Saudi Arabia is setting new terms in the Gulf’s relationship with its wayward neighbor. But will Doha bridle at the deal?
The Arab states of the Gulf have launched a new plan to resolve their most serious diplomatic crisis in four decades. Last week, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar agreed on a framework meant to patch up the other Gulf states’ disagreements with Qatar on a range of regional political issues. The deal was designed to reverse the collapse in relations early last month, when Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Manama recalled their ambassadors from Doha in protest of Qatari policies that they deemed threatening to regional security. The public move was a sign of how serious the crisis had become in the Gulf states, where differences are customarily resolved behind closed doors.
Qatar agreed to a list of demands made by its three neighbors that, if Doha fully complies, will deal a heavy blow to the Muslim Brotherhood across the region. But Gulf capitals are skeptical whether Doha will make good on its promises: After all, if Doha fulfills the terms of the agreement, it will mean the reversal of a decade’s worth of strenuous and expensive efforts to create a web of influence across the Middle East and North Africa.
The public statement that accompanied the agreement only referred vaguely to an understanding that no member state’s foreign policy should undermine the other members’ "interests, security and stability." Leaks about the agreement suggested that Doha had agreed to expel Muslim Brotherhood members from the country and stop Al Jazeera from referring to the removal of former President Mohamed Morsi from power in July as a coup. But according to the document itself, the deal’s terms are far more wide-ranging and complex than what has been revealed so far.
One of the three countries’ demands is for Qatar to rein in media outlets that criticize and attack the Gulf states. This applies to media outlets "inside and outside Doha" and which are supported by Qatar "directly or indirectly." The document makes no mention of stopping Al Jazeera from referring to the Morsi ouster as a "coup" — which the station does regularly — although it might have been discussed during officials’ meetings. Qatar is said to have funded a plethora of media outlets run by Islamists throughout the region, including Rabaa TV, a channel run from Turkey by Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members.
The document also stipulates that Qatar will expel Brotherhood members currently living in Doha. The document does not specify Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood — rather, the focus has been on the expulsion of 15 members from the Arabian Peninsula — five Emiratis, two Saudis, six Bahrainis, and two Yemenis. A previous version of the draft stated that Doha would "abstain" or "no longer support" the Muslim Brotherhood or the Houthis in Yemen, but Doha insisted that the wording implied that it had supported these two groups in the past. The wording was then changed to "Doha will not support" the Muslim Brotherhood or the Houthis, a formulation to which Doha agreed.
The three countries accused Doha of supporting the Houthis, a Shiite insurgent group that is reportedly supported by Iran, to sabotage the Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered deal for a political transition in Yemen, according to one Gulf official. Qatar pulled out of the negotiations to reach the deal, which eventually resulted in longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh relinquishing power in February 2012. The Houthis have long proven to be a thorn in the Saudis’ side: They have endured several military campaigns by Riyadh, including a major Saudi offensive in 2009 led by former Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Sultan.
Another key part of the deal would bring about an end to Doha’s naturalization of Gulf citizens, mostly opposition and Islamist figures. Gulf officials believe that Qatar actively supports these figures both financially and politically — several UAE and Saudi Islamists are allegedly using Qatari passports to travel in Europe and in the region, according to a source. In 2012, Ahmed Mohammed al-Ahmari, a well-known Saudi Islamist, created a firestorm in Saudi Arabia after he announced that he was retracting his Saudi citizenship for a Qatari one. In an interview, he said that he was approached by the Qataris to grant him citizenship because of his status as an intellectual.
Ahmari is also a staunch critic of the Saudi political and religious establishment. He accused Saudi Salafism of "bringing idolatry to Islam" due to its ideological doctrine counseling obedience to the legitimate ruler. On Twitter last year, he posted a picture of donkeys contentedly drinking water with a quote attributed to the founder of Saudi Arabia reading: "I will make you a great nation that lives in prosperity far greater than that enjoyed by your ancestors."
Qatar has benefited from Islamists such as Ahmari because they have formed a political network across the region that can be called on when needed. For example, according to a source close to Syrian Islamists, Doha has asked an influential Libyan cleric based in Qatar to help form a large rebel coalition in Syria. Instead of being directly involved, Doha often designates such figures to bring together individuals or groups to form alliances in the region.
Coinciding with the push against Qatar to halt support for Islamists, Saudi Arabia is moving actively against the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. According to a Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander in northern Syria, FSA groups backed by Saudi Arabia and the United States are being asked to assimilate more factions into their ranks — but to steer clear of those close to the Brotherhood. According to another Syrian source, a Gulf-backed plan also aims to boot the Muslim Brotherhood from the opposition’s political and military councils.
While some articles have reported that the Gulf states are demanding Qatar shutter Al Jazeera and local branches of international research centers in Doha, the reconciliation document makes no mention of these demands — nor would Qatar likely agree to them.
The demands to which Doha has agreed were the same demands it had rejected before the Gulf ambassadors’ withdrawal last month. Amid Qatar’s refusal to sign the document, the three countries threatened to escalate, reportedly considering trade sanctions and closing their airspace and land borders with the emirate. Influential Gulf writers even suggested that military action was not off the table. After Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiya signed the deal on Thursday, the Gulf countries will now give Doha a two-month "probation period" for compliance before sending back their envoys.
For Saudi Arabia, many of these sticking points in its relationship with Qatar are not new. But this time, Riyadh is adamant that it will contin
ue to escalate the conflict with its much smaller neighbor if Doha does not come around to its point of view. For Qatar, however, any major compromise will be costly for its regional standing. It remains to be seen how these divergent interests will be reconciled.