Why Gulf nations are pressuring Qatar to distance itself from the Muslim Brotherhood.
In the fallout of al-Sisi’s military takeover in Egypt, members of the Muslim Brotherhood have scattered in search of refuge, with many ducking under the protective arm of Qatar. This tiny, predominantly Sunni Gulf nation has little military clout to speak of, and is rated by the Global Peace Index as the 19th most peaceful country in the world. Despite this generally non-aggressive stance, its long-standing policy of embracing the Muslim Brotherhood—which includes providing them a save haven—has rankled Qatar’s neighbors, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE—stirring so much ire that the Riyadh-led bloc recalled its ambassadors from Doha last month.
Facing so much heat, so close to home, Qatar agreed to make a number of changes to its foreign and domestic policies. Purportedly, concessions included preventing Doha-based Muslim Brotherhood leaders from appearing on Al Jazeera, deporting the Brotherhood-sympathizer, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and restricting Al Jazeera’s criticism of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other states. To what extent Qatar will comply with this Kuwait-brokered reconciliation—sometimes referred to as the Riyadh Agreement—remains to be seen, but in the interim, the much-discussed accord raises crucial, if fundamental, questions for analysts of international politics.
First, why would Saudi Arabia, with its deep Islamic roots, oppose the Muslim Brotherhood—the same organization it protected during the 1950s and 1960s? Second, why do these states—and particularly the regional hegemon, Saudi Arabia—feel threatened by the actions of a country, like Qatar, with a very small population occupying a tiny geographic area?
The answer to both questions underscores the role of ideology, and more broadly, ideas, in international politics. It is about how ideas can be a national security threat and a different type of power wielded by states. In 2011, the idea that the status quo was no longer possible and that political change was necessary brought together disparate groups across the political spectrum. Ideas about how individuals were connected across political borders through their shared experiences and identities also facilitated the transnational diffusion of these protests—protests that led to the overthrow of a number of highly entrenched regimes backed by powerful coercive apparatuses, and the world’s strongest power, the United States. In some places, such as Syria and Yemen, the fires are still burning, in other places, such as Libya, the embers may flare up at any time.
As such, the Arab uprisings raise similar questions about the role of ideational threats and their power on the stage of international politics. Conservative monarchies in the Gulf dedicated vast resources—economic, ideational, and military—to prevent revolutionary contagion and the spread of religious and political reformist ideologies, like that of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Fearing this fate for their own countries, Saudi Arabia and the UAE mobilized ideational resources at home and abroad to balance against the Muslim Brotherhood after they rose to power in Egypt in 2012. The ruling regimes feared the potential that a Muslim Brotherhood regime could project its ideological power and undermine domestic political stability in other states. In the religious realm, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic political activist outlook challenges Saudi Arabia’s quietist, status quo orientation toward politics. These massive information and disinformation campaigns, using both traditional media and new social media technologies closely connected to the state, were accompanied by repressive measures against supporters of the Brotherhood in their own countries. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi shared a sigh of relief when in 2013 the Egyptian military ousted the Islamist Morsi regime—and they ensured (or insured) their newfound peace of mind by pledging billions in aid to shore up the military’s grip on power.
Fear of Islamism is hardly new to the leaders of the Gulf States, or the Middle East more generally. Many Arab authoritarian regimes regarded the Islamist regime that seized power in Iran in 1979 as a substantial national security threat, even though the Islamic Republic’s military capabilities actually decreased immediately after the revolution. Resulting hostilities led not only to military clashes (the Iran-Iraq War) and arms racing, but also to an ideational campaign in which Saudi Arabia discredited the Iranian project by underscoring sectarian differences between Iran’s Shia-majority population, and the larger Sunni-dominant Middle East. Saudi Arabia doubled down on rhetoric that painted Shia beliefs as heretical in an attempt to neutralize any potential merits of the Islamic Republic’s revolution, thus decreasing its chances of being exported to other states in the region, and, in effect, mitigating Iran’s ideational power.
What the Saudi-Iranian rivalry shows, what the Riyadh Agreement with Qatar is symptomatic of, is the power (and fear) of ideology. In both cases, ideational power triggered Saudi Arabia’s threat perception and affected state policy. Wary of ideological subterfuge undermining domestic political stability and regime survival, the Saudi government engaged in ideational balancing in response to an ideological threat. Saudi Arabia counterframed potentially insurgent ideas through denial, defensive posturing, counterattacks, and neutralization.
Certainly the Riyadh Agreement contains naked attempts to counterframe ideas in the Middle East—several of the concessions are targeted at regulating Al Jazeera’s content, which, according to the New York Times is “the only Arabic-language news coverage in Egypt sympathetic to the brotherhood.” This is what makes Qatar, the stable, nonnuclear, militarily lean, quiet emirate on the Gulf, a threat to its neighbors. The perceived danger of Qatar has little to do with hard power, and much more to do with its open-door policy for exiled Islamists, its regional diplomacy, and its flagship platform: Al Jazeera—a news service, which operates as a powerful conduit for ideas—Islamist or otherwise.