Qatar is courting Islamist groups across the Middle East, sometimes the same ones that make its neighbors nervous.
Since Mohammed Morsi became the first Muslim Brotherhood member to lead an Arab state, Qatar has promised Egypt at least $20 billion in aid and investment. Other nations in the Persian Gulf, which holds almost half of the world’s oil, see the Brotherhood as a threat. Saudi Arabia has shunned it for at least two decades, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has jailed dozens of people this year on suspicion of links to the group.
Qatar’s pro-Islamist line is backed by cash from gas reserves that have made its 2 million people the world’s richest. Its support is helping the religious parties that emerged as the biggest winners from last year’s wave of Arab revolts.
At the same time, it’s causing unease among Gulf monarchies that are resistant to political change and under U.S. pressure to show a united front against Iran.
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“The Qataris have identified the Muslim Brotherhood as a vehicle” to expand their influence, said Ghanem Nuseibeh, London-based founder of political risk analyst Cornerstone Global Associates. “That has certainly created tension between Qatar and other Arab governments,” which mostly view the group with “intrinsic distrust.”
Qatar has other vehicles for its ambitions, too. It created the Arabic news channel Al-Jazeera, has broken art-market records and will host soccer’s World Cup in 2022. Qatar hosts the U.S. Central Command base that directed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It’s also home to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian-born cleric widely known as the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, who holds a diplomatic passport and has close ties with Qatari royals. Khaled Mashaal, political chief of Hamas, which has links to the Brotherhood, moved to the Qatari capital Doha from Damascus after splitting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
After Morsi’s election, Qatar promised $8 billion over five years to build a port in the Egyptian city of Port Said, $10 billion for a resort on the north coast and a $2 billion deposit for Egypt’s central bank. Qatar National Bank SAQ, which hired Qaradawi as an Islamic adviser, is considering buying Societe Generale SA’s Egyptian unit.
“They’re putting money into the economy and helping to ensure that the Brotherhood doesn’t fail,” Nuseibeh said.
In Tunisia, where Islamists also won elections last year, Qatar is involved in a $2 billion refinery project.
In some cases, Qatar’s interests align with Saudi Arabia, the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)’s leading power. Both back the opposition in Syria. Qatar hosted talks to unify groups fighting to oust Assad, including the Muslim Brotherhood.
There are disagreements, though. The Qataris “don’t fall in line behind Saudi foreign-policy objectives like other Gulf states,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at Brookings Doha Center. “Having a lot of money gives you a degree of freedom.” Hamid cites Qatar’s determination to maintain ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main enemy.
In Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood is the biggest opposition group and has encouraged protests that are increasingly targeting the monarchy, though there’s no indication that Qatar has supported them. Jordan’s royals have close ties with Saudi Arabia, which has invited it to join the GCC.
Antagonism between the Saudis and the Brotherhood deepened after 1990, when they took different sides over Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, said Khalid al-Dakhil, a politics professor at King Saud University in Riyadh. With the Brotherhood ascendant in Egypt “the Saudis will be isolated in this region” without a reconciliation, he said.
While Qatar fetes Brotherhood leaders, the UAE is cracking down on what it says are the group’s local branches. Saeed Al-Tunaiji, chairman of Islamic organization Islah, said he fled the country more than six months ago in fear of arrest. “We don’t have any ties with the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said, speaking by phone from an undisclosed location.
Ali Rashid Al Noaimi, the vice chancellor of United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain, says his personal experience suggests that’s not true. Al Noaimi said he joined Islah in 1979 while studying at Portland University and quit three years later.
Islah is linked to the Brotherhood, and its members “get their orders from outside,” he said, speaking in a personal capacity. “Their loyalty is not to their country.”
Within its own borders, Qatar doesn’t tolerate dissidents either — it’s just that the highest-profile targets aren’t Islamists. Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, a poet, was sentenced to life imprisonment last week for verses that praised the revolution in Tunisia and criticized Qatari royals, according to Human Rights Watch.
Ultimately, Qatar’s backing for the Brotherhood is more pragmatic than ideological, driven by its perception that Islamism is the region’s rising force, said Michael Stephens, a researcher in Doha at the Royal United Services Institute.
“If everyone was left-wing and communist, they would be left-wing and communist,” he said.