A Gulf Apart

Jerusalem Post, 18/1.
Saudi and United Arab Emirates security forces recently apprehended a 10-man cell linked to the Muslim Brotherhood that was active in the UAE. The cell, according to Gulf media reports, was engaged in raising money for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, propagandizing among Egyptians residing in the UAE and gathering information on the UAE’s defense facilities. It was also reported as being in “constant communication” with its parent movement in Cairo.

The arrest of this group has highlighted growing fears in some conservative Gulf states that the Muslim Brotherhood is now turning its attention to the Gulf monarchies.

But the monarchies are sharply divided in their response to the rise of the Brotherhood.

The 2011 to 2012 period brought a long-awaited windfall of political power for the Muslim Brothers. Franchises of the movement are now in government power in Tunisia and Egypt. The Brotherhood is playing a major role in the Western- supported political and military leaderships of the rebellion in Syria.

The Palestinian branch of the movement – Hamas – would almost certainly have consumed its Fatah rivals by now were the latter not protected by Israel and supported by the West.

Indeed, the real story of the Arab upheavals of the last two years can be summed up as the replacement of secular nationalist dictatorships by Sunni Islamist movements, among which Muslim Brotherhood franchises form the most important element.

The secular nationalist space in the Arab world has now largely been replaced by an area of Sunni Islamist domination.

Only one secular nationalist regime – Algeria – remains in secure existence. The oil-rich monarchies form the next natural target.

In the Gulf, however, the situation is not simple. Sunni Islamists and Gulf monarchs are not necessarily natural enemies.

The Gulf monarchs adhere to and rule in the name of conservative, Sunni forms of Islam.

The Muslim Brothers may be revolutionaries, but they are also conservatives, seeking to revive what they present as an authentic form of Islamic government. In the past, Brotherhood exiles from Egypt and the Fertile Crescent played a vital role in developing the education systems and manning the bureaucracies of Gulf states.

This has led to two widely variant Gulf approaches to the movement.

The first, exemplified by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, sees the Brotherhood as the most dangerous challenge to the stability and longevity of the monarchies. The UAE and Saudi Arabia fear the Brotherhood precisely because its beliefs render it potentially appealing to dissatisfied elements among the populations of these states.

Last July, Dubai police chief Dhahi Kalfan (a name familiar to Israelis because of his central role in the events following the killing of Hamas official Mahmoud Mabhuh in the emirate), accused the Brotherhood of plotting the overthrow of the Gulf monarchies.

The latest arrests follow the apprehending of 60 suspected members of the Brotherhood- linked al-Islah (“Reform and Social Guidance”) movement over the summer in the UAE.

UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan said after the arrests that “The Muslim Brotherhood does not believe in the sovereignty of the state.”

Saudi Arabian Interior Minister Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, meanwhile, has called the Brotherhood “the source of all the problems in the Islamic world.” The Saudis, seeking a counterweight to the Brotherhood in both Egypt and Syria, have thrown their weight (and financial support) behind ultra-conservative Salafi Islamist forces.

By contrast, the second approach, of which Qatar is the main exponent, sees the Muslim Brotherhood as a suitable ally, client and instrument. Qatar has adopted this strategy with energy and alacrity, as may be observed from its growing ties with the Brotherhood government in Egypt, support for the Brotherhood in Libya and Yemen and close links with the Sunni insurgency in Syria.

Qatar has long provided sanctuary for Muslim Brotherhood members. In return, the movement has since 1999 refrained from activity within the emirate. Famously, Doha offered a base of activities for the Brotherhood-associated Sheikh Yusuf al- Qaradawi, whose enormously influential broadcasts were put out by the emirate’s satellite channel, Al Jazeera.

Key current and former staffers at the highly influential Al Jazeera (which, of course, never criticizes Qatar) are Muslim Brotherhood members. Among these are Waddah Khanfar, former general manager of Al Jazeera.

Doha has proved a generous benefactor to the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo. This week, Qatari Prime Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani announced a $2 billion loan and a $500 million grant to Egypt. This is the second such package since the Muslim Brotherhood election victory in August (which was also financed with Qatari money.) Qatar’s massive oil and gas wealth and tiny citizen population evidently mean that it considers itself immune from any potential threat from the Sunni Islamists.

The emirate is inhabited by 250,000 Qataris, who enjoy the fortunate situation of being administered to by an additional population of around 1.6 million foreign workers, mainly from the Indian subcontinent.

Qatar’s presumed invulnerability to internal Islamist subversion enables it to partner with the Muslim Brotherhood and to wield influence within the new Sunni Islamist regimes now emerging.

This, in turn, will enable Doha to increase its diplomatic clout in mediating between such regimes and between them and other regional and global players.

The Saudis, the UAE and others may be furious with the Qataris for the stance they are taking, but little can be done about it. This is because the current United States administration comes down on the Qatari side of the argument, regarding the Muslim Brotherhood in its various manifestations as a potential ally. In the context of the apparent US choice of the anti-Western and anti-Semitic Muslim Brotherhood as a regional strategic partner, Qatar’s approach appears entirely in tune with the times. Given the aforementioned nature of the Muslim Brotherhood, however, it is also likely to contribute to the emergence of a vastly less stable Middle East.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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