Inside Doha, at the heart of a GCC rift
DOHA // On a recent evening outside the Omar Bin Al Khattab mosque, a large, stark building near a central Doha highway, a group of Jordanian men discussed the diplomatic dispute that has plunged the Gulf Cooperation Council into its most serious crisis in decades.
“It will blow over,” said one, who declined to give his name. “Give it two weeks.”
The mosque from which they had just emerged, along with a large congregation including Egyptians and Qataris, both men and women, is used by Youssef Al Qaradawi, a spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, to deliver his Friday sermons.
His teachings both in the mosque and on the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera television have in part been blamed for the decision by the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to withdraw their ambassadors from Doha earlier this month.
With Qatar looking increasingly isolated and reports of possible sanctions from its GCC neighbours, many are wondering why Qatar continues to host key figures from the Muslim Brotherhood, which has an ideology fundamentally at odds with Gulf monarchies.
In the lead up to the withdrawal of the ambassadors, Saudi Arabia demanded that Doha expel Qaradawi, an Egyptian in his 80s, after sermons in which he was critical of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
When their ambassadors were withdrawn on March 5, the three countries accused Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, of failing to implement an agreement not to interfere in their internal affairs. That was followed by an announcement from Saudi Arabia designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, a move supported by the UAE.
Qatar’s foreign policy has also been at odds with other GCC members. In the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, Doha supported Islamist organisations and Muslim Brotherhood-led administrations, including that of Egypt’s former president Mohammed Morsi.
It also hosts exiled members of the Brotherhood from Egypt and Syria, where Qatar is accused of channelling funds to radical elements fighting the regime of Bashar Al Assad.
The relationship between Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood, according to Carnegie Center visiting fellow and Muslim Brotherhood expert, Raphael Lefevre, “has been one of converging interests and mutual trust” since the Arab Spring and is not likely to end.
“Qatar has surfed on the wave of the Arab Spring by supporting the Brotherhood which was quite popular when Arab autocrats fell. Doha hoped its policy would earn it friends in high places and thus make it a regional power to be reckoned with.”
Yet Qatar’s close relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, a vast social and political organisation with branches across the Middle East, goes back to well before the 2011 uprisings.
About 60 years ago the young country’s rulers turned to Abdul-Badi Saqr, an Egyptian Islamist, to help run its educational institutions. In subsequent years, Qatari officials recruited an influx of Islamist teachers from Egypt.
Qaradawi moved to Qatar in 1961 where he ran a religious institute before becoming a dean at Qatar University.
But over the years Qatar’s rulers kept the Muslim Brotherhood’s political influence within the country in check, while allowing the group to direct its activities to other countries in the region, according to a recent article by David Roberts, an expert on Qatari foreign policy at King’s College London.
Despite being a Wahabbi country with historical ties to Saudi Arabia, Qatar also saw the Brotherhood as a way to project its influence abroad and compete with Riyadh.
Islamists including Syrian opposition dissidents enjoying safe haven in Doha say they expect no change in the level of support from their Qatari hosts, despite the pressures from other GCC members.
They also say there is not pressure to reign in their work, expressing anger over what they perceive as Saudi hypocrisy and attempts to muzzle moderate Islam.
At Qatar University, Saleh Mubarak, a Syrian engineering professor and independent member of the Syrian National Council, the Syrian opposition bloc supplanted by the Syrian National Coalition in 2012 after accusations it was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, said he did not envisage any decrease in support.
“We received a lot of pledges and the only ones that were fulfilled were from Qatar,” he said.
“In Qatar you don’t go around calling yourself Muslim Brotherhood. You can’t go to their offices. There is no headquarters. Qatar supports many individuals, not organisations.”
Mr Mubarak said he did not expect Qatar to expel anyone, but “they might ask some people to tone down their rhetoric a little.”
Since the ambassadors were withdrawn there have been several reports that Saudi Arabia demanded Qatar expel Islamists, close the local branch of the American Brookings Institution and shut down Al Jazeera.
Yet Qatar appears ready to stand firm.
Deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute Michael Stephens said any shift in Qatar was a shift in public perception and not in policy.
“They know now that people don’t trust them and starting to see that they need to explain to people why they are doing what they are doing.”
But he said, “Qatar has been very clear. They are not going to be pushed about. If they do, it looks very embarrassing. So right now we’ll see them stand fast.”
With a characteristically pallid response, Qatar has dismissed the demands for change, describing its foreign policy as “non-negotiable”.
Back outside the Omar bin Al Khattab mosque last Thursday evening there was some concern over the health of Qaradawi who had failed to appear for his sermon the previous Friday due to “ill health”.
The imam who had led that evenings sermon declined to comment on Qaradawi’s teachings or his relationship with the Qatari state, but said the matter was a “small issue”.
Averting his eyes and speaking via a third party, the imam said, “he’s on old man,” adding that Qaradawi was at home.
Taimur Khan contributed reporting from New York