The split between Qatar and the GCC won’t be permanent
There have been many shifts in the Gulf’s regional alliances in recent times, but are the current relationships sustainable? And what changes might we see in the future?
Many analysts focus on sectarian divides in the Gulf – particularly between Sunnis and Shias.
However, the intra-Sunni divides have not been so clear to foreign observers. Those divides include the following: purist Salafism (which many call “Wahabism”), modernist Salafism (which is the main intellectual ancestor of the Muslim Brotherhood) and classical Sunnism (which is the mainstream of Islamic religious institutions in the region historically).
Purist Salafism informs the official religious establishment of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Modernist Salafism has also found a sanctuary in the latter, through Qatar’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, and has influence elsewhere. Classical Sunnism officially informs the religious establishment of most other Sunni countries in the region. The UAE went through a phase where both purist and modernist Salafism affected the educational system and religious functionaries, but the country made a clear decision to invest in a more classical Sunni approach to religious teachings in the last decade.
The Saudi-UAE alliance puts the religious differences between the two countries to one side. Qatar, ironically, is far closer to Saudi Arabia religiously. For all of Doha’s political alliances with the Muslim Brotherhood, its religious establishment remains a purist Salafi one.
But it is not religious differences that are the most striking between the Gulf states: it is their recent divergent foreign policy directions, which cannot simply be viewed in terms of support or opposition for democracy and republicanism against monarchy or autocracy.
Qatar supported extremist Islamist movements within the opposition in Syria, for example, although it is now withdrawing from that position.
At one point, Saudi Arabia was a safe haven for many Brotherhood intellectuals and activists, particularly when they faced a more repressive atmosphere in Syria and Egypt. Such figures were deeply embedded within different elements of Saudi civil society, and affected the development of other Islamist movements in the country.
This obviously changed over time – but such a change cannot be viewed simply through the prism of religious differences between the modernist Salafism of the Brotherhood and the purist Salafism of Saudi Arabia.
The key to understanding these seemingly contradictory differences and the current regional alliances is far more secular and political in nature.
The first time the relationship strained between Saudi Arabia and the Brotherhood was in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War.
Different Brotherhood branches opposed the war to expel Iraq from Kuwait, while logistical support was provided by the Saudi state to the international forces against Iraq.
The fallout from those differences was the beginning of the end for warm relations between the Saudi authorities and the Brotherhood – and those geopolitical differences intensified tremendously with the revolution in Egypt.
The UAE also began to take the Brotherhood seriously as a supranational movement that aimed to radically change the face of the Gulf and the Arab world.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to see the current differences between Qatar and three of the other members of the GCC, as irreconcilable. Doha, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are currently pursuing national interests, informed by their own identities.
At present, the alliance between the UAE and Saudi Arabia is fairly solid, as both have an interest in understanding why Qatar appears intent on continuing its support for the Brotherhood and in reducing the regional effects of modernist Salafism.
But these relationships will undoubtedly change again.
If we’ve learnt anything in the last few years, it is that this region is in a deep state of flux, despite all efforts to constrain that process.
Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and the Brookings Institution in Washington DC
On Twitter: @hahellyer
Updated: March 24, 2014 04:00 AM