Qatar, Saudi Arabia Not on Same Page in Syria

The Saudis are arming radical Salafists while Qatar is supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.

French president François Hollande greets Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, in Paris, August 22
French president François Hollande greets Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, in Paris, August 22 (Elysée/Christelle Alix)

The two most powerful Arab Gulf states have been at the forefront of supporting the opposition against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria but if his regime falls, Qatar and Saudi Arabia could easily fall out over the future of the country.

The monarchies of the Persian Gulf, united in the Gulf Cooperation Council, have sectarian and strategic interests in hastening Assad’s demise. They’re suspected of arming fellow Sunni Muslims in Syria who comprise some 70 percent of the population and form the backbone of the rebel movement against the minority Alawite regime in Damascus.

Because Assad is Iran’s only Arab ally, replacing his government with a majority Sunni regime would weaken the Shia axis in the Middle East and limit Iran’s retaliatory options in case there is an American or Israeli attack on its nuclear sites which Arab and Western nations suspect are part of a weapons program.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia have advocated military intervention in Syria since early this year. Qatar’s Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani said in January that “to stop the killing, some troops should go.” Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Prince Saud bin Faisal Al Saud said in February that providing weapons to the Syrian opposition was an “excellent idea” and a top Arab diplomat told Agence France-Presse the next month, “Saudi military equipment is on its way to Jordan to arm the Free Syrian Army.”

Qatar was among few Arab states to back an intervention in Libya last year when, like Assad, the country’s ruler, Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, tried to suppress a popular uprising against his government with brutal force. Six Qatari fighter jets and two transport aircraft participated in the enforcement of a no-fly zone over the North African country and Qatar supplied weapons to the Libyan rebels which helped them to topple Gaddafi.

The Saudi kingdom stood largely on the sidelines of the Libyan operation but has enthusiastically embraced radical Salafist Muslim insurgents in Syria despite American apprehension. The United States fear that the growing jihadist movement in the Levant can backfire. Religious fanatics in control of Damascus may be no improvement over Assad, except they would likely sever ties with Tehran.

Qatar, on the other hand, is apparently betting on the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, reports Rania Abouzeid for Time magazine. The Saudis want no relations with this Islamist group.

Saudi Arabia’s puritanical strain of Islam, Wahhabism, and the largely apolitical Salafist movement are at odds with the Muslim Brotherhood’s advocacy of political Islam or Islamism. The organization also favors republicanism and employs populist tactics to gather support in democratic systems, both clearly on display in Egypt since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in February of last year and contrary to Saudi Arabia’s monarchial and authoritarian form of government.

Despite a temporary alliance between Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the Saudi monarchy between the 1960s and 1980s to counter Gamal Abdel Nasser’s secular Arab nationalism, growing religious dissent in the kingdom especially after the Gulf War in 1991 and the rising threat of Al Qaeda alerted the Saudis to the potential appeal of political Islam. (Ironic, given that the monarchy’s legitimacy is, in part, derived from its guardianship of the holy cities Mecca and Medina and its close ties with the Wahhabi clergy.) They also regard warily Turkey’s form of Islamism, even if it is informed by more tolerant Sufi culture and Kemalist secularism.

Qatar’s and Turkey’s active support of the Muslim Brotherhood and the latter’s hope of molding the movement according to its own vision could further undermine the stability of the monarchy. So it is backing the Salafists in Egypt (the al-Nour Party) and Syria even if they’re increasingly political as well and prone to jihadism.

Qatar doesn’t share the Saudis’ concerns. Unlike its neighboring kingdom, which houses a Shiite majority in its oil rich Eastern Province, Qatar’s population is largely homogenous and the royal family is popular and strong, allowing the emirate to conduct an activist foreign policy, whether on the Al Jazeera television channel or with fighter jets in the skies over Libya — preferably both.

David Roberts observed in Foreign Affairs magazine last year that “being at the forefront of popular Arab opinion and defending fellow Arabs against an onslaught from a widely hated dictator is a priceless commodity” for Qatar’s leaders, “both at home and abroad.”

Qatar believes that it’s on the ascendancy as an Arab leader while the Saudis are playing defense.