By Courtney Freer
Many have speculated that one cause behind the Gulf crisis is Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood, but the history of the organisation in the countries behind the rift complicates this narrative.
Under the leadership of Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, to whom Sheikh Hamad passed power in June 2013, the relationship between Qatar and Saudi Arabia appeared, at least initially, to be improving.
Since implementation of the 2013 GCC deal and until last month, relations had seemed to be improving between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the GCC more generally
Tellingly, Sheikh Tamim’s first trip abroad was to Riyadh. He also acceded to conditions of the GCC Agreement signed in November 2013 which demanded that Qatar not to back “anyone threatening the security and stability of the GCC whether as groups or individuals – via direct security work or through political influence, and not to support hostile media.”
Perceived failure to comply with such demands led to withdrawal of the Bahraini, Saudi and Emirati ambassadors to Qatar in March 2014; they returned only in November 2014 after Qatar expelled seven senior members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and pledged to “stop attacking Egypt in al-Jazeera broadcasts,” largely by removing Egyptian Brotherhood ideologue Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s platform on the station.
Since implementation of that GCC deal and until last month, relations had seemed to be improving between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the GCC more generally.
Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in Cairo in February 2011 where hundreds of thousands of Egyptians were still gathered, a week after Hosni Mubarak stepped down (AFP)
Indeed, following Sheikh Tamim’s first visit to Riyadh, and in the face of accusations from the Egyptian government in February 2015 that Qatar supported terrorism in Libya, the Bahraini secretary general of the GCC, Abdul Latif al-Zayani, defended Qatar, saying such accusations were “unfounded, contradict reality, and ignore the sincere efforts by Qatar as well as the Gulf Cooperation Council and Arab states in combatting terrorism and extremism at all levels.”
Also during the period of détente, Saudi Arabia hosted the International Union for Muslim Scholars, headed by Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi and dubbed a terrorist organisation in the recently GCC-issued list, for the Islamic Conference convened in February 2015 by King Salman. Earlier that same month, then Saudi foreign minister Saud bin Faysal even stated that his government had “no problem with the Muslim Brotherhood”.
It was thought, then, that under King Salman, who came to power in January 2015, there would be a detente on the issue of the Brotherhood, enabling Qatar and Saudi Arabia to strengthen their ties.
The rift returns
Over the course of 2017, however, tensions built between Qatar and its neighbours, bringing back old issues from 2014 to the fore.
For instance, in May, Qatar hosted a Hamas meeting wherein the group publicly dropped any link to the Muslim Brotherhood and introduced a political programme meant to soften its image as a terrorist or extremist organisation, since it included acceptance of the Palestinian state along 1967 borders. Such a move highlighted not only the prevailing political influence of Islamists, but also the way in which Qatar has found a foothold in critical regional issues by providing a haven for political exiles.
Exiled chief of Hamas’ political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, speaks with Hamas deputy leader Musa Abu Marzuk ahead of their conference in Doha in May 2017 (AFP)
Statements from Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdulrahman al-Thani in mid-May 2017 supporting negotiations between the GCC and reaffirming that Qatar had not banned the Muslim Brotherhood did not help ease existing tensions. While stating that “we do not, will not, and have not supported the Muslim Brotherhood,” al-Thani was also unapologetic about Qatar’s policy of “support[ing] any individual that assumes the presidency in Egypt in a clear and transparent manner.”
Emboldened by a visit with US President Donald Trump, whose administration has pondered designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, the Saudi government has doubled down on its anti-Qatar rhetoric, further bolstered by support from the UAE, which arrested around 100 members of a Brotherhood-linked movement in 2012 and whose ambassador to the US meets regularly with Trump’s advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
A March 2017 story in Al Arabiya signalled the turn against the Brotherhood, particularly as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has risen in the ranks, detailing a conversation between President Trump and Mohammed bin Salman about links between Osama bin Ladin and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Why the Brotherhood troubles Saudi and the UAE
Where the Qataris see Brotherhood-linked groups as potential political partners, the Emiratis and Saudis consider them existential threats, with potential to demand political reform in very closed political systems.
This policy of isolating the Brotherhood and, by extension Qatar, seems to make sense for Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, since Brotherhood-linked movements in such states have been linked to efforts for political reform, yet the existence of a Brotherhood affiliate in Bahrain – al-Minbar – is somewhat problematic.
Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa attends an informal GCC summit in Jeddah in May 2016 (AFP)
Because oppositional Islamist movements tend to be Shia in that state, the Muslim Brotherhood has traditionally been allied with the al-Khalifa ruling family and has been in parliament since 2002.
To maintain its position in the government’s favour, though, al-Minbar has been careful to distinguish itself from more oppositional Brotherhood groups elsewhere in the region, especially in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and insists that it is loyal to the Brotherhood’s Islamist Sunni ideology, concerned at its core with Islamising society through government, but not as a transnational organisation.
This ideology essentially declares that Islam should inform government policies and is often accompanied by the belief that participation in elections is a critical means of effecting the slow Islamisation of society.
Regardless of whether the Brotherhood is banned inside the Gulf and regardless of what happens to Qatar, support for these beliefs is likely to remain. Meanwhile, leaders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE will continue to harbour suspicions of the Brotherhood for three primary reasons: its ideology cannot be bought off; the group has transnational roots; and its affiliates had links with local movements for political reform during the Arab spring.
Reaching middle ground, then, when it comes to treatment of the Brotherhood and related Islamist organisations has been understandably difficult and makes resolution of the current crisis elusive.
Courtney Freer is a research officer at LSE’s Kuwait Programme on Development, Governance and Globalisation in the Gulf States. She recently completed her DPhil at University of Oxford and previously worked as a Research Assistant at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.