the Brotherhood may be less
motivated by ideology than by a determination to distinguish
itself from the kingdom and back what at times appeared to be a
winning horse. Ironically, Qatar is joined by Bahrain, one of, if
not the Gulf state closest to Saudi Arabia, in bucking the
region’s trend and maintaining close ties to the Brotherhood.
The Bahraini Brotherhood’s political arm, the Al-Minbar Islamic
Society, has been allowed to operate openly. The group, which
has largely supported the government, is widely believed to
be funded by the island’s minority Sunni Muslim ruling family
and Islamic finance sector in a bid to counter political forces
that represent its Shiite Muslim majority.[14]

Qatar’s relationship with the Brotherhood was moreover
facilitated by the fact that key figures from the group like
Egyptian-born Yusuf Al Qaradawi, a major influence in a
country with no real clergy of its own, Libyan imam Ali Al
Salabi, fellow Egyptian Sheikh Ahmed Assal and Sheikh Abdel
Moez Abdul Sattar have had a base in exile in Doha for
decades. Qaradawi, who has been resident in Doha since the
1970s, wields intellectual and theological influence within the
Brotherhood but insists that he is not a member. "Saudi Arabia
has Mecca and Medina. We have Qaradawi -- and all his
daughters drive cars and work,” said former Qatari justice
minister and prominent lawyer Najeeb al Nauimi.[15]

Qaradawi, a controversial figure in the West, is widely credited
for Qatar’s early backing of opponents to Syrian president Assad.
He noted in the early days of the Syrian uprising that historic links
between Egypt and Syria put Syria in protesters’ firing line.[16]
Qaradawi was immediately accused by Syrian officials of fostering
sectarianism.[17] The Qatari support ended the close ties Hamad
had forged in the first decade of the twenty first century as a result
of his strained relations with the Saudis with Assad, a leader of the
more radical bloc in the Arab world.

Qaradawi took his advocacy of resistance to Assad a significant
step further by effectively endorsing the sectarian Sunni-Shia
Muslim divide in a speech in late May 2013 before the ascension
of Tamim, who under his father was Qatar’s main interlocutor
with the kingdom. By doing so, Qaradawi hinted at a possible
change in Qatari policy once Tamim took over the reins. 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) as
the “party of Satan” 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." In a surprising gesture to Saudi Arabia,
Qaradawi went on to say that "I defended the so-called
(Hezbollah leader Hassan) Nasrallah and his party, the party of
tyranny... in front of clerics in Saudi Arabia. It seems that the
clerics of Saudi Arabia were more mature than me."[18]

Promoting Islamist activism
Ironically, the setting up of Qatar’s state-owned Al Jazeera
television network which handles Gulf states with velvet gloves,
parallels the structuring of the Gulf state’s ties to the
Brotherhood: the group, which dismantled its operations in
Qatar in the late 1990s, was allowed to operate everywhere
except for in Qatar itself. Instead of allowing a Qatari branch
of the Brotherhood, Qatar moved to fund institutions that
were designed to foster a generation of activists in the Middle
East and North Africa as well as to guide the Brotherhood in its
transition from a clandestine to a public group. Former
Qatari Brother Jassim Al-Sultan established the Al-Nahda
(Awakening) Project[19] to promote Islamist activism within
democracies. A medical doctor, Al-Sultan has since the
dissolution of the group in Qatar advised the Brotherhood to
reach out to other groups rather than stick to its strategy of
building power bases within existing institutions. He has also
criticized the Brotherhood for insisting on its slogan, ‘Islam
is the Solution.’ Al Nahda cooperates closely with the London
and Doha-based Academy of Change (AOC)[20] that focuses on
the study of “social, cultural, and political transformations
especially in the Arabic and Islamic region.” AOC appears to
be modelled on Otoper, the Serbian youth movement that
toppled President Slobodan Milosevic and has since
transformed itself into a training ground for non-violent
protest. The Brotherhood campaigned for AOC founder Hisham
Morsy’s release after he was detained during the popular
revolt in 2011 that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The threat to Saudi Arabia posed by Qatar’s fostering of
popular protest was compounded by the nature of the social
contract in the kingdom and other energy-rich rentier Gulf
states. The state’s generous cradle-to-grave welfare and
social and no taxation policy approach in exchange for
the surrender of political rights meant that the Brotherhood
challenged ruling families on issues that they were most
vulnerable to: culture, ideology and civic society. The Qatari
government’s support of Al Nahda and AOC was part of its
effort, in contrast to other Gulf states, to control the world
of national non-governmental organizations. In doing so,
it targeted what, according to Hootan Shambayati, effectively
amounts to the Gulf states’ Achilles Heel. “The rentier
nature of the state limited the regime's ability to legitimize
itself through its economic performance… Consequently,
culture and moral values became sources of conflict between
the state and segments of the civil society,” Shambayati wrote.[21]
The government’s support for activists paralleled Qatar’s earlier
bypassing of Arab elites by initially appealing to the public
across the region with its groundbreaking free-wheeling
reporting and debate on Al Jazeera that, at its peak, captivated
an Arabic speaking audience of 60 million.

Sharpening the rivalry
Beyond historic differences in religious experience and practice,
two more events sharpened the rivalry between Saudi Arabia
and Qatar: the 1991 U.S.-led expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait
and the rise to power in a 1995 bloodless coup of Sheikh
Hamad. The U.S.-led invasion called into question Qatar’s
alignment with Saudi Arabia since its independence in 1971,
which involved Saudi’s guarantee to protect the tiny emirate.
To the Qataris, the invasion demonstrated that Qatar could not
rely, for its defence, on a country that was not capable of
defending itself. That realization coupled with Kuwait’s ability
to rally the international community to its assistance reinforced
Hamad’s belief that Qatar’s security was best enhanced by
embedding and branding itself in the international community
as a cutting-edge, moderate, knowledge-based nation.

The rift with the kingdom was further widened by Saudi
outrage at a son revolting against his father that translated
into efforts to undermine the new ruler, including attempts to
unseat him, sabotage Qatar’s endeavours to export natural
gas to other states in the region, and build a bridge linking
it with the United Arab Emirates. By all accounts, Hamad’s
voluntary abdication in favour of Tamim should have
provoked similar ire from the Saudis in a region in which
rulers hang on to power until death even if they at times
have experienced a deterioration of health that has
incapacitated them not only physically but also mentally.
One reason it may not is the fact that Saudi officials
appreciated Tamim’s more accommodating interaction
with them and the fact that his ascension held out the
hope of a down toning of the activist and adventurist nature
of his father’s foreign policy.

Relations between the two countries had nonetheless
already virtually ruptured before Hamad’s 1995 coup after
border skirmishes in 1992 and 1994 rooted in long-standing
disputes over Saudi projections of itself as first among the
region’s Bedouins. They further deteriorated as a result of
several allegedly Saudi-backed coup attempts in the late
1990s. The attempts prompted Qatar to strip some 6,000
members of the Al-Gufran clan of their Qatari nationalities
because they had patrolled the border on behalf of the

The deteriorating relationship with its big brother made
it even more imperative for Qatar to strike out on its
own – the very thing Saudi Arabia thought to thwart. A
struggle for a multi-billion dollar Qatari project to supply
gas to Kuwait symbolized Saudi power. Asked in 2003
why the Kuwait project was stalled, then Qatar’s industry
and energy minister Abdullah Bin Hamad Al-Attiyah said:
"We have received no clearance from Saudi Arabia.
Hence it is not feasible."[23] It took a rollercoaster of
repeated Saudi denials and approvals for the project to
be finally completed in 2008.

If the natural gas deal was emblematic of Qatari-Saudi
relations, so was a London libel case in which the wife of
the wife of the former and mother of the new emir, Sheikha
Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, sued Saudi-owned Ash Sharq
al Awsat newspaper for falsely reporting that her husband
had secretly visited Israel. In her petition to the court, the
Sheikha charged that the paper was "controlled by Saudi
intelligence paymasters who used the newspaper as a
mouthpiece for a propaganda campaign against Qatar
and its leadership."[24]

Saudi and Qatari national interests diverge further when it
comes to Iran, with whom Qatar shares the world’s largest
gas field. Saudi Arabia sees Iran as a major rival that is instigating
civil unrest in the region. It is also the spiritual home of the
Shiites, the sect most despised by Saudi Wahhabis. To
navigate this minefield, Qatar has projected itself in the first
decade of the twenty first century as the mediator of the
wider region’s conflicts and prompted it to forge relationships
with other Saudi nemeses such as Israel and Hezbollah.

Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, when he was still crown
prince, refused to attend an Arab summit in 2000 because of
the presence of an Israeli trade office in Doha. The
appearance of Saudi dissidents on Al Jazeera two years later
persuaded the kingdom to withdraw its ambassador to
Qatar. In 2009, the two countries held rival Arab summits within
a day of each other despite an improvement in relations in
the two preceding years that included a deal allowing Al Jazeera
to open a bureau in Riyadh provided it did not air dissident
Saudi voices. Seemingly improved relations were highlighted
when the emir amnestied several Qataris-turned Saudi nationals
convicted of their alleged involvement in the 1996 Saudi-inspired
coup attempts.

The improvement in relations was a reflection of Saudi
leverage. That leverage was enhanced by Qatar’s own success in
deploying soft power. The winning of the hosting rights for the
2022 World Cup meant, for example, that Qatar needed to project
stability in its backyard. Saudi Arabia could undermine that
perception. Support for the Syrian rebels had a similar potential
downside. Qatari backing could backfire on its relations with
Iran, driving Qatar in turn closer to the kingdom. While a majority
of Qataris are likely to back improved relations, they also
appeared to remain ambiguous. Qataris participating in a 2009
broadcast of the BBC’s Doha Debates overwhelmingly
described their country’s relations with the kingdom as a
‘cold war.’[25] University students often glorify past Qatari tribal
defence of Qatar’s only land border that separates it from Saudi

Finally, while few have any doubt about Saudi Arabia’s policy
goals – maintenance of the status quo to the greatest degree
possible, retention of its leadership role, limiting of the
rise of Islamist forces, preservation of monarchial rule and
restrictive political reform – Qatar’s actions have raised
questions about what it is trying to achieve.

Politicians and analysts grappled, for example, to get a
grip on how Qatar’s competition with Saudi Arabia for
influence played out in Yemen, a strategic nation at the
southern tip of the peninsular. Questions they were
trying to wrap their heads around included Qatar’s
ties to the powerful Islamist Brotherhood-related Al-Islah
movement and its emergence as a mediator in Yemen.
Qatar’s role, for example, in the release of a kidnapped
Swiss teacher[26] made it rather than Saudi Arabia, the
go-to-address in a country in which kidnapping for
political and criminal purposes are a fixture of life.

Qatar’s influence in Yemen was both remarkable and
sensitive given long-standing Saudi bankrolling of the
government of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh as
well as the country’s major tribes, including the
president’s own tribe, the Hashid tribal confederation.
Qatar’s close ties to the Brotherhood as well as a history of
mediation in Yemen dating back to the 1990s allowed it
to make significant inroads into what the Saudis perceived
as their preserve. By competing in Yemen, Qatar benefited
from the fact that it was a tiny nation rather than the
egion’s giant and was not a supplier of jihadists to Yemen-
based Al Qa’ida in the Arabian Gulf (AQAP). Qatar’s
influence was sufficiently significant to prompt tribal
leaders, including prominent businessmen and politician
Hamid al-Ahmar, to balance their relations between the two
Gulf rivals once they broke off with Saleh during the 2011
popular uprising against him and joined the opposition.

On the back of its relationship with the Brotherhood,
Qatar forged ties to other key Yemeni players, including
Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a Muslim Brother and
powerful advisor to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Hadi succeeded Saleh in 2012 in a deal with the opposition
mediated by Gulf states under Saudi leadership that was
designed to preserve the core structure of the outgoing
president’s regime. Qatar initially participated in the diplomatic
effort but later pulled out because of "indecision and
delays in the signature of the proposed agreement" and
"the intensity of clashes" in Yemen.[27] In an interview with
Russia today, Saleh had warned a month earlier that "the state
of Qatar is funding chaos in Yemen and in Egypt and Syria and
throughout the Arab world. We reserve the right not to sign
(the Gulf-negotiated deal) if the representatives of Qatar are
present" at the ceremony.[28]

The divergence of Qatari and Saudi goals was also symbolized
by Qatar’s ties to Nobel Prize winner and prominent Yemeni activist
Tawakkol Karma, who emerged as the face of the popular revolt
against Saleh. Gen. Al Ahmar’s first armored division, which
joined the mass anti-Saleh protesters in early 2011, played a
key role in the president’s ultimate demise after 30 years in
office, when it attacked the presidential palace in 2012, killing
several senior officials and severely wounding the embattled
Yemeni leader and various of his key aids. Qatar’s relationship
to Al Ahmar dates back to 2008/2009 when it was
mediating an end to the armed confrontation with rebel
Houthi tribesmen in the north. The general was the
Saleh government’s negotiator. Qatar further garnered
popularity among Saleh’s opponents by becoming the first
Arab country in 2011 to call on the president to step down
in response to the demand of protesters camped out on
the capital Sana’a’s Change Square. In response, Saleh
thundered in a speech: “We derive our legitimacy from
the strength of our glorious Yemeni people, not from
Qatar, whose initiative we reject.”[29]

Qatar’s success in breaking the Saudi political monopoly in
Yemen was evident to all in July 2013 when Hadi stopped in
Doha on his way to Washington for an official visit. Hadi was
accompanied by General Al-Ahmar. Similarly, when Al Islah
leader Muhammad al-Yadumi travelled to Doha in 2012 to
thank the government for its support, he did not include Saudi
Arabia on his itinerary. It was a glaring omission given Saudi
Arabia’s key role in brokering the agreement that eased Saleh
out of office.

Read further Part 2

[1] Alan J. Fromherz. Qatar, A Modern History, London , 2012, I. B. Tauris
& Co. Ltd, p. 91
[2] Birol Baskan and Steven Wright. 2011. Seeds of Change: Comparing
State-Religion Relations in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Arab Studies Quarterly,
33(2), 96-111
[3] Mehran Kamrava, ‘Royal Factionalism and Political Liberalization in Qatar,’
2009, Middle East Journal, Vol:63:3, p. 401-420
[4] Ibid. Baskan and Wright
[5] Yaroslav Trofimov. October 24, 2002, Lifting the Veil: In a Quiet Revolt, Qatar Is
Snubbing Neighboring Saudis, The Wall Street Journal,
[6] Ibrahim Hatlani, ‘Saudi Arabia wrestles with its identity,’ July 12, 2013, The
[7] James M. Dorsey, ‘Persian Gulf Futures,’ Global Brief, March 5, 2013, http://globalbrief.ca/blog/2013/03/05/persian-gulf-futures/
[8] Journalists call for overhaul of QNA, July 14, 2013, The Peninsula, http://thepeninsulaqatar.com/qatar/244976-journalists-call-for-overhaul-of-qna.html
[9] Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, , انقسام الخليج حول مصر (Why Is The Gulf
[10] Abdullah bin Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman bin Faisal bin Turki bin Abdullah
bin Muhammad bin Saud, ‘Saudi King Abdullah declares support for Egypt
against terrorism,’, 16 August 2013, Al Arabiyah,
[11] The Gulf Institute, ‘Close Relative of Senior Saudi Counterterrorism Official
Killed Alongside AlQaeda in Syria,’ Washington, 19 August 2013, press release by
[12] International Institute for Strategic Studies, Priorities for Regional Security: Q&A Session,” 8 December 2012, http://www.iiss.org/en/events/manama%20dialogue/archive/manama-dialogue-2012-f58e/second-plenary-session-f3e9/qa-3d28
[14] Lori Plotkin Boghardt, ‘The Muslim Brotherhood in the Gulf: Prospects for
Agitation,’ 10 June 2013, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-muslim-brotherhood-in-the-gulf-prospects-for-agitation
[15] Ibid. Trofimov
[16] Qaradawi backs Syrian revolution, The Peninsula, March 26, 2011, http://www.thepeninsulaqatar.com/qatar/146915-qaradawi-backs-syrian-revolution.html
[17] Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, ‘Syria and the 'Resistance' Bloc: Buddies No More,’
[18] Qaradawi admits Saudi clerics are more mature than him on Hezbollah, June 1, 2011, Middle East Online, http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=59139
[21] Hootan Shambayati, ‘The Rentier State, Interest Groups, and the
Paradox of Autonomy: State and Business in
Turkey and Iran,’ Comparative Politics, 1994, Vol 6:3, p. 307-331
[22] Jill Crystal. Political reform and the prospects for democratic
transition in the gulf, FRIDE Working Paper, July 8, 2005,
[23] Mona Lisa Freiha, Saudi refuses Qatar gas project, An Nahar, July 23,
[24] Lawrence Smallman, ‘Qatar's first lady wins UK libel case,’ January 5,
2005, Al Jazeera,
[25] The Doha Debates, This House believes that after Gaza, Arab unity
[26] Michael Peel, Rivals make play for power in Yemen, Financial Times,
April 15, 2013
[27] Middle East Online, ‘Qatar pulls out of Gulf's Yemen mediation,’
[28] Ibid.ra
[29] Al Sharq, ‘ Doha’s influence in Sana’a spring forces taking accounting of
new allies (ربيع الدوحة في صنعاء يثمر نفوذاً لحساب حلفائها الجدد),


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