The Gulf crisis: Small states battle it out (Part 2 of 4)

This is part 2 of a four-part series. Part 1 was published on July 25. Part 3 will be published on July 27 and part 4 on July 28

By James M. Dorsey

With the eruption of the protests in various Arab countries in 2011, Qaradawi was instrumental in persuading Qatar to use its political and financial muscle to support the Brotherhood in Egypt; the revolt in Libya against Col. Moammar Qaddafi; the post-Ben Ali Ennahdha-led government in Tunisia; an assortment of Islamist groups in Yemen and Morocco, and opponents of Syrian president Assad. Three days after a triumphant appearance in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in early 2011, Qaradawi issued on Al Jazeera a fatwa or religious opinion authorizing the killing of Qaddafi. He asserted further that historic links between Egypt and Syria put Syria in protesters’ firing line. In response, Syrian officials accused Qaradawi of fostering sectarianism.[1]

Plausible deniability

If Qatar’s strategy was confrontational, the UAE opted for an approach that granted it a measure of plausible deniability by influencing the policies of Big Brother Saudi Arabia, establishing close ties to key policy makers in Washington, acquiring ports straddling the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and crafting a reputation as Little Sparta, a military power that despite its size and with the help of mercenaries[2] could stand its ground and like the big boys on the block establish foreign military bases.

For much of the last decade, the UAE has argued against the notion of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that groups Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain as a defense pact. Instead, the UAE advertised itself as the United States’ most partner in the region. “I am not a believer in grouping the GCC together…ask us who wants to be involved and we will step forward, the others will take a step back… Encourage those of us who wish to lead to lead and we will; sooner or later the others will step forward but only when it is necessary,” UAE Crown Prince and strongman Mohammed bin Zayed told US officials in 2009.

While Qatar’s ever closer military ties to the United States centred on the Al Udeid Air Base, the largest US base in the Middle East that is home to the forward command post of the US Central Command, the UAE deepened relations in part by participating in every US war in the region since 1991 except for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Those wars included the 2001 US assault on Afghanistan despite the fact that the UAE, surprisingly unlike Qatar, was only one of three countries alongside Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, to have recognized the Taliban regime.

The fundamental differences in UAE and Qatari strategy also expressed themselves in their different approaches towards hard and soft power. Qatar focussed primarily on the soft power aspect with a fast-paced, mediation-driven foreign policy; a world class airline; high profile investments in arts, real estate and blue chips; and sports with an eye on becoming a global hub and centre of excellence in multiple fields.

Qatar arms acquisitions were modest compared to those of Saudi Arabia and the UAE until 2014 when it went on a $24 billion buying spree days after Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain first withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, and its subsequent $12 billion acquisition of US fighter planes in 2017 days after the current Gulf crisis erupted. The US embassy in Doha reported prior to the 2014 rupture in relations that Qatar lacked a national military strategy and seemed reluctant to draw one up. The embassy concluded in a cable to the State Department that “the QAF (Qatar Air Force) could put up little defense against Qatar’s primary perceived threats — Saudi Arabia and Iran — and the U.S. military’s presence here is larger and far more capable than Qatar’s forces.”

Qatar’s inclination to rely more on soft rather than hard power and its positioning as a friend-to-all and mediator is rooted in a tradition of playing both sides against the middle that dates back to the 19th century. Qatari tribes were juggling Ottomans, Brits, Omanis, Saudis and Iranians who were competing for influence on the tribes’ peninsula. They have seen their empires rise and fall. Extrapolating from that experience, modern-day Qatar sees intellectual creativity and debate as long as it does not involve discussion of the Gulf state itself as a soft power tool. The controversial Al Jazeera television network, the in-gathering of the exiles, and the support of opposition groups are vehicles that position Qatar at the centre of a world of ideas that is likely to shape the future of the Middle East and North Africa.

The UAE adopted some of the same soft power elements, such as world class airlines and museums, blue chip investments, and sports but in contrast to Qatar saw its stepped-up military engagement and projection of strength as both a hard and soft power ploy. While Qatar primarily used its financial muscle, political support for multiple groups, and Al Jazeera to manipulate developments in the region, the UAE flexed not only its financial and commercial muscles, but also its improved military capability to intervene in multiple regional crises to a far greater extent than Qatar did.

By positioning itself as a power behind the Saudi throne, the UAE successfully exploited margins in the corridors of power in Riyadh to get the kingdom to adopt policies like the banning of the Brotherhood, a group that has the effect of a red cloth on a bull on Bin Zayed, but that the Saudis may not have pursued otherwise. The UAE, moreover, by aligning itself with Saudi Arabia rather than antagonizing it, has been far defter in its ability to achieve its goals and project its power without flying too high above the radar.

The UAE’s approach has also allowed it to ensure that major policy differences with Saudi Arabia on issues such as the conduct and objectives of the Yemen war, a role for the Brotherhood in a Sunni Muslim alliance against Iran, the degree of economic integration within the GCC and the thwarting of Saudi-led efforts to introduce a common currency, and Hamas’ place in Palestinian politics, did not get out of hand. Even more importantly, the approach ensured that the UAE’s policies were adopted or endorsed by bigger powers.

In fact, Bin Zayed’s finger prints were all over the Saudi-UAE-led alliance’s demands that Qatar halt its supports for Islamists and militants, shutter Al Jazeera and other media outlets, and close a Turkish military base. In 2009, Sheikh Mohamed went as far as telling US officials that Qatar is “part of the Muslim Brotherhood.” He suggested that a review of Al Jazeera employees would show that 90 percent were affiliated with the Brotherhood.

Because of the Brotherhood’s inroads into the UAE, Bin Zayed said he had sent his son with the Red Cross rather than the Red Crescent on a humanitarian mission to Ethiopia to cure him of his interest in Islamist teachings. “His son returned from the mission with his vision of the west intact and in fact corrected. He was astonished that the Christians with the Red Cross were giving food and support to anyone who needed the support, not just to Christians. His son had only heard the stories of the west through the lens of Al Jazeera and others similarly aligned,” the US embassy in Abu Dhabi recounted Bin Zayed as saying.

Distrust of the Brotherhood in Saudi Arabia dates back to post-9/11 Brotherhood-backed calls for reform in the kingdom and its support for Saddam Hussein after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 that culminated in then Interior Minister Prince Nayef declaring that the group was at the root of all of the kingdom’s problems. Two years later, Bin Zayed took advantage of the fact that ailing King Abdullah had an approximately two-hour concentration span to convince him with the help of the head of the Saudi court, Khaled al Tuwaijri, to designate the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.

It was a decision that was at stake in the power struggle that occurred as Abdullah lay on his death bed. Bin Zayed initially lost with the dismissal of Al-Tuwaijri and other Saudi officials close to the UAE crown prince by newly appointed King Salman. Within weeks of his rise in 2015, Salman, eager to form a Sunni Muslim alliance against Iran, made overtures to the Brotherhood. In a first public gesture, two weeks after Salman’s inauguration, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Feisal told an interviewer that “there is no problem between the kingdom and the movement.” The Muslim World League, a body established by Saudi Arabia in the 1960s and dominated by the Brotherhood, organized a month later a conference in a building in Mecca that had not been used since the banning of the brothers to which Qataris with close ties to the Islamists were invited.

Not to be defeated and determined to stiffen the Saudis back when it came to the Brotherhood, Bin Zayed forged close ties to his namesake, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s son who was being groomed to become Salman’s successor. Bin Zayed became young Salman’s model for the kind of authority he wanted to project.

“A close working relationship has developed between the two men, who share a ‘can-do’ mentality that favours ambitious ‘big-picture’ approaches to national and regional issues… Most significantly, for Qatar, Bin Zayed has secured Saudi backing for his hard-line approach to the Muslim Brotherhood and other regional Islamist groups… Although King Salman pragmatically engaged with members of the Brotherhood after he came to power in January 2015, the Saudi stance has once again moved closer to the Emirati one in recent months,” said Gulf scholar Kristian Coates Ulrichsen.

Obsessed

If change in the Middle East and North Africa is ultimately inevitable, the UAE is no less vulnerable than Qatar. While the rulers of the seven emirates that constitute the UAE under the leadership of Abu Dhabi’s Al-Nahayan family may well agree on the threat posed by the Brotherhood, it remains unclear whether they are equally enthusiastic about Bin Zayed’s aggressive policies towards Qatar.

The Gulf crisis “is about Abu Dhabi asserting its dominance in foreign policy issues, because this is not in Dubai’s interest,” said former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Sir William Patey. By implication, Sir Patey was suggesting that unease among the various emirates may be one reason why Abu Dhabi refrained from tightening the screws on Qatar by closing a partially Abu Dhabi-owned pipeline from Qatar that supplies Dubai with up to 40 percent of its natural gas needs.

Bin Zayed’s obsession with Qatar and the Brotherhood is rooted in the fact that the Brotherhood-affiliated Jamiat Al-Islah party, founded in the Emirates in 1974 by Emiratis who had met Brothers while studying in Egypt and Kuwait, was created after a decade in which Brothers operating from Qatar had agitated n the UAE. Paving the way for the establishment of the party, Abdel Badie Sakkar, an early Muslim Brotherhood migrant to Qatar, travelled regularly to the Emirates where he established Al-Iman school in Dubai’s Rashidiya neighbourhood of Dubai that was staffed by Al-Sattar’s relatives and associates.

Bin Zayed’s obsession with the Brotherhood, believed to have been fed by fierce opponents of the group like former Egyptian State Security chief, retired General Fuad Allam, a lecturer at Cairo’s Police Academy and the National Center for Criminal and Social Research and Riyadh’s Naif Arab University for Security Sciences, put an end to UAE founder Sheikh Zayed al-Nahyan’s willingness to indulge the group.

Bin Zayed’s concern was further fuelled by a declaration in 1994 by the International Organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood stating that “we believe in the existence of multiple political parties in Islamic society. Authorities should not inhibit the formation of political parties and groups as long as the Shari‘a is the supreme constitution … The recognition of multiple political parties entails the consent to a peaceful transfer of power between political groups and parties by means of periodic elections.”

The US embassy in Abu Dhabi reported in 2004 that “in a meeting with (US) Deputy Secretary (of State Richard) Armitage on April 20, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed noted that UAE security forces had identified ’50 to 60’ Emirati Muslim Brothers in the Armed Forces, and that a senior Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer is within one of the ruling families — a reference, we believe, to Sharjah Ruler Sheikh Sultan Al Qassimi… whose ties to Saudi Arabia are well known.”

At its peak, Al-Islah enjoyed significant support among Emiratis as well as within the country’s armed forces. Al-Islah’s size and influence was ultimately limited by restrictions on political activity that forced the group to focus on social, cultural and educational activities. Al-Islah campaigned against Westernization and sought to imbue younger Emiratis with Islamic mores.

The restrictions were part of a collapsed deal negotiated in the late 1990s under which the party would have been allowed to remain active in exchange for ending its allegiance to the Brotherhood’s global leadership, a halt to its recruitment in the UAE’s armed forces and end to political activities. Bin Zayed estimated that in 2004 Al-Islah had a some 700 members. Scores of Al-Islah members were put on trial in 2012 on charges of plotting to undermine the government in through recruitment in the military and the bureaucracy.

Bin Zayed’s obsession despite the Brotherhood’s small numbers in the UAE itself has prompted the government to spend tens of billions of dollars on fighting the group. “By doing so, the UAE isn’t fighting a real threat, rather it is trying to suppress a popular trend,” said analyst Galip Dalay.

Dalay’s assertion was countered by a Muslim Brother serving a 15-year jail sentence in the UAE who was trotted out for an interview with Abu Dhabi Television in which he asserted that Qatar had trained Brothers to use social media to mobilize protests. “Qatar believes that it is only a matter of time before it would bring people into the streets (of the UAE) as it did in other countries,” said Abdulrahman bin Subaih Khalifa Al Suwaidi, a former Al-Islah board member.

Shaping the environment

If Qatar’s strategy was to promote political change by supporting legitimate opposition forces, the UAE’s was to help engineer coups that would put in power men who were more to their liking. The Gulf crisis, provoked according to US intelligence officials, by the UAE orchestrating the hacking of Qatari government news and social media sites in order to post incendiary false quotes attributed to Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim, was but the latest example of the Emirates’ interventionist policies. The US intelligence assertion carries weight given that Qatar invited the FBI to investigate the hacks that were allegedly approved by senior UAE officials. The false reports planted by the hack constituted the basis for the boycott of Qatar declared by the Saudi-UAE-led alliance.

The hack followed a pattern. In 2013, the UAE bankrolled a military coup in Egypt that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president, and together with Saudi Arabia has kept his successor, general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who brutally cracked down on the Brotherhood, financially afloat.

The UAE, in a twist of irony, may have created in Turkey, which has sent troops to Qatar in the wake of the Gulf crisis, one of the major obstacles to the ability of the Saudi-UAE-led alliance to impose its will on the Gulf state. Turkish media aligned with the government have accused the UAE of funding the 2015 failed coup aimed at overthrowing Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a watershed event in modern Turkish history, that served as an excuse for his massive crackdown on dissent. Erdogan has arrested tens of thousands of his critics; dismissed up to 140,000 people from jobs in the judiciary, the military, law enforcement, civil service and education sector; declared a pro-longed state of emergency; and used the failed takeover to introduce a presidential system of government in which he has far-reaching powers.

Yeni Safak columnist Mehmet Acet quoted Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu as saying that “we know that a country provided $3 billion in financial support for the coup attempt in Turkey and exerted efforts to topple the government in illegal ways. On top of that, it is a Muslim country.” Acet said the minister identified the country as the UAE in a subsequent conversation. Daily Sabah, another paper with close government ties, as well as Turkish foreign ministry officials repeated the assertion.

Middle East Eye, an allegedly Qatar-supported online news website, quoted Turkish intelligence officials as charging that Mohammed Dahlan, an Abu Dhabi-based former Palestinian security chief with close ties to the UAE’s Bin Zayed, Al-Sisi and Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, had served as the UAE’s bagman and contact with Fethullah Gulen, the exiled Turkish in the United States, whom Erdogan blames for the attempted coup. The UAE, in a bid to mend fences with Erdogan once the coup had failed, detained two Turkish generals at Dubai airport and deported them to Istanbul. Moreover, a senior UAE foreign minister official, Abdullah Sultan al-Nuaimi,, told a Turkish columnist that his country had offered to drop its objection to the Turkish military base in Qatar and was willing to hand over Gulen supporters resident in the Emirates in exchange for the extradition of nine Emiratis members of the Brotherhood in Turkey.

While there is no independent confirmation of the Turkish allegations against the UAE, what is clear is that Gulen with his propagation of a liberal and tolerant interpretation of Islam would fit the Emirati efforts to create an alternative, anti-Salafi, anti-Islamist and anti-Brotherhood religious authority.

In Libya, the spectacle of small states punching above their weight and waging proxy wars against each other far from home has at the very least aggravated the struggle for the future of the country since the 2011 toppling of Colonel Moammar Qaddafi. In a twist of irony, Qatar rather than the UAE is backing the legitimate, United-Nations-recognized Islamist government while the Emirates and Egypt support an anti-Islamist alliance led by a renegade general.

Five of the 59 people listed by the Saudi-UAE-led alliance as Qatar-supported terrorists were Libyans, including Al Sallabi, the intellectual and spiritual leader of the Libyan Brotherhood and a disciple of Qaradawi. Al Sallabi served as the main conduit of Qatari financial and material support for Islamist rebels in Libya. Also listed were Abdul Hakim Belhadj, a former jihadist who was rendered by the CIA before being returned to Libya, where he emerged as a military commander and conservative politician; former mayor of Tripoli Mahdi al-Harati who commanded an anti-Qaddafi militia before heading an anti-Assad group in Syria; Ismail Mohammed Al Sallabi, Ali al-Sallabi’s brother and the head of another Libyan rebel group; and Libyan Grand Mufti Al-Sadiq Abdulrahman Ali Al Gharyani.

In the case of Palestine, Bin Zayed convinced the Saudis to drop Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot that controls the Gaza Strip, from the list of groups the Saudi-UAE-led alliance wanted Qatar to distance itself from to create an opportunity for the return of Mohammed Dahlan, the UAE-backed Palestinian politician and former security chief who frequently does the Emirati crown prince’s bidding and whom US President George W. Bush described during an internecine Palestinian powers struggle in 2007 as “our boy.” If successful, the UAE would have succeeded in clipping Hamas wings and installing its own man in the Gaza Strip in a move that would likely strengthen cooperation with Israel, potentially facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, and take the Jewish state’s increasingly close ties to the Gulf state out of the shadows.

The UAE effort involved a carrot and stick approach in which Israel and Palestine Authority (PA) President Mahmood Abbas played bad cop while Egypt was the good cop in a pincer move that was intended to weaken Hamas. A lowering of public sector salaries in Gaza by Abbas and reduced electricity supplies by Israel at the Palestinian leader’s behest drove Hamas into the arms of the UAE and Egypt as the International Red Cross and other international agencies warned of an impending calamity.

In response, Egypt and the UAE moved to alleviate the economic crisis in Gaza in a bid to sweeten an agreement on power sharing between Hamas and Dahlan that was being negotiated in Cairo. At the same time, Egypt began to send diesel fuel at market prices, but without taxes imposed by the PA, and has signalled that it would open the crucial Rafah border crossing between Gaza and the Sinai. Associates of Dahlan were reported to be preparing the border station for re-opening with a $5 million donation from the UAE.

Egypt reportedly was supplying barb wires, surveillance cameras and other equipment to enhance border security. The UAE, moreover, has earmarked $150 million to build a power station and has hinted that it would fund construction of a port. “If the plan does come to fruition, it could make an Israeli-Egyptian dream come true… It will ensure a fine profit for all sides, except for Abbas and Palestinian aspirations to establish a state,” said prominent Israeli columnist Zvi Bar’el.

In Yemen, the UAE walked a tightrope between ensuring that it had a seat at the table in Riyadh while pursuing its own goals that at times differed from those in the kingdom and managing a widening rift with Saudi-backed Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Hadi fired in April 2017 two ministers known for their close ties to the UAE. One of the ministers, Aidarous al-Zubaidi, a former governor of Aden, declared the formation of a transition council that would govern southern Yemen. Al-Zubaidi’s move fuelled concern that the UAE was laying the groundwork for a return to the pre-1990 era when Yemen was divided between two states in the expectation that the south would align itself with the Emirates. “The extent of this rift reverberates in the Arab coalition, particularly as the sidelined southern leaders are supported by the UAE,” said a Yemeni government official.

Part 3 will appear on July 27

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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