Doha aimed to spread its influence throughout the Arab world by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood with billions of dollars in aid, infrastructure projects, and other investments.
NEW YORK // Since 2011, Qatar has spent billions of dollars on aid, infrastructure projects and other investments that bolstered Islamists across Arab Spring countries.
Qatar had long-standing ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, and when the uprisings began in 2011 it backed the Islamist group with an aim to spread its influence across the Arab world.
The country lavished money on the Egyptian government of the now removed president, Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Brotherhood. While Egypt’s central bank returned US$2 billion (Dh7.34bn) of the aid last year, it is estimated that Qatar poured $8bn into Egypt between 2011 and last year.
In Libya, Qatar spearheaded the fight against Muammar Qaddafi’s forces, providing hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, military training and weapons. Most of the largesse went to Islamist rebels.
Doha is thought to have spent similarly large sums arming Brotherhood-linked rebels and other Islamist militants in the Syrian war.
In 2012, Qatar’s former emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, was the first head of state to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. He gave $400 million to the Hamas-run government there. Hamas is an Islamist party allied with the Brotherhood.
While there is no way to tally Qatar’s total foreign aid in the region since 2011, it is estimated that it spent about $9bn in helping bankroll Islamists in Libya, Syria and Gaza.
In Tunisia, when the Islamist Ennhada Party was in power, Doha invested hundreds of millions of dollars. Last year, Qatar National Bank gave Tunis $500m to bolster its foreign currency reserves as the government came under pressure from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to enact reforms. Qatar also spent $31m on housing projects in Tunisia, and invested in infrastructure and telecom projects.
Less is known about Doha’s support for Muslim Brotherhood factions among Yemen’s opposition. But it reportedly donated $80m to the Yemeni branch of the Brotherhood during the unrest that led to the end of president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s decades-long rule. Qatar also funded the establishment of a Yemeni television station, the Yemen Youth Channel.
But Qatar’s investment has since ebbed. Mr Morsi’s removal by the Egyptian military was a major setback, and in countries where Doha was once seen as a liberator, it is now perceived as a supporter only of Islamists, rather than the national interest.
Sheikh Hamad, the architect of Qatar’s Arab Spring-era foreign policy, stepped aside last year. His son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, assumed power and many speculated that the young, new emir would tame his country’s foreign policy ambitions.
While Qatar significantly reduced its involvement in Syria and was sidelined in Egypt, it is unclear if the perceived policy shift will be long-term.
“I’m not sure we have much evidence to suggest that Qatar has really pulled back a huge amount, but it is a small state and so it needs to heed the winds of change,” said David Roberts, an expert on Qatari foreign policy at King’s College London. “But it’s about the context closing down on Qatar.”
Support for the Brotherhood has deep roots in the Qatari government, although “it’s tactical” and “not fundamentally about ideology”, said Mr Roberts.
“Do these links still have utility? It’s a really difficult question because at the moment they’re actively damaging.
“But you do need to think of the long term and maybe they will come into some sort of use for you then.”