Qatar: pulled back into line

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(391)

One of the many casualties of the end of the Arab Spring is the Gulf state of Qatar, a country that up till recently had seemed best placed to emerge as a leading power in the new post-revolutionary Arab world.

Its main allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have turned on the island kingdom, withdrawing their ambassadors and hinting that the gas rich monarchy would be expelled from the powerful bloc.

Recent reports appear to indicate that Qatar is recanting its support for the Arab Spring, and reining back its sponsorship of the Muslim Brotherhood.

This is a far cry from the days when Qatar stood out as the only country prepared to embrace change (although, of course, not within its own borders).

After seizing power in 1995, its ruler Sheikh Hamad al-Thani had sought to position Qatar as a major power in the Arab world.

He initiated a strategy of playing for all sides - Qatar hosts Centcom the US military command centre for the Middle East, had friendly relations with Israel, as well as hosting the controversial and fiery Egyptian-born cleric and Muslim Brotherhood supporter, Yussef al-Qaradawi.

Before the onset of the Arab Spring, Sheikh Hamad had alarmed other regimes with a series of high-profile gestures towards resistance organisations.
He visited the southern Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil, a Hizbollah stronghold that was heavily damaged in the 2006 war with Israel, with the promise of 150 million pounds in reconstruction money.

He made a similar visit, and similar promise of aid, to the Gaza Strip following the 2009 Israeli attack, becoming the only Arab ruler to openly defy the Israeli blockade.

Qatar's greatest asset, apart from being the richest per capita country in the world - 61,000 pounds compared to 31,000 pounds in the US and 18,000 pounds in Saudi Arabia - was the state-backed Al Jazeera TV station.

Al Jazeera became the pre-eminent voice of the growing dissent before the Arab Spring. Its coverage of the invasion of Iraq and Israel's wars on Lebanon and Palestine, among others, earned it a global audience and large Arab following at a time of heavily censored state media.

Al Jazeera journalists acquired a reputation, much of it well deserved, for brave, direct and impartial reporting. Today its journalists are languishing in an Egyptian jail.

The news outlet became the popular face of Qatar's new role in the region, presenting itself as non-sectarian and an enlightened kingdom that belied its austere cultural norms - Qatar, like its powerful neighbour Saudi Arabia, adopted the conservative Wahhabi version of Islam.

With its growing international asset portfolio, the prestigious 2022 World Cup, and high reputation as a major investor in the arts, Qatar's reputation was growing (notwithstanding its callous treatment of foreign workers).

The Arab Spring opened up a world of possibilities for the Qataris. Sheikh Hamad used the country's vast gas income to buy influence and extend and develop its hegemony.

It backed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, granting the government billions of dollars in aid, bankrolled sections of the Syria opposition, backed Shia Muslim insurgents in Yemen, and helped to arm Libyan rebels.

In the glow of the revolutions, Sheikh Hamad was hailed as a visionary who had placed Qatar on the right side of history. But following the coup that toppled Mohamad Mursi's government, as well as the failure to overthrow the Syrian regime, Qatar has become isolated.

In June 2013 Hamad suddenly declared he was handing power to his son Tamim al-Thani. The setbacks in Egypt and Syria, and the end of Hamad's rule, gave Qatar's neighbours an opportunity to clip its wings.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, all part of the GCC, recalled their ambassadors after Qatar had apparently reneged on a secret security pact, known as the Riyadh Document, to drop its support for the Brotherhood and muzzle Al Jazeera.

According to some commentators part of the deal was that Qatar had to expel leading Brotherhood figures - an act of humiliation for the monarchy.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies have long been hostile towards the Brotherhood, fearing that the movement's popularity could give voice to growing dissent at home.

The official word is that Qatar has now agreed to stand by the GCC's "interests, security and stability". The Saudi funded Al Arabiya TV network (set up as a rival to Al Jazeera) declared Qatar as the "prodigal son" by returning to the fold.

The Bahraini newspaper al-Ayyam reported that Qatar had promised to tone down its pro-Brotherhood reporting and stop referring to the military takeover in Egypt as "a coup".

Qatar is said to have stopped demanding the military regime in Egypt hand back the aid it gave Mursi's government.

Qatar promised to drop its open support for Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen, considered by Saudi Arabia to be a serious threat in its "backyard".

Some reports claim that the GCC is also demanding that Qatar declare the Brotherhood a "terrorist" organisation.

Following the latest GGC agreement, Qaradawi has not delivered any of his fiery Friday prayer sermons. His silence sends a clear message that Qatar appears to be toeing the line.