Qatar and Saudi Arabia have challenged each other for greater influence across the Middle East and North Africa since the Arab Awakening began by placing bets on different horses.
Qatar has invested substantial monetary resources in support of the Muslim Brotherhood across MENA to become the organization’s primary benefactor. Saudi Arabia deems the Brotherhood a threat to the House of Saud’s religious authority within and beyond the Kingdom, and has generally supported rival political forces, including Salafists and secularists. This past month’s developments in Egypt and Syria suggest that the tide may be turning in Riyadh’s favor.
The rivalry is rooted in history. During the 1950s and 1960s, Saudi Arabia offered the Muslim Brotherhood a home in the Kingdom after Egypt (and other Arab nationalist regimes) purged the movement. Riyadh used the Brotherhood as a proxy in larger conflicts against nationalist and left-wing forces in the Islamic world. When Saudi Arabia and Nasser’s Egypt waged proxy wars in the Middle East, the Muslim Brotherhood was given Saudi support, as the movement was used to undermine the socialism and leftist nationalism Nasser sought to spread across the Arab world. A Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mamoum Al Hodeiby, even became one of Prince Nayef’s advisers.
The Brotherhood also played a crucial role in the establishment of Islamic charities inside Saudi Arabia, such as the Muslim World League (1962) and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (1972). During the Afghan-Soviet war, Riyadh utilized global networks created by the Brotherhood to maintain the flow of young jihadists and weapons into Afghanistan. However, the House of Saud never permitted the organization to establish a branch within the Kingdom, as it was perceived as a menace to the country’s Salafist order. When the Brotherhood condemned Saudi Arabia’s support for the U.S. in the Gulf War, Riyadh lashed out and accused the group of being ungrateful and divisive.
After Qatar began sponsoring Muslim Brotherhood intellectual forums, Saudi Arabia feared the group’s growing influence on its doorstep. Within this context, Mohammed Morsi’s fall last week constituted a geostrategic gain for Saudi Arabia. This week, Saudi Arabia announced it would provide Egypt with $5 billion in aid, in conjunction with the $4 billion granted by Kuwait and $3 billion from the United Arab Emirates. This action underscores how some GCC states share an anti-Muslim Brotherhood philosophy and desire to make gains in the Egyptian arena at Qatar and Turkey’s expense.
Following the election last week by the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) of Ahmad Assi Jarba as leader of the Syrian opposition movement, Riyadh was handed another victory. Jarba — the Saudi-backed tribal figure from eastern Syria — narrowly defeated the Qatari-backed candidate, businessman Mustafa al-Sabbagh. However, Saudi Arabia has gained leverage within the SNC at a time when the balance of power in Syria is moving in Assad’s favor.
A month ago the Syrian Army regained control of Qusayr, along with its Hezbollah allies, following several weeks of battle. Syrian government forces have also encircled the rebels in the outskirts of Damascus, and the Syrian military appears on the verge of scoring a decisive victory in Homs. Another blow to Assad’s enemies was the decision recently made by the U.S. House of Representatives to suspend the transfer of arms that President Obama approved after the retaking of Qusayr. The assertion made this week by the Russian government of proof that the rebels were responsible for the use of Sarin gas attacks over the past several months casts additional doubt about whether President Obama’s proposed arms transfer to the rebels will occur as planned.
Assuming the Syrian government regains control over Homs, the fight to regain control of Aleppo will be the next important step for the Syrian military, but the Assad regime and Hezbollah will find this difficult given the strategic depth that Turkey provides the rebels. If the opposition fails to unite — which seems increasingly likely — Qatar and Saudi Arabia will need to admit that Assad’s prospects for remaining in power long-term will rise, and along with it, Iran’s influence.
The rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia pits two strategic U.S. allies against one another. Washington surely understands that the conflicts in Egypt and Syria extend beyond an Islamist/secular divide, as disputes among Sunni Islamists prove increasingly influential in shaping the course of events. The Obama administration will be forced to make difficult decisions if this rivalry continues to define Doha and Riyadh’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Egypt and Syria. Qatar hosts the United States Central Command and, despite ongoing difficulties, Doha is attempting to play a role in the pending peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban before NATO’s expected withdrawal from Afghanistan next year. At the same time, Saudi Arabia continues to have a central role in Washington’s grander strategy of containing Iran.
For the time being, the Obama administration has favored Saudi Arabia given their shared interest in preventing jihadist extremist groups from acquiring power in rebel-held territory inside Syria, while also aiming to aggressively counter Iran and prevent Hamas from gaining further regional support. Saudi Arabia also maintains an anti-Hamas and pro-Fatah position that sits far better with Washington than Doha’s recently developed ties with Hamas. Perhaps Qatar’s new leadership will reconsider Doha’s approach to foreign policy by reining in its ambitions, accepting the limits placed on Qatar’s regional influence, and actively seeking to counter rumors that Doha directly supports Jabhat al-Nusra.
While the Syrian military and Hezbollah have achieved crucial gains in recent weeks, a prolonged stalemate in Syria should be expected, and Egypt’s future remains far from certain. As the region’s turmoil remains fluid it is difficult to forecast which direction the Qatari-Saudi rivalry will move, and how intra-GCC tension will influence the Syrian and Egyptian crises. For now, at least, Saudi Arabia is riding a wave that enables Riyadh to conduct a more assertive foreign policy. However, with Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq’s political landscape growing increasingly fragile as foreign powers continue to pour gasoline on Syria’s fire, the Saudis may soon also feel the heat.
This article was originally published in The Huffington Post.