The Sunni world was set into turmoil when, on June 5, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya announced that they are severing their diplomatic ties with Qatar, because of its alleged support of terrorism and its interference in their internal affairs. Apart from the severance of diplomatic relations, the six countries have also announced the cessation of flights to and from Qatar, a ban on sea and land access to and from it, the severance of economic ties, and the removal of all Qataris from their territory. Saudi Arabia also stated that it is shutting down the local offices of the popular Qatari network Al-Jazeera.
Ostensibly, the dramatic move seems to have stemmed from Qatar’s relations with the Middle Eastern Sunni states’ arch enemy – Iran. The connections between Qatar’s Emir, Shaykh Tamim bin Hamid Al Thani, and the Ayatollahs’ regime were featured prominently in the media announcements regarding the severing of the relations. The emir appeared to claim in the Qatari official news site that the Gulf States should engage Tehran and that he had even called to congratulate the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani after his re-election (the Emir later denied saying those things, while accusing hackers of posting them on the news site). But if the sectarian strife that has torn the Middle East in recent years was the only motive for this act, why were similar measures not taken against Oman, which has always been the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member on best terms with Iran? The answer is that Iran, and the Shiite-Sunni war, is merely a façade for the real motive for this dramatic move.
The claim that these countries acted as a result of Qatar’s support of numerous militant Islamic groups is also not convincing. Qatar has certainly financed many Islamist groups throughout the Muslim world, most notably the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra-JN), al Qaeda’s franchise in Syria. But so too has Saudi Arabia provided substantial assistance to various extremist organizations, including ISIS and JN. Abu al-Ezz, a JN commander, declared in an interview that Saudi Arabia gave his organization 5 million U.S. dollars and 500 million Syrian pounds.
The main reason behind this act has nothing to do with Iran or terrorism. The severing of ties is better seen as an escalation in the struggle for power and influence within the Sunni world.
The first, and most important, aspect of this struggle, is the animosity of all the six states toward the Muslim Brotherhood. This Islamic organization, which was founded in Egypt in 1928 and advocates a combination of two principles – political activism and Islamic charity work, accumulated considerable support over the years in many Arab and Muslim countries. For example, in the only democratic elections held so far in Egypt, the Brotherhood’s nominee, Muhammad Morsi, won the presidency. As a result of this popularity, this organization is perceived as a serious threat to the legitimacy of many of the autocratic regimes in the Middle East, some of them even declaring it a terror organization.
Over the years, Qatar has provided considerable support to the Muslim Brotherhood. The country sponsors the movement (and some of its offshoots, like the Palestinian Hamas) and hosts Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the famous cleric of the Brotherhood. Also, Al-Jazeera regularly provides a platform for the Brotherhood’s spokesmen to attack the incumbent regimes in the Middle East. Qatar did not heed repeated demands directed at it to moderate its support for the brothers, and it is now paying the price.
The second intra-Sunni struggle concerns the question of who is the true representative of Wahhabism, an Islamic doctrine and religious movement founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the 18th century. The first Saudi state was established as a result of an alliance between al-Wahhab and Mohammed bin Saud, and ever since the Saud family and the Wahhabi establishment are inextricably bound together. However, Qatar also claims to have ties to Wahhabi heritage. The Qatari ruling family argues that it is a descendant of Abd al -Wahhab, and the largest mosque in this country is called Shaykh Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab Mosque. Last week, on May 28, 200 of the male descendants of al-Wahhab in Saudi-Arabia issued an open letter in which they denounced the Emir of Qatar for falsely claiming that he is a descendant of the founder of Wahhabism. After this week’s events, this letter seems to have been a preliminary step designed to prepare for the severance of relations.
So what will occur next? The escalation of the crisis to a violent conflict is highly unlikely since neither of these states has enough legitimacy to initiate a “Fitna (the Quranic word for civil war)” with a fellow Sunni state, especially when the Shiite threat is getting bigger every day. The continuation of the current situation also seems unlikely. Qatar’s economy has already suffered massive damage (Qatar’s stock index plummeted 7.2% hours after the announcement), and this direction is not likely to change anytime soon. If this trend continues, it is possible that the principality’s flagship project, the hosting of the 2022 Football World Cup, will be taken from it. A total disengagement of Qatar from the Sunni axis while linking its fate with Iran is also seen as a far-reaching step. Therefore, it seems that the Qatar leadership will try to find a formula that will satisfy the claims of its opponents, while also allow it to maintain its dignity vis-a-vis its own people. It is reasonable to assume that Kuwait, which mediated between the parties during their last crisis (2014), will play a significant role in trying to reach a solution this time too.
Ido Yahel is a PhD Student in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland