Arab News

Navigating the Minefield of Arab Politics

Despite modern geopolitical realities, changing alliances and reconciliation summits, the real underlying reasons for disputes in the Middle East have not yet been resolved.
Munir Saeed, Arab world, Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar blockade, Arab quartet Qatar, Saudi Arabia Qatar reconciliation, Iran Saudi relations, Middle East tribal rivalries, Ansar Allah Houthis Yemen, Gulf tribal history

Dubai skyline © Ivan Kurmyshov / Shutterstock

January 14, 2021 11:25 EDT

In November 2020, the Saudi Association of Senior Scholars, a government-directed mouthpiece on religious affairs, issued a fatwa (religious edict) declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. In the fatwa, the scholars stated, among other reasons, that the Brotherhood seeks to “contest the ruler and deviate from the ruler” — a crime punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. The scholars’ edict, however, ignored the right of people, under Islamic law, to stand up against an unjust ruler.

In 2013, Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, a card-carrying member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was overthrown by a coup that reinstated the military junta. In the days that followed, Egypt saw a bloody purge of the Muslim Brotherhood, with thousands of its members killed. Today, tens of thousands continue to languish in jail without trial.

The West’s Middle Eastern Playbook


In 2015, the United Arab Emirates declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, jailing without trial anyone suspected of membership or having sympathies with the Muslim Brothers. According to Wikileaks, Frances Fragos Townsend, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, reported that during a 2006 meeting, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed “claimed that if elections were held in Dubai ‘tomorrow’ he thought the Muslim Brotherhood would win.”

Accusing Doha of giving asylum to and funding the Muslim Brotherhood, in 2017, Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, together with Bahrain, broke diplomatic relations. The so-called quartet then imposed a blockade on Qatar and even attempted a military invasion, which was only halted when Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rapidly deployed a military force to Qatar. 

Incoherence of the Incoherent

The Muslim Brotherhood, established in 1928, is older than all of the regimes fighting over it. It had reached power in Tunis, Egypt and elsewhere only through the ballot box. Like most political parties that mix their political ideology with religion, it has lost the support, if not the respect, of those who, like this author, believe the two don’t mix.

But here is the mother of all Arab political ironies. For example, in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been carrying out brutal airstrikes for the past six years that have killed more than 200,000 people, ostensibly to reinstate the “internationally recognized” president overthrown by Ansar Allah (Partisans of God, as the Houthi rebels are officially known). The Muslim Brotherhood is not only an active member of the Saudi-UAE military campaign, but also part of the internationally recognized Yemeni government that the Saudi and UAE alliance is bombing Yemen in order to reinstate. Did you get that? Ibn Rushd (or Averroes, as he is known by his Latin name) would have called this murkiness the “incoherence of the incoherent.”

If that is not bizarre enough for you, here is another one. The Muslim Brothers, recently outlawed as terrorists in Saudi Arabia, are still given political asylum, protection and funding by Riyadh as allies in the war in Yemen. Many of their leaders live in Saudi Arabia. You couldn’t make this up if you were the greatest fiction writer.

But the anti-Muslim Brotherhood, anti-Qatar and anti-Turkey brigade is crumbling. The Arab quartet is losing its American ally in the face of President Donald Trump and is not sure what to expect from the incoming Biden administration. Meanwhile, Iran continues to be as formidable and as unyielding as ever. And so, in true Arab form, alliances must change — again.

The UAE and Bahrain recently formalized and made public their long-standing secret relations with Israel, seeking to create a protective buffer against Iran and any potential challenges from the new administration in Washington. Alas, Saudi Arabia, a self-proclaimed custodian of the Muslim holy sites, cannot be so open about its own secret relations with Israel and is even less confident about the changes afoot the United States. Instead, it called for reconciliation with the other side, Qatar, and made similar moves toward Turkey — both supporters of the Muslim Brothers and vehemently at odds with the UAE, Saudi Arabia’s ally against the Brothers.

Hasty Reconciliation

In a recent hastily-called reconciliation summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), under the watchful eyes of President Trump’s trusted son-in-law Jared Kushner (in typical monarchial style), the anti-Qatar coalition signed an agreement that said, “let bygones be bygones.” The Saudi foreign minister described the reconciliation as “due to the wisdom of the GCC rulers and Egypt, it is a complete turn of the page on all points of dispute.” So, the 13 points brought against Qatar as non-negotiable conditions for reconciliation have been turned.

In fact, to indicate the uncompromising nature of the quartet’s demands, the UAE’s foreign minister, Anwar Mohammed Gargash, on May 1, 2018, tweeted: “A sincere advice intended to bring Qatar out of her crisis. There will be no gulf mediation. No pressures will be beneficial. And your media will not change your status. Go back to your wisdom, for your crisis continues. Manage your affairs from today with wisdom. And negotiate within the perimeters of your neighbors who express real concerns.” No wonder that, commenting on the reconciliation agreement, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was quick to congratulate Qatar for “the success of its brave resistance to  pressure & extortion.”

Despite the dramatic welcome that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman gave to the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim ibn Hamad Al Thani, followed by a tour of the desert driven by the crown prince himself, the summit spoke more of divergence than unity. It left no doubt about its real purpose, at least from the Saudi and American perspectives. Bin Salman lost no time bringing to focus the elephant in the room, Iran. His message was clear: This is a reconciliation between brothers to wage war on a neighbor. The summit’s fault lines have been widened.

Saudi-Qatar Reconciliation Provides New Opportunities for the Biden Administration


Qatar still maintains strong relations with Iran. While it seems highly unlikely that even the Trump administration, with all its faults, will be crazy enough to attack Iran and start a regional war that will make the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq pale by comparison, the fear is that Israel might do so and force Washington’s hand. Should that happen, any future US attack on Iran using its Qatar-based Al Udeid Air Base will result in destructive retaliation on Qatar. Iran had strongly warned all its neighbors that attacks carried out from their soil will be retaliated against (on their soil). The Iranian foreign minister described it as “an all-out war.”

Qatar’s vulnerability is made worse by its break with its neighbors, leaving it to face any possible Iranian retaliation alone. Whether the reconciliation summit is intended to assure or to fool Qatar into breaking away from Tehran, despite Iran’s support during the quartet’s blockade, is an open question. Whether Qatar will fall for that is also an open question. The Prophet Muhammad had warned that “A faithful is not stung twice from the same burrow.”

On a visit to Doha during the blockade, a Qatari official told me that in his view, reconciliation will ultimately happen. Pointing out the foolishness of the ongoing blockade, he insisted that Doha will not be imprudent enough to trust the quartet with its fate. Having opened new pathways beyond the GCC, he saw this crisis as an important lesson — never again.

Old Rivalries

The above view is supported by regional history, of which the Qataris are mindful. In ancient times, the desert tribes of Arabia fought over water wells. While water scarcity will continue to be a cause of wars in the region, the GCC has now moved on to geopolitical fights reflecting the skyscraper nation-states mushrooming out of the desert oil wealth.

However, despite modern geopolitical realities, changing alliances and desert reconciliation summits, the real underlying reasons for the dispute between Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain — old tribal rivalries — have not yet been resolved. In fact, these are virtually impossible to resolve without dismantling the monarchies. The Nahyans of Abu Dhabi, now led by Mohammed bin Zayed, see mainly Qatar, but also Bahrain, as mini-states that escaped the UAE federation and must be brought in, willingly or by force. As far back as 1867, Bahrain’s Al Khalifa rulers and the Abu Dhabi Nahyan tribe allied to attack Qatar’s Al Thani tribe to undo its newly formed state.

Even the GCC, which was created as an organization of independent sovereign states, has not removed the old tribal mentalities among its members. The Al Khalifas of Bahrain — from whom the Saudis forcefully took the whole of its oil-rich Shia-populated eastern region, historically part of Greater Bahrain — reject Qatar’s legitimacy. The Al Khalifas ruled Qatar before the Al Thani tribe broke away from the territory that is now Saudi Arabia and created its own state. The Saudis see Qatar as a wayward artificial state that should have never existed in the first place. They consider it part of Saudi Arabia. These underlying tribal rivalries endure and play a major role in how current relations are managed, becoming even more prominent since the Arab Spring.

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Qatar, together with Turkey, supported the uprisings against the military dictatorships that ruled Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria. Qatar’s very vocal Al Jazeera news network was the voice of Arab Street during the uprisings. Qatar funded a lot of the youth programs, many of which were either led or at least infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, fearing that a successful Arab Spring revolution that brings an accountable transparent political process will infect their own populations, took the opposing side, spending billions to arm and support the military dictatorships against the uprising.

Having given up on the UAE and bin Zayed personally (who is seen in the West as an Arab visionary despite the failures of all his costly foreign adventures), Saudi Arabia and Egypt have started to make overtures to Turkey, the regional power that has defeated Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE — plus Russia and France — in Libya and then also defeated the latter two in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh at the end of last year.

Reconciling with Qatar leaves the UAE and Bahrain isolated. However, the extent to which Mohammed bin Zayed can rely on Bahrain, effectively ruled and kept alive by the Saudis, is highly debatable. Debatable too is how useful Bahrain can be for the crown prince, beyond sharing a table to sign a “normalization” deal with Israel.

In Yemen, the UAE escaped Ansar Allah’s retaliatory missiles that hit Saudi Arabia, mainly as a result of shaky deals it has made with the rebels. A live-and-let-live policy accompanied by ransom payments has enabled the UAE-Israeli alliance to focus attention on Yemen’s southern ports. There’s virtually no military confrontation between Sanaa and Abu Dhabi. A similar shaky deal exists with Iran, Dubai’s major trading partner. However, if indeed there is a regional war, all bets are off. The shaky friendships in Yemen will transform into deadly hostilities in the Persian Gulf. No amount of double or triple play will save Mohammed bin Zayed. 

Meanwhile, Iran continues to observe the changing loyalties across the waters. Iran knows how it starts among us Arabs, how it proceeds and where it ends. It’s all déjà vu. The GCC is made up of the same Arabs who first financed Saddam Hussein’s attack on Iran, then opened the gates for the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq itself. And all that smoke you see above Arab skies — in Yemen, in Syria, in Iraq, in Egypt, in Libya — comes from the guns with GCC petrodollars signs all over them.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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