In a striking new development, the governments of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday said they were withdrawing their ambassadors from Qatar. In a joint statement, the three nations said Doha’s policies threatened their stability by means of “security work”, “political influence” and “hostile media.”
This is being widely interpreted as a response to Qatar’s continued sponsorship of the Muslim Brotherhood. Wednesday’s statement cited a 2012 security agreement signed by the Gulf Cooperation Council’s interior ministers, suggesting Doha’s actions were enabling Islamist attempts at subversion in the Gulf.
Qatar issued a statement that its ambassadors in the region would not be withdrawn in response. Doha insisted that the controversy was based on “a difference in positions on issues out of the Cooperation Council,” seeking to challenge the view that sponsoring the Brotherhood poses a threat to the other GCC members.
The Saudi, Bahraini and Emirati joint statement cited three main turning points to explain how their relations with Qatar had reached breaking point.
Behind closed doors
On Nov. 23, Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani visited Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh for a tense summit mediated by Amir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah of Kuwait. While there, Shaikh Tamim reportedly signed an agreement to terminate any policies or proxy relationships injurious to the other GCC states.
According to Joseph Kechichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, this commitment was then “duly endorsed by all GCC leaders a month later at their annual summit in Kuwait.”
Subsequently, the trilateral statement says Shaikh Tamim agreed while attending a summit in Kuwait last month to let GCC foreign ministers “develop a mechanism to monitor the implementation of the Riyadh agreement.” However, when the foreign ministers gathered in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday for what news sources are calling a “stormy” nine-hour meeting, Doha rejected their vision for such a mechanism.
It may be that the trigger for this rupture, however, was an inflammatory speech by Qatar’s firebrand cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a spiritual leader for the Brotherhood.
Qaradawi set off an international incident after he questioned the UAE’s Islamic pedigree earlier this year. Then, after a three-week absence from delivering Friday sermons, Qaradawi returned in late February with a speech that attacked “the scandals and injustices” of those “rulers who have paid billions of dollars to get President Mohammad Mursi out of power.”
According to the editor in chief of Rai al-Youm, Abdel Bari Atwan, the withdrawal of ambassadors from Doha was one of “several possible immediate and eventual measures” under consideration following Qaradawi’s speech.
Rogue foreign policy
Saudi frustration with Qatar’s foreign policy is a longstanding development, previously resulting in the withdrawal of the kingdom’s ambassador from Doha from 2002 until 2008. Bahrain’s support for Saudi foreign policy has been a matter of consistent principle of late. However, Doha may have overplayed its hand by upsetting the rulers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, facilitating a broader anti-Qatar coalition.
The UAE and Qatar have long been rivals in key sectors, with ambitious national airline projects and competing desires to serve as a financial hub for the region.
However, they have increasingly found themselves at odds on security matters as well, backing rival clients in battleground countries such as Libya, according to the Washington Post. Dubai’s veteran police chief has increasingly lashed out at actions by Qaradawi and pan-Arab news channel Al Jazeera that he believes incite violence inside the GCC.
Therefore, Qaradawi’s return to bashing neighboring countries on Qatari state TV may have simply been the last straw, especially after Abu Dhabi’s crown prince went out on a limb for Doha, stating: “There are no differences between the UAE and Qatar.”
Perhaps also adding to the tension in advance of Tuesday’s meeting, the UAE handed down a seven-year jail sentence earlier this week to Qatari national Mahmoud al-Jaidah on charges of colluding with a cell of the Brotherhood.
Meanwhile, Qatar nearly derailed January’s Syrian peace conference in Geneva, with members of the opposition considered close to Doha and the Brotherhood walking out of internal deliberations as an act of protest against their leadership.
Furthermore, Doha has apparently played host to Egypt’s Islamist activists in exile, even using Al Jazeera’s resources to put them up in hotels and broadcast them on TV.
Seasoned Gulf analysts such as Drs Kechichian and Theodore Karasik have even noted the emergence of rumors this week that Qatar has been colluding with Turkey and Iran to facilitate espionage inside the GCC, a shocking accusation if there is truth to it.
The withdrawal of Arab ambassadors from Doha could pose a grave challenge to the leadership of Shaikh Tamim, who is only just consolidating his authority as Qatar’s new emir. According to Atwan, those risks could quickly escalate given that regional leaders have threatened to expel Qatar from the GCC, and may be poised to block the country’s air traffic and only land border.
David Andrew Weinberg is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He previously served as a Democratic professional staff member at the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in the U.S. Congress. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.