Qatar’s intrepid foreign policy has led to isolation among their traditional Arab Gulf allies such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Will the wealthy kingdom find a way to protect its economic and geopolitical interests as it continues to support the region’s various Muslim Brotherhood affiliates?
The State of Qatar has been the most active supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in the Middle East. The gulf monarchy has adopted a policy of financially and politically backing the MB’s regional affiliates even before the turbulent years of the Arab Spring.
Qatar’s MB foreign policy fingerprints can be found from Libya to Syria. Some cases have yielded a measure of success, such as in Tunisia, but outright failure for others, such as in Egypt.
This path has not been without costs. Qatar’s lowest point in GCC relations came when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors and threatened to close Qatar’s border for the alleged interference in GCC internal affairs. The MB and the influential pro-MB TV network Al Jazeera were the primary reasons for the divergence on a common foreign policy. However, this may be changing.
The Saudi factor
Saudi Arabia may be adopting a different tone under King Salman towards Islamist groups. Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad al Thani visited Saudi Arabia in April and met with the key security figures in the Saudi government.
Efforts by Saudi Arabia to have the Western countries impose sanctions on Qatar will abate. Greater cooperation on protecting and promoting Sunni interests in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria will lead to increased business ties in Saudi-Qatari private and public sectors.
Qatar sought to placate its GCC neighbors by asking MB figures to leave the kingdom last fall. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are cooperating to counter Iran’s growing foreign policy successes in the region. Qatar has also announced it will reopen its embassy in Baghdad, an indication of the shared desire to undermine Iran’s influence in Iraq.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia will likely face difficulty over the future of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi recently received a capital sentence and will be a sore sticking point for the Qataris and the new Saudi-backed regime in Egypt. A low-level insurgency continues to plague Egypt’s economy as young, radicalized MB members with political grievances engage in sabotage and arson.
Turkey stands with Qatar
Turkey, Qatar’s key regional ideological partner, has also been critical of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime in Egypt. After the fall of President Morsi’s government and subsequent banning, many MB members found safety in Turkey where they hoped to maintain and regroup the organization.
In March the Turkey Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Brat Junkar rolled out a new military cooperation agreement between Qatar and Turkey. The agreement allows for the stationing of troops in each country’s territory. Turkey has a long border with Syria and Qatar’s interests in supporting Islamist rebel groups there will likely be strengthened.
It appears that Qatar has been pushing for Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) to end its allegiance with Al Qaeda. Qatar’s deep connections to Sunni Islamist groups in Syria are evident. Al Jazeera recently interviewed JN’s leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani. Rebel brigades affiliated with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood are fighting alongside JN in Syria.
Gaza, Tunisia, and Libya
Hamas, with strong Qatari ties, has been perhaps the most enduring affiliate of the MB. Qatar has been approved to send building materials to the Gaza Strip. Reconstruction is expected to accelerate in the summer with only 10 percent of the $1 billion that Qatar pledged having been delivered.
The World Bank reported on the dire state of the Gaza Strip’s economy. Hamas is undergoing its own internal assessment and has been more reliant than ever on Qatar. The Palestinian group has been trying to repair ties with Iran over Syria, but appears to have had little success.
Ahmed Yousef, a senior level Hamas political advisor and lifelong MB member, has indicated that steps towards a regional consensus between Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar on the MB may be emerging.
Tension is still present in Tunisia’s political arena after allegations that President Essebi received a bribe from the UAE to implement a crackdown on the Islamist-leaning Ennahda Party, which now holds opposition in the country’s parliament.
Ennahda, drawing lessons from the Egyptian and Algerian experience, seeks to model its platform after the Turkish AK Party and appears to have adopted a path towards contributing to sustainable political pluralism in Tunisia. Qatar, which provides financial, diplomatic, and political support to Ennahda, will continue to square off with the UAE in order to maintain its most stable and politically normative successful project in that country.
Despite the thaw with Saudi Arabia, Qatar will still aim to preserve its MB allies throughout the region. The UN has been hosting the warring Libyan factions in Morocco. Positive results from the dialogue could unite the secular militias under General Khalifa Haftar with the Qatari-backed MB affiliated Justice and Construction Party (JCP) militias against the growing presence of the Islamic State.
Western support will continue
Qatar is unlikely to face any significant pressure from its Western allies. The al-Udeid Air Base is located in the desert south of Doha. The base is home the US Central Command and is a crucial hub for coordinating the ongoing operations against IS.
France and Qatar have also taken steps towards improving security ties. A $7.02 billion deal was signed for the delivery of 24 French Rafale fighter planes.
Internal divisions and miscommunication are present within the Qatar government, as demonstrated with the arrest of the BBC journalists who were invited to report on labor conditions. Despite this, Qatar’s Muslim Brotherhood projects will continue to be around for some time.
Muslim Brotherhood may have suffered political setbacks, but Iran’s growing power in the region will force Saudi Arabia and Qatar to find a place for the MB within a common strategy.