Part of the crisis that has gripped the Persian Gulf owes its existence to the deep-rooted religio-ideological rift that has long pierced through the otherwise “Sunni” world. While undoubtedly a result of a power struggle between the House of Saud, a traditional autocrat monarchy, and Qatar, a self-proclaimed “moderate” Arab state, Qatar’s support for moderate – that is, non-militant – Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood has repeatedly landed it in hot water.
At the heart of Qatar’s support for one of the oldest Islamic reformist movements is the country’s struggle to develop its image as a modern state. This is perhaps also the objective behind Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup.
This has also been seen as a continuation of the policy Qatar adopted during the so-called Arab Spring when it embraced change in the Middle East and North Africa and supported transitioning states. Regional actors viewed Qatar’s approach as overreaching, and skepticism of Doha’s policy motivations increased.
The Muslim Brotherhood, in this context, is at the very epicenter of regional tension, and Qatar’s support for it is a bone of contention. Saudi Arabia and its allies have waged a war on the Brotherhood because it has become a real political factor, presenting an alternative to the region’s decaying monarchical and autocratic regimes, despite all the group’s shortcomings, shortsightedness, divisions and blunders.
This conundrum partly explains why states such as Turkey, professing an attachment to moderate political Islam, have refrained from following in the footsteps of the House of Saud. Instead, Turkey’s choice to send troops to Qatar emphatically shows how regional politics is changing at a time when Saudi’s efforts to establish its hegemony have reached a new height.
As such, far from being irrelevant to regional politics since the ouster of its government in Egypt at the hands of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Muslim Brotherhood not only remains particularly relevant but is also shaping new military and ideological alliances in the “Sunni” world, allowing such states as Turkey and Iran to tap into and use the scenario to advance their own regional agendas.
This is evident from what the Saudi authorities have said, that for Qatar to normalize its relations with “key Arab states”, it needs to take several steps, including ending its support of Palestinian Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood, on the other hand, has obviously rejected Saudi allegations of its sponsoring terrorism. It said in one of its statements posted on its website: “The Kingdom’s insistence on backing the obscene putschist [Egyptian] regime, providing it with financial and political support, attacking the moderate Islamist movement represented in the Muslim Brotherhood, and accusing it of terrorism, puts the Kingdom’s credibility at stake.”
Therefore, seen from the Saudi capital, Qatar is a source of instability: a tiny but rich nation that all too often opposes its neighbors’ efforts to isolate rival Iran, and which uses its resources to support “terrorist groups” such as the Brotherhood.
However, to the Saudis’ dismay, not all the allied states consider the Brotherhood a terror group. Even in the West the organization has somehow managed to survive without being universally labeled as a terrorist organization.
In 2014, the British prime minister at the time, David Cameron, ordered an investigative review into the Brotherhood and concluded that as far as the UK was concerned, the organization should not be described as a terrorist outfit. However, perhaps for fear of upsetting Middle Eastern governments with large defense budgets, Cameron refrained from giving it a completely clean bill of health, though it was not banned altogether.
An 11-page summary of the report made it amply clear that the UK government accepted, despite having broader disagreements over the organization’s ideology and political tactics, that the “Muslim Brotherhood has not been linked to terrorist-related activity in and against the UK” and has “often condemned terrorist-related activity in the UK associated with al-Qaeda”.
Even for such states as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the issue is not simply whether or not the Brotherhood is linked with militant activity in their own countries or elsewhere. For them the issue is rather starker: Muslim Brotherhood activists, after all, have long been trying to take power away from them, and given the degree of support they enjoy, they are seen as a genuine threat, needing to be dealt with forcefully.
Even within the US, while support for the Brotherhood does not seem to exist, Qatar’s support for the organization is unlikely to lead to sweeping policy changes. This is not simply because Qatar has the biggest US military base in the region. Part of the reason US President Donald Trump’s verbal condemnation of Qatar is unlikely to translate into an actionable policy is the threat that this rift is posing to the US interests in the region.
More important, it is utterly damaging for the Trump administration’s policy of reverting the balance of power back to the US and its Sunni-Arab allies’ advantage by undoing the damage done during the Barack Obama era.
Therefore, as far as the US position is concerned, the divide is going to allow Russia and Iran more leverage to “meddle” in Middle Eastern politics and thus further reduce US influence.
Therefore, what we have seen in the US response to the crisis is a qualitatively different approach to the crisis. While Trump was led to denounce Qatar for its support for some terror groups – signifying that he had listened to the concerns raised by the Saudi leaders he met in Riyadh last month – the element of Qatari support for the Brotherhood has not appeared a strong enough point to discourage the US from finalizing multibillion-dollar defense deals with Qatar.
The recent deal itself signifies that the US is still willing to play a mediatory role by not taking unchangeable positions between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Only by doing so can the US secure for itself ample space in the region against its regional and global competitors.
The US, that is to stay, is keeping itself attached to the region by maintaining a manageable distance from the ideological crisis that involves political and systemic changes in the region, although there is no gainsaying that the current monarchical system does serve the US interests very well.
However, what is clearly on the horizon is that with the Brotherhood ideology as its centerpiece, profoundly important new alliances are emerging, with military leaders and Arab royal families in Saudi and the UAE opposing a Turkish-led Islamist bloc that takes in Qatar, Tunisia and maybe others in the future, including Iran.
The new alliances will have other issues to deal with as well. Of particular importance will be the challenge the Brotherhood will come to pose in the long run to Qatar’s and even Iran’s own political systems.