By Courtney Freer
Many have speculated that one cause behind the Gulf crisis is Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood, but the history of the organisation in the countries behind the rift complicates this narrative.
In its first decades of oil growth, Qatar’s relationship with Muslim Brotherhood exiles was similar to that seen in neighbouring Gulf states, who, in need of staff for their nascent education and judicial systems, welcomed Brotherhood sympathisers and members seeking refuge from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt.
How organisations like the Brotherhood are treated in the GCC seems to vary according to the level of political participation generally allowed and the degree to which regimes consider them linked to broader opposition movements
Since that period in the 1950s and 1960s, these states’ political stances toward local Muslim Brotherhood groups have changed drastically, illustrating the degree to which Brotherhood affiliates have become increasingly nationalised, and the way each Gulf regime considers the local Brotherhood threatening to its hold on political power.
As a whole, government treatment of these organisations in the GCC seems to vary according to the level of political participation allowed and the degree to which regimes consider them linked to broader opposition movements.
The Muslim Brotherhood thus is seen as more politically threatening in the closed systems of Saudi Arabia and the UAE where Brotherhood-linked individuals participated in calls for reform during the Arab Spring, than in states like Bahrain and Kuwait where the Brotherhood has the outlet of participation in parliamentary elections.
Kuwaiti citizens attend a parliament session at Kuwait’s national assembly in Kuwait City in January 2017 (AFP)
Those states which selectively co-opt or work alongside, rather than shut down, Brotherhood movements tend to feel less threatened by them not only domestically, but also abroad – as seen in the Qatari case.
The Qatari Brotherhood, which formally chose to dissolve itself in 1999, tended to focus on social policy rather than political reform. Indeed, the organisation never formed a political arm and primarily organised social and educational events. Today, lacking the means to disseminate its ideology through an official publication or even a formal meeting place, the Qatari Brotherhood does not appear to harbour ambitions beyond continuing intellectual and spiritual pursuits.
Possibly because of the lack of a political opening – and partly due to general satisfaction with the prevailing system – the Islamist sector in Qatar has not become politically active in any type of reform movement.
Further, because the government has been public about the need for democratic reforms, there is less space for Brotherhood, or other, agitation in this field. This non-confrontational relationship has led the government to be more accepting of the Brotherhood – both at home and abroad.
Qatar’s policies abroad
The Qatari government has backed Islamist movements overseas, to a large extent, to advance the country’s influence globally, rather than to promote a specific ideology. Indeed, if the Qatari government truly hoped to bolster Islamist ideology, it would do so domestically. Qatar’s willingness to engage with the Brotherhood abroad is instead closely linked to its desire to distinguish itself from Saudi Arabia.
The Qatari government has backed Islamist movements overseas, to a large extent, to advance the country’s influence globally, rather than to promote a specific ideology
This was particularly important for Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani ( who was emir from 1995-2013), as the Saudis allegedly backed a coup attempt against him in 1996. Further, Sheikh Hamad’s generation had recent memory of subservience to Saudi Arabia under the reign of Sheikh Khalifa (1972-1995). Backing the Brotherhood, or at least not cracking down on it, allowed Qatar to distinguish itself from the kingdom.
Qatar’s policies during the Arab Spring, at the root of the first GCC spat in 2014 and a contributing factor to this second crisis, further separated it from neighbouring Gulf states, which were considered to be leading a counter-revolution against the region’s popular revolts.
Taking a proactive stance, Qatar was the first country to grant official recognition to the rebel-led Libyan National Transitional Council, hosted a meeting for the Libya Contact Group, and sent six fighter jets as part of the NATO-led no-fly zone in March 2011.
Qatar also stirred controversy in its backing of Libyan Islamists, as it hosted several key Islamist figures, primarily those from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), most prominently Ali al-Sallabi. The link with al-Sallabi, who has lived in Qatar for nearly 10 years, and his brother Ismail, who also fought with Qatar-funded militias in Libya, is “probably personal more than ideological”.
Members of Ahrar al-Sham in Raqqa province in northern Syrian in August 2013 (AFP)
Qatar’s support for Libyan Islamists also had an impact on the Syrian crisis, with aid going to Syria through former Libyan rebels who took over in the post-Qaddafi era. The Qatari government also backed Islamist militias al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, while maintaining that its primary intention has always been advancement of the cause against Bashar al-Assad, rather than the promotion of any one (particularly Islamist) political bloc.
Qatar, though an outspoken member of the US-led coalition against the Islamic State group (IS), has been less active on the ground in recent years.
Qatar’s backing of Mohamed Morsi’s Brotherhood-led government in Egypt from June 2012-July 2013 was considered the clearest evidence of its Islamist leanings. During the year that Morsi was in power, Qatar gave or lent $7.5bn to Egypt. Still, Qatar maintained its support not for the Muslim Brotherhood per se, but rather for a popularly elected Egyptian government.
Since the fall of Morsi in July 2013, the military regime under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has suspended negotiations on the purchase of Qatari natural gas, in addition to returning $2bn that Qatar had deposited into the state’s central bank under Morsi’s tenure, following Qatar’s postponement of granting the aid and its imposition of new conditions for its receipt.
Around the same time, Saudi Arabia approved $5bn in aid and the UAE $3bn in aid to Egypt in July 2013, immediately following Morsi’s overthrow. Sisi also ratified a treaty controversially handing over the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi control.
While ties between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt have flourished, Qatar has been isolated as “a mini Ikhwanistan”, and Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE used the Brotherhood’s defeat in Egypt to isolate Qatar from the GCC for the first time in 2013.
To continue in PART TWO
Courtney Freer is a research officer at LSE’s Kuwait Programme on Development, Governance and Globalisation in the Gulf States. She recently completed her DPhil at University of Oxford and previously worked as a Research Assistant at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.