Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 28 Feb – 7 March 2014

Conflicts Forum

The stress and turmoil affecting the centre of the Sunni world is pulling other members of the GCC into its vortex. The political grouping, the GCC, led by Saudi Arabia, is being racked, and literally disjointed by the tensions exerted on it by the sudden Saudi re-configuration of policy – namely, a royal decree which criminalises Saudis fighting externally, and various jihadist groups as ‘terrorists’ (but importantly not all groups), and separately designates the Muslim Brotherhood too.  Saudi Arabia (sensing Muslim Brotherhood weakening after the Egyptian use of repressive force and live fire) is placing pressure on all Gulf States, and other states who may have Muslim Brotherhood adherents, to ‘decree’ the group as a terrorist organisation.  As one Gulf commentator has noted, Saudi Arabia seems determined to “wipe out” the MB in the region, once and for all.

Not only is Saudi Arabia intent on ‘wiping out’ the Muslim Brotherhood, but also, it is intent to wipe out the indirect criticism of its policies, particularly in respect to the criticism of Field Marshall Sisi that has been wafting out from the Qatari airways.  Qaradawi should declared persona non grata and al-Jazeera (long said to have MB sympathies) hobbled, or preferably shut down, the Saudis insist.  The pressure on Qatar is intense.  Huffington Post report that the Saudis additionally have asked for two American think-tanks based in Doha to be closed too. The Saudi, Kuwaiti and UAE ambassadors all have been withdrawn from Doha – and the Egyptian government, which is now being mooted as a future GCC member, has lined up, shoulder-to-shoulder, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the ‘war’ against Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Underlying this turmoil in the GCC however are two separate issues, on which Saudi Arabia, has shifted position suddenly and dramatically – in a way (which goes well beyond the specific spat with Qatar), and which affects Gulf States’ interests very differently, and which puts them at cross-purposes with Saudi Arabia.

On the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia in the 60s and 70s used MB intellectuals (in exile from Egypt) in order to give credibility and intellectual respectability to Wahhabism.  This was achieved through a historicist turning of the pious ancestors (the Salaf) into an ideological conception that gave a framework to Wahhabism. The Muslim Brotherhood were also deployed as Saudi’s very effective propaganda tool against Nasserism and Baathism.  But, by the 1990s, Saudi Arabia had turned strongly against them, believing that the MB had abused Saudi Arabia (by plugging into the Saudi petro-dollar artery), not just on behalf of Saudi aims; for their own ends too. Worse, the MB tweaked the ‘Salafi’ narrative to suggest that sovereignty lay with the people, rather than with the Saudi monarch. This ‘tweak’ evokes especially strong fear among Saudi royals not because of any moves the MB is making to undermine the Saudi regime directly; but instead because it presents the greatest possible challenge to the legitimacy of the ruling Saudi family.  It is a ‘deceit’ for which Saudi Arabia has never forgiven the MB.

Qatar’s (and Kuwait’s) experience with the Muslim Brotherhood, however, has been quite different: the Qatari MB dissolved itself in 1999, removing any perceived internal threat to the Emirate.  Kuwait, on the other hand, was able to contain the Islamist movement through its constitutional system of governance that permits the expression of varied political views and the holding of protests.  As a result, and unlike Saudi Arabia and the UAE, these States did not overly fret about the MB taking office in Cairo; or, about the increased influence of Islamists in the region.  So too, Oman’s special sectarian makeup of sects that fall outside very the polarised categories of sect, mitigates the impact of Sunni- Shi’i rivalry, rendering the country much less concerned about the MB than Saudi Arabia or the UAE.  The latter, by contrast, sees its internal threat as deriving entirely from MB: from the cells laid down in the Gulf in earlier decades, when the MB were riding high on Saudi benevolence, and when MB intellectuals fortified educational and media institutions across the Gulf.

Qatar, unlike Saudi Arabia, took the lead (with Turkey) in the wake of the 2011 upheavals in pressing the Muslim Brotherhood case in Syria and elsewhere in the region – but just to be plain, Qatar’s focus was never exclusively on the Ikhwan, but extended to support for radical jihadist groups too.  Eventually, Saudi Arabia elbowed Qatar aside, to install its own Salafist favourites of a Saudi orientation in leading positions in the Syrian opposition.  Qatar’s close link to CentCom and to General Petreus when he was its commanding officer, may have convinced Riyadh that the Emir had America’s ear in steering the so-called ‘Awakening’; but subsequently the US seems to have formed the view that the Emir was two-timing the US: supporting ‘democratic’ Islamist reform movements on one hand; and radical (anti-democratic) Sunni groups, on the other.  Finally, the competitive firing-up of jihadi groups taking place in Syria has produced an American reaction – and the tentative reorientation of security infrastructure across the region to that of combatting jihadism.

The predominant triggers for all this commotion was primarily Egypt and Saudi’s attachment to its Field Marshall’s scourge of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and secondly, the dramatic Saudi decree disowning jihadists – much to the ire of the ‘jilted’ jihadists in Syria and to their Salafi and Brotherhood colleagues and facilitators in Lebanon.

There is however, much that we do not know about this GCC concerted move against Qatar. What was the text of the Saudi-Qatari written agreement (mediated by the Kuwaiti Emir) that was signed in Riyadh last year, and on whose terms the Qatari government stands accused of having reneged? In Egypt, Qatar stood against the July 3rd coup, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE adhered uncompromisingly to the line that the success and stability of the new Egyptian regime (in repressing the MB) are vital; and cannot in any way be compromised through criticism.  Qatar claims that its stance in Egypt does not constitute any interference in internal Saudi or Emirati affairs – which gives the hint that the Saudi-Qatari Accord took the support for the Egyptian coup to represent a specifically internal GCC imperative – rather than constituting an issue of external policy – and therefore required the unquestioning compliance of GCC states in this respect.

The second trigger probably has been the appointment of Prince Mohammad bin Nayef to replace Prince Bandar in charge of Saudi’s re-orientated Syria policy.  Perhaps here it is right to conclude that the prospect of a visit by President Obama to Riyadh shortly has catalyzed the ‘re-set’ in Saudi policy towards countering takfiri jihadism. Prince Mohammad is both an American favorite, and his credentials precisely lie in the field of counter-terrorism – the new western priority.  But, significantly, both he and his father are also widely known for their detestation of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Saudi Arabia may be tacitly conceding something in Syria, but it is doubling its bet on ‘wiping out’ the Muslim Brotherhood.  If Saudi Arabia persuades others in the region to proscribe the MB, Mohammad bin Nayef may be right in assuming that the Europeans, so well atuned to Gulf interests, may be counted on to act in follow-up.

It is illogical to think that Qatar, Oman (and even Kuwait, which is under stress from Saudi demands that it implement a far-reaching hot-pursuit style security agreement) can remain part of the same security organization as Saudi Arabia and the UAE when they have such strongly divergent views about where their common dangers lie. Most GCC states believe that the ‘threat from Iran’ – supposedly the primordial raison d’être of the GCC – can be effectively mediated via the US and its continuing commitment to Gulf security, which the US Defense Secretary never fails to underline.  In short, Saudi Arabia is at odds with other Gulf States’ over the nature and extent of any ‘threat’ from Iran; at odds with Qatar over many issues; at odds with Oman for its rejection of GCC moves towards union and for its mediation with Iran; at odds with Kuwait for dragging its feet over the security compact; and the kingdom is even at odds with UAE over its rejection of Saudi Arabia as the seat of the Gulf Central Bank.  It is clear that Saudi Arabia is in an irascible and volatile mood, and GCC states are visibly concerned.

What does this mean in terms of geo-politics? Firstly, it is likely that these GCC tensions will play out directly in Syria, where the frictions between Gulf States are likely to mirror in the antagonisms and conflicts between the various armed insurgent groups – to the benefit of the Syrian army.  Secondly, the loss of GCC coherence will both weaken it as a body, and adversely affect Saudi’s political standing, which derives from its control over this body; thirdly, the hostilities towards Oman and Qatar, far from deterring them from rapprochement with Iran, precisely are spurring them in that direction; fourthly, the assault on the Muslim Brotherhood is deepening PM Erdogan’s loneliness and political vulnerability.  Finally, Saudi Arabia has really extended itself in loading so much of its credibility onto the shoulders of Field Marshal Sisi and the unforeseeable course of events in Egypt.

Of course, the US and Europe’s recourse to Cold War rhetoric over Ukraine and their determination to whatever they can to detach Ukraine from the Russian neighbourhood will overlay these tensions with a further factor: How might Russia respond? One Russian Ambassador suggests this affair changes everything. And what will this imply for Syria and Iran and the more adhesive block that comprises the rival ‘front’? If Russia becomes more assertive, perhaps it will tempt some GCC states to look in that direction – given the general regional perception of Russian constancy in its policies – and towards its friends?


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