How Qatar Lost the Middle East

The oil-rich emirate once was heralded as the Arab world's rising power. Now, its neighbors are pressuring it to take a back seat role.


ABU DHABI — "The good times are over," a Doha-based diplomat told me glumly last week, as if foretelling the political earthquake about to hit Qatar.

On March 5, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain announced in a joint statement that they were withdrawing their ambassadors from Doha — a move that escalates their long-running feud with the tiny, gas-rich emirate to its most fraught point in recent memory. Qatar, the countries said, had failed to live up to its pledges made in a November meeting in Riyadh not to interfere in other Gulf countries’ affairs, not to support groups threatening regional stability, and not to host "hostile media" — a likely reference to programming on the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera network.

The moves follow three years of growing tensions between Qatar and other Arab Gulf countries about how to cope with the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence. Doha championed the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt, supported its influence within the Syrian opposition, and provided hundreds of millions of dollars to its Palestinian affiliate, Hamas. Saudi Arabia and its allies, meanwhile, have long seen the organization as a competitor for Islamist legitimacy, and supported its rivals throughout the Arab world.

The Gulf states’ diplomatic maneuver also tops a spectacular fall from grace for Qatar, which not long ago was hailed as an unlikely leading power in the Middle East. Over the last year, Qatar’s allies have steadily lost ground: Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi was ousted from power and leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, who could frequently be spotted in Doha’s hotel lobbies sipping tea and meeting diplomats, were jailed. In the summer of 2013, Saudi Arabia also took a leadership role in the Syrian uprising, usurping Qatar’s role as the primary financer and political backer of the opposition.

"Qatar took a step back with the Syrian opposition," says one Doha-based opposition member. "Politically, it is in the back seat — or maybe not even in the car."

But what seems to have angered Qatar’s neighbors most is Doha’s persistent attempts to regain the political initiative in the Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood has suffered setbacks across the region, but they still have a friend in Qatar.

Doha has been trying "very actively to repair and maintain relations with Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia," says Gerd Nonneman, dean of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. "But they are not going to compromise their view of what’s right and proper, or effective, just to get into the good books of the rest of the Gulf."

Wednesday’s decision followed a meeting of Gulf foreign ministers late Tuesday, which newspapers described as "stormy." It’s not clear what the exact trigger for the diplomatic action could have been, though one possible irritant may have been the Qatari foreign minister’s trip to Iran in late February. Speaking from Tehran, the Qatari official suggested that Tehran could play a role in political talks to end the Syrian crisis — a notion sharply rejected in Riyadh. Inter-Gulf relations have been particularly difficult since last summer. Setbacks in Qatar’s foreign policy coincided with the June inauguration of a new Qatari emir, the 33-year-old Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who came into office vowing to focus on domestic affairs. Doha’s once-busy conference halls may have quieted, but many in the Gulf believe Qatar has continued to quietly support Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and hardline Syrian Islamist groups.

Most annoying to Gulf states has been Brotherhood-linked Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a longtime exile with Qatari citizenship and a hugely popular weekly show on Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel. Qaradawi has denounced other Gulf countries’ support for the military-backed government in Egypt, going as far as to say in January that the UAE was opposed to Islamic rule. After attempting unsuccessfully to resolve matters quietly, Abu Dhabi summoned the Qatari ambassador on Feb. 2 in protest.

Qaradawi is also a wanted man in Cairo, though Doha has declined to comply with Egyptian requests for his extradition. Qatar has insisted that Qaradawi is an independent citizen and that he doesn’t represent Doha’s foreign policy. But his prominence in Qatari intellectual circles and on Al Jazeera has led many to believe otherwise. Even beyond Qaradawi, Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel has consistently provided pro-Brotherhood figures with a pulpit from which to condemn the military coup in Cairo. Egypt has responded by jailing nine Al Jazeera staff members, accusing them of supporting the Brotherhood.

Qatar’s perceived support of the Muslim Brotherhood has also not gone over well with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which view the organization as a subversive threat that could seek to overthrow the Gulf’s ruling monarchies. Both countries, as well as Kuwait, have rushed to aid the post-Brotherhood Egypt, offering a combined $12 billion in aid to the new military-backed government. At home, the UAE has brought dozens of alleged Brotherhood members to trial, including Emirati, Qatari, and Egyptian citizens.

Tension between Qatar’s new emir and his fellow Gulf leaders had been rising for months before Wednesday’s announcement. The pledges Qatar is accused of breaking were made during a meeting in Riyadh in November 2013, and relate to the implementation of a 2012 Gulf Security Agreement that stipulates all members must refrain from interference in fellow signatories’ internal affairs. The agreement was seen as a pre-emptive reaction to turmoil elsewhere in the Middle East, following the uprisings of the Arab Spring — but fellow Gulf countries accuse Doha of failing to put the policies into action.

Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah sat between the Qatari and Saudi leaders, reviving a role he has often played to mediate disputes among Gulf brethren. Apparently not trusting the discussion alone to alleviate tensions, the Qatari emir was asked to put his promises on paper. "The three countries had hoped" that the pledges would "be put into effect by the State of Qatar if signed," Wednesday’s joint statement reads.

After that initial gathering, Gulf countries held at least two more meetings in an attempt to convince Qatar to change its ways. On Feb. 17, the three countries asked their foreign ministers to "clarify the seriousness of the matter" to Qatar, the statement says. Meeting in Kuwait, the countries agreed on a mechanism to implement Qatar’s promises. But arguing nothing has changed since, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain now say they will have to "start taking whatever they deem appropriate to protect their security and stability by withdrawing their ambassadors."

Qatar’s cabinet reacted with "regret and surprise" to the ambassadors’ withdrawal, a statement from the official news agency said. Doha also announced that it will not withdraw its own ambassadors and is "absolutely keen on brotherly ties."

The next move is Qatar’s. Back in 2002, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Doha in anger over Al Jazeera’s coverage; it took half a decade and savvy maneuvering to restore relations. Even if Doha is finally out of the international spotlight, its trickiest diplomacy may lie ahead.

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