Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, right, meets with Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani
August 22, 2013
Saudi Arabia, the largest kingdom in the Arabian peninsula, has fought its smaller but ambitious neighbor, Qatar, for years. The two "enemies" have engaged in a power struggle that has affected countries in the region from Mali to Syria. Their newest battleground: Egypt.
Musical Chairs In Egypt
Until the ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, Qatar had been the financial firepower behind the Egyptian regime and the country's banks. According to estimates by the Financial Times, Doha has invested about 8 billion dollars in the country.
The situation changed on July 3. As the Egyptian army took over power, the Salafist al-Nour party switched its support from Morsi to the army. Saudi Arabia, a long-time supporter of the Salafists, offered Cairo $5 billion in aid, plus another bonus of $3 billion from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and $4 billion from the State of Kuwait.
Although al-Nour eventually withdrew its support for the new, army-backed government over its violent repression of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Saudi Kingdom did not give up its support for Egypt's military rulers.
The Syrian Chess Match
Qatar and Saudi Arabia are both aligned with the opposition against Syria's embattled President Bashar al-Assad, but both countries appear to be engaged in a war within the war.
As the presence and activity of numerous extremist factions has divided Syria's rebels in recent months, Saudi Arabia and Qatar each chose to support different factions. Saudi Arabia on the one hand took over the control of supplies to the rebels coming from third countries, since international powers became increasingly reluctant to send weapons to Syria for fear they might fall into extremist hands. Qatar, on the other hand, appeared less inhibited by the extremist nature of some rebel groups, and provided arms even to those factions.
The two rivals are playing on the Syrian political chessboard politically. Qatari-backed Ghassan Hitto resigned as prime minister of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) when Saudi-supported Ahmad Assi Jarba was elected to lead the opposition body.
Qatar Played Under The Table In Mali and Libya
After having supplied eight fighter aircrafts to Libyan rebels in their fight against Gaddafi, Qatar turned its attention towards Mali. According to the French newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné and Marianne, Qatar is believed to have financed al-Qaeda affiliated groups that tried to occupy the country. Roland Marchal, researcher at the Centre for Studies and International Research, believes that "some elements of Qatari Special Forces are now in northern Mali to ensure the training of recruits who occupy the country.
Stability Vs. Ambition
The Arab Revolts shed light on some core divergences between Saudi Arabia and Qatar as oil providers.
Protected by the United States ever since the first oil wells were discovered on its territory in 1938, Saudi Arabia came to dominate the region economically. However, Qatar has challenged the Saudi dominance since winning its independence from the UK in 1971.
"Clearly, Qatar is a country in search of a regional role, and the Arab Spring has presented the perfect opportunity to catapult it into a more prominent position," writes Bernard Haykel, Middle East specialist at Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). According to the researcher’s report, the two neighbors have a similar strategy: to use their financial power to control the region, and, therefore, to ensure their internal security.
Qatar's Unconditional Support
Although both Qatar and Saudi Arabia have an Islamic regime based on the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, only Doha has voiced its unconditional support for the Muslim Brothers.
Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Russian Middle East Institute explains that "not only in Egypt, but in all countries of the Arab Spring, Qatar has supported and will always support the Muslim Brotherhood and their actions, such as Ennahdha’s in Tunisia or Hamas’ in Gaza."
The Salafists on the other hand, are "Saudi Arabia’s creation," added the specialist. Although less visible compared to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists are a political force to be reckoned with. In Egypt, the al-Nour party claims to have 800,000 members, similar to the Brotherhood.
If the Salafists are supported by Saudi Arabia, it is more due to their strict social views than to their religious obedience. "Salafists consider the Muslim Brotherhood to be weak Islamists who make too many compromises," explained Khalil al-Anani, scholar in Middle East Politics at Durham University.
Obsessed with its internal stability and the continuity of its Royal family, Saudi Arabia prefers to provide support to authoritarian regimes -- whether civil or religious -- and to oppose revolutionary movements. Some Saudi Sheikhs even went as far as to issue a "fatwa" saying that Islam prohibits public demonstrations.
Small But Mighty
Saudi Arabia has a hard time accepting the expansion of its smaller neighbor, and Qatar has made progress on all fronts in its fight against the Saudi dominance. "Their influential character comes from their unpredictable nature," a Western diplomat told the New York Times.
This post was translated from French and was originally published on HuffPost Maghreb.