By Guillaume Beaud
Analysing events occurring in the Middle-East and North Africa always requires an analytical grid. Two of the most commonly mobilised are a confessional approach, the Sunni/Shia divide; and a social class approach that emphasises social fractures between traditional elites and civil societies. Initially, most upheavals are better understood through social struggles opposing regime elites and the population fighting for emancipation, welfare and political inclusion. The Arab Spring have generally echoed this analysis. However, my previous article showed that analyses of the Arab Spring suffered from a political instrumentalisation of the Sunni/Shia divide, especially by weakened states and regional powers, to maintain the regime in power. Yet, the overuse of the confessional rhetoric made the Sunni/Shia divide materialize in the collective imaginary.
Nevertheless, the current Gulf crisis and the diplomatic and commercial isolation of Qatar highlights a third analytical grid, too often ignored: the opposition between partisans of political Islam and those of secular Islam. This paper focuses on regional power and political dynamics of the biggest crisis between petromonarchies since the establishment of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981, through the lens of two competing visions of Islam.
The question of Qatar’s relations with Iran is secondary
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt have accused Qatar of an excessive “proximity” with Iran. However, this is largely incorrect; it is rather a pretext to hide their genuine motivations, and it also reflects the nature of their fear.
First, Qatar’s relations with Iran are pragmatic “working relationships”, due to their shared exploitation of a gas field. Second, Qatar’s alleged support to “Iran-sponsored Saudi Shias” in the Saudi region of Qatif has not been proven. In reality, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are trying to mobilise anti-Iran and Sunni-Shia discourses, in an attempt to benefit from the increasing Sunni-Shia polarisation induced by the instrumentalisation of communitarian differences. Yet, this rhetoric finds little resonance amongst other Red Sea monarchies. Kuwait holds an important 30% Shia minority, who entertains a close relationship with the Sunni al-Sabah monarchy, while Oman Kharidjites – the third branch of Islam – have historically acted as a mediating power between Iran and other Gulf states or the international community. Above all, although the UAE are concerned with expansionist Iran, especially since it lost three strategic islands to Iranian authority in 1971, the UAE trades in fact more with Iran than Qatar does. Its primary preoccupation is the fight against political Islam, embodied by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Qatar crisis: Political vs Secular Islam?
In fact, the core issue lies elsewhere, in an inter-Sunni opposition between countries advocating political Islam and those fighting Islamist influence within their political sphere. The current Qatar crisis indeed highlights two distinct blocs.
On the one side, Qatar and Turkey. Since Saudi Arabia distanced itself from the Muslim Brotherhood after the 1991 Gulf War, Qatar is the main supporter of the organisation. Ever since, Qatar has been providing financial resources, political legitimacy and a significant media channel: Al-Jazeera, whose shutdown is one of the Saudis’ current demands. As for Turkey, its uninterrupted support to Qatar should not be reduced to realpolitik and pragmatic Turkish interests arising from the recently established Turkish air base in that country. While these considerations are important, Turkey also shares the vision of an Islam present in the public and political sphere. Erdoğan’s AKP party is indeed an emanation of the Muslim Brotherhood.
On the other side, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, followed by Bahrein and Egypt. While all Gulf monarchies – excluding Qatar – share a common fear of the instability that the revolutionary tendencies of political Islam may induce, the UAE has been the most prominent counter-revolutionary actor, as it has placed the struggle against political Islam as the priority of both its domestic and foreign policies.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia has always fought the political Islam embodied by the Muslim Brothers. Indeed, although the kingdom is a de jure theocracy, it has been founded in 1932 on a non-negotiable agreement between the Saudi family and the Wahhabi religious establishment, stipulating that Islam would be restricted to culture and education, and would never go near political issues. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia has recently behaved less radically towards political Islam than the UAE, leading King Salman to lean on Muslim Brotherhood militias in Yemen. Salman indeed favours the Sunni/Shia rhetoric to oppose Iran, tempering his father Abdullah’s former hostility towards the Muslim Brotherhood.
Historically, the opposition between partisans of political and secular Islam has developed following the Iranian Revolution in 1979. At the time, the Muslim Brotherhood – notably present in Egypt and within Gulf monarchies – sided with revolutionary Iran and its Islamic Republic. Fearing domestic instability, the GCC was established in 1981, officially to protect the Arabian Peninsula from the spread of the Islamic Revolution. However, the 1991 Gulf War marked a turning point: following Saudi Arabia’s military failure to defend Kuwait against Saddam’s invasion, Qatar decided to distance itself from Saudi tutelage and hegemony. It started to diversify its foreign links, building ties with the West – through economic and defence relations, but also by establishing strong artistic, cultural and academic ties – and entertained softer relations with Rafsanjani’s pro-business Iranian government. Since then, Qatar has been seen as an outsider, who has played the card of geopolitical expansion, countering Saudi Arabia’s regional hegemony and supporting political Islam.
The Arab Spring: crystallising oppositions
The Arab Spring and the subsequent Muslim Brothers’ electoral successes in Egypt and Tunisia intensified the opposition of most Gulf monarchies. Indeed, Qatar – especially through Al-Jazeera’s international soft power – and Turkey supported Muslim Brothers across the Middle-East and especially during Mohammed Morsi’s election in Egypt in 2012; whereas Saudi Arabia and the UAE played an effective role in Morsi’s overthrow by Marshal El-Sisi in 2013. On one hand, most Egyptian Muslim Brothers found exile in Istanbul. On the other, Saudi Arabia offered asylum to former secular dictators Hosni Mubarak (Egypt) and Ben Ali (Tunisia). The UAE’s radical stance was demonstrated when it broke its relations with Tunisia after the Ennahda Party – preaching political Islam – became the country’s first political force, although the UAE were Tunisia’s second trading partner.
Moreover, Libya has been affected by the Qatar-UAE indirect confrontation since Gadhafi’s overthrow in 2011. Indeed, the NATO-led military intervention induced proxy military opposition, with the UAE supporting non-Islamist militias on the ground, while Qatar assisted groups advocating political Islam.  Today, the UAE and el-Sisi’s Egypt strongly back the self-proclaimed Marshal Haftar, who controls Eastern Libya. On the other hand, Tripoli’s “Governement of National Accord”, recognised by the UN and experiencing increasing Islamist influence, enjoys Qatar’s support.
Therefore, following the political breakthrough of the Muslim Brotherhood’s democratic-revolutionary Islamist tendencies and their call to overthrow Gulf monarchies (except Qatar, of course), petromonarchies amplified counter-revolutionary discourses to preserve their geo-economic interests and liberal economies. This also induced virulent domestic debates about the role of religion in the social and political life. Today, Saudi Arabia experiences gradual tension between the State and movements close to Muslim Brothers and Salafism. Thus, Saudi Arabia increasingly exploits the lens of the Sunni-Shia divide, in order to gather the Sunni majority around the monarchy against Iran and Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority. Further interesting point, Morsi’s visit to Ahmadinejad in 2012 demonstrated that the opposition between political and secular Islam could overcome the alleged Sunni/Shia divide.
Donald Trump’s visit at the Riyad Summit strengthened the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and preceeded the isolation of the Qatar and its Cheikh Tamim ben Hamad Al Thani, already isolated on the left side of the picture (Credit: Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)
The impact of Trump’s new approach
The shift from latent and indirect tensions to a regional consensus to isolate Qatar is not an isolated decision. At the end of May, the visit of President Trump to Riyadh officialised a change in the US relationship paradigm with the Gulf monarchies. Indeed, the Obama administration was characterized by (1) eroding US/Saudi special relationship, (2) American rapprochement with Iran and with Qatar, who hosts the Al-Udeid air base, the US largest base oversea and an operational hub for coalition strikes in Syria. Donald Trump has taken an opposite stance. His Middle-Eastern “Strategy” could be resumed in opposing Iran and, more broadly, countries advocating the role of Islam in the political sphere. Trump therefore re-initiated close relations with the Saudi Arabia/UAE/Egypt axis. Trump affirmed its unilateral support to Saudi Arabia and concluded a $110bn arm deal with that country. Additionally, Trump firstly met the Russians before his election actually thanks to the UAE as intermediaries. As for El-Sisi, he was the first world leader to congratulate Trump on Twitter after his election. Thus, the shifting American approach towards the Gulf induced (1) a change in the balance of power favouring Qatar’s long-lasting opponents, and (2) the interest for the latter to mobilize the questionnable Sunni/Shia rhetoric when accusing Qatar of proximity with Iran, to align with Trump’s anti-Iran rhetoric.
Guillaume Beaud is a final-year French student reading for a BA in European Studies. His research areas include geopolitics of the Middle-East, Iran, radical Islam and European foreign policy.
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Image 1: Saudi Press Agency via AP