Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar last week, making the looming political impasse in the Gulf seem much closer.
In a joint statement, the three Gulf countries pointed to the Qatari government’s intervention in their internal political affairs by “supporting those who threaten the security and stability of the Gulf region.” They accused Qatar of financing organizations that directly threaten national security, and of interfering indirectly through soft political influence.
The statement obliquely referred to the Muslim Brotherhood, which along with other Islamist groups was designated as a terrorist organization by the Saudi government on March 7.
The decision was widely hailed in Saudi and Egyptian media circles, where criticism is mounting against a Qatari government suspected of financially and politically supporting the banned Islamist organization that was ousted from power in Egypt in July 2013.
The statement also accused Qatar of violating the Riyadh Agreement, which was signed between Saudi Kind Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and the Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Khalifa with Kuwaiti mediation three months ago.
The agreement, which was never made public, aimed to curb Qatar’s growing inclination to act independently from the rest of the Gulf countries, especially when it comes to its foreign policy, says Omar al-Hassan, a Bahraini analyst and the head of the Gulf Center for Strategic Studies.
“The Gulf countries have been increasingly worried about Qatar’s intervention in Egypt’s affairs, its help to the Muslim Brotherhood and its huge media machine against the rest of the Gulf countries. It is obvious that the agreement was aimed at curbing such an increasing influence,” Hassan explains.
The current spat between Qatar and Saudi comes down to “sharply competing strategic responses to the regional upheaval post-2011,” adds David Wearing, a doctoral candidate at SOAS, University of London.
In the Egyptian privately owned daily newspaper Al-Watan, columnist Moustafa Bakry wrote in detail about the contentious agreement, confirming that it was meant to put an end to Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
The agreement allegedly obliged Qatar to end its support of the Muslim Brotherhood, refuse to allow its fleeing members to enter Qatari borders and commit to the “Gulf’s situation” against this organization, he wrote.
The agreement also pressured Qatar to declare its rejection of “the terrorist practices of the Brotherhood.” Finally, Qatar was mandated to block inflammatory statements by Brotherhood supporters living there, specifically the prominent Egyptian religious scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
In addition, Qatar was required to “review the editorial policy of the Qatari-based Al Jazeera television network,” which has been repeatedly slammed for its allegedly biased coverage of the situation in Egypt and the Gulf region.
Bakry wrote in his leak that one of the agreement’s main points was directly related to Egypt, as the Qatari Emir was bluntly required to “review his foreign policies towards Egypt” by declaring his government’s support for the military-proposed roadmap imposed after the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi.
In return, the rest of the Gulf countries would be committed to working on ending the media tug of war between the two countries, Bakry said, as well as calling on Egypt to send back its ambassador to Doha.
The agreement allegedly designated a six-month timetable for the “complete reconciliation” between Egypt and Qatar to be implemented.
“The agreement entailed that Egypt should be left to solve its own political problems alone, with the Gulf only offering its economic help. The Gulf countries wanted to ensure that Qatar’s policy complies with the rest of the Gulf region, which was not the case. The decision thus was a warning signal to Qatar,” Hassan asserts.
In an official statement, the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs hailed the three countries’ withdrawal of their ambassadors, lauding the move as a response to Egypt’s continuous calls to halt Qatar’s political intervention into the internal affairs of other Arab countries.
“The decision also reflects the rejection of these countries of Qatar’s positions,” ministry spokesperson Badr Abdel Aty said, adding that the Egyptian Ambassador to Qatar, who was recalled to Cairo in early February, would remain in Egypt for the time being for “political and sovereign reasons.”
Abdel Aty cited Qatar’s intervention into sovereign affairs, refusal to extradite Egyptians facing criminal charges at home and the performance of the Qatari media as reasons for the diplomatic spat between the two countries.
The statement issued by Saudi Arabia, Bahrian and the UAE cites the same reasons almost verbatim, raising questions around the role of the Egyptian government in exerting pressure to issue that decision.
But Wearing believes it is not the potential influence of Egypt’s government over the Gulf counties that resulted in the recall of the ambassadors.
“I don’t think it shows the influence of the Egyptian government so much as it shows the importance of what is happening in Egypt to Saudi, and to the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] more generally. Obviously this isn’t just about Egypt. There are internal reasons why the Saudis and UAE in particular are hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood,” he explains.
Saudi columnist Abdullah al-Heeda elaborated on the issue in the London-based Saudi newspaper Al-Arab.
The Brotherhood’s downfall in Egypt led directly to the growth of “semi-dissident movements” in Saudi led by well-known religious scholars, Heeda said, which made it lucrative for Qatari policy makers to interfere in Saudi internal issues.
“Riyadh [notified] Doha [about] evidence that the Qatari government has given major support to Saudi dissidents who live outside Saudi by offering them headquarters and financial assistance,” Heeda wrote in his article, “How Qatar drowned the father Emir in the sea of Gulf anger,” referring to the former Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa.
Khalifa still controls the foreign policy of the emerging influential Gulf country, Heeda claimed, “contrary to his son, who I know understands Qatar’s need to reform its foreign policy.”
The UAE accuses Qatar of directly financing political dissidents, especially those who work within the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood branches there, Heeda claimed.
Hassan believes that the UAE fears the Brotherhood’s potential threat to the stability of the country, and its ambitions.
“The UAE is unwilling to face any possibilities of experiencing any lack of stability that would completely crash its growing economy,” he explains.
Bahrain also has its own worries. Heeda specifically referred to Al Jazeera’s coverage of the unrest in the small Gulf country, which was a major factor in Manama’s decision to withdraw its ambassador from Doha.
Kuwait played a role in postponing this decision, Heeda added.
Qatar’s preliminary reaction has been to insist on continuing in its foreign policy, and to claim that the decision of the three Gulf states was not a result of any security threats but rather due to the “independence of Qatari foreign policy.”
“The independence of Qatar’s foreign policy is simply non-negotiable,” said Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah at a talk at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, according to a statement published on the ministry’s official website.
The statement added that the Qatari government is “pursuing an independent foreign policy free from any external influence and it did not follow the ‘axes mentality’ prevailing in the Middle East.”
“I strongly believe that the recent statements made by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have no relationship whatsoever with the internal security of the GCC countries, but they are related to clear differences in views on international issues,” Attiyah asserted.
Wearing believes that Qatar could remain steadfast with its foreign policy choices by continuing to support Islamists, and host media organizations and think tanks that Saudi and the rest of GCC countries see as “hostile.”
“[Qatar] could decide, in addition, to reach out to Iran and assist in the latter’s attempted rapprochement with the West, which would complement Qatar’s self-image as a diplomatic hub. That would certainly escalate the split with Riyadh, which is apparently furious with Oman for facilitating US-Iran talks a few months ago,” Wearing adds.
The split could endanger the existence of the GCC itself, some say.
The future of the GCC has always been a point of contention, according to Coline Schep, a Middle East and North Africa analyst at Control Risks.
On the one hand, Saudi and Bahrain are pushing to maintain a strong Gulf union to counterbalance a rise in Iranian influence, but Oman and Qatar are resisting those ambitions, she says.
Qatar is “keen to maintain relative autonomy from Saudi Arabia as well as their cordial relations with Iran. Saudi Arabia and its peers are also likely to feel somewhat alienated by Qatar’s recent unilateral rapprochement to Turkey,” Schep asserts.
Hassan fears that the recent spat may actually endanger the future of the 30-year-old Gulf organization.
“I believe that there is no sign of alienating Qatar from the GCC, but the vicious media tug of war may definitely escalate the situation to more dangerous levels,” he adds.
But Schep believes that a complete disintegration of GCC is unlikely to happen.
“While a significant and sustained downturn in GCC relations could theoretically lead to border closures or a re-inflammation of historic territorial disputes between Qatar and its neighbors, this is quite unlikely in the short term,” Schep explains.
“All parties are likely to want to avoid jeopardizing significant mutual economic interests for the time being, such as the Qatar-UAE gas pipeline,” he says. “Looking ahead, further diplomatic or symbolic moves are currently more likely than far-reaching economic sanctions or sudden security measures against Qatar.”