CAIRO — A series of bold diplomatic actions across a turbulent Middle East last week exposed a deepening rift between the tiny Persian Gulf monarchy of Qatar and its powerful Arab neighbors in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
Regional powers Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — as well as Egypt — withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar to protest the country’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its policy in Syria.
On Friday, Saudi Arabia formally designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, further aligning itself with Egypt’s new military government against the Islamist group. In July, Egypt’s democratically elected president, the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, was ousted in a coup.
In the past eight months, Qatar has played host to a growing number of Egyptian Islamist exiles, allowing them to use its Al Jazeera Arabic satellite network as a pulpit for opposition rhetoric against Egypt’s government, infuriating Egypt and its gulf allies.
Egypt has summoned Qatari diplomats on multiple occasions as a reprimand for criticizing the military coup and to demand the extradition of a prominent Islamist cleric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is widely seen as the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual guide.
From his residence in Doha, Qaradawi has aggressively criticized Egypt’s new military government as well as its Saudi and Emirati supporters.
A few weeks ago, Qaradawi lambasted the United Arab Emirates during his weekly religious sermon, accusing it of “fighting everything Islamic.” Analysts say the move probably contributed to the Emirati decision to withdraw its ambassador this past Wednesday.
The conflict within the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council underscores a fundamental disagreement over systems of governance that is playing out across the region, three years after a tidal wave of uprisings threatened or overthrew dictators in North Africa and the Middle East.
“I think it’s pretty clear that the gulf states are very bitterly divided,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a Middle East expert and senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a Washington think tank. And the divide is about more than a simple difference in foreign policy, Hanna said.
To the Saudis and Emiratis, “disagreements about regional policy dovetail with internal security threats,” he said.
The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, has inspired numerous Islamist offshoots, most of which also believe — at least superficially — in democracy. The Brotherhood and its related groups rose to power through democratic elections. And in much of the region, especially in conservative Saudi Arabia and the UAE, these groups represent the middle ground, said Andrew Hammond, a policy fellow and gulf expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a pan-European think tank.
The Brotherhood represents “an Islamic model, dealing with Islamic references — and they’re talking about elections,” Hammond said. Their popular appeal, and their potential to inspire others, constitute a direct threat to the power structures in place across all of the GCC states, each of which are ruled by powerful families.
Qatar has increasingly charted a different path from its gulf neighbors, partly out of a desire to leave its own mark on the map, analysts say, but also because it was betting that the Islamists would be the winners after the Arab Spring.
During his brief year in power, Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, strengthened his administration’s relationship with Qatar, which provided the country with about $7.5 billion in aid.
But Morsi never found loyalty in Egypt’s more traditional allies — the Islamist-wary Saudi and Emirati monarchies.
Analysts say Saudi Arabia and the UAE, longtime allies of the military-backed autocracy of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak — who was deposed three years ago — sought to undermine Morsi’s government. “The Saudi and Emirati policy on Egypt is they essentially wanted the Brotherhood to fail,” Hanna said.
After the military forced the group from power and jailed thousands, billions of dollars in Saudi, Emirati and Kuwaiti aid came pouring in. But Qatar — particularly through the voices aired on Al Jazeera — appeared only to amplify its support for the Islamist group.
Egypt has charged three journalists from Al Jazeera’s English-language channel, as well as 17 others, with belonging to and aiding a terrorist group — the Muslim Brotherhood.
The satellite network has dismissed the allegations as baseless and politically motivated. But analysts suggest the case, and the treatment of the three journalists, serves as punishment to Qatar for breaking ranks with the GCC and refusing to back down.
Since November, Saudi Arabia and other gulf states have been pressuring Qatar to rein in Al Jazeera, curtail its support for certain jihadists in Syria, and close critical think tanks, according to the Financial Times.
That Qatar appeared unwilling to bend — and that a Brotherhood cleric has continued to challenge gulf governments from Doha — proved to be too much, analysts said.