Ambassador withdrawals highlight GCC tensions over security policy

06 March 2014

Gulf split widens as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE withdraw ambassadors from Doha

Relations within the six GCC states have taken a blow as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE recalled their ambassadors from Qatar on 5 March, a highly visible stance highlighting the simmering tensions between the members.

The withdrawal follows Doha reneging on a previously announced agreement between the GCC states from November last year, which called for the countries to end support for “any party threatening the security and stability of any GCC member”, according to the official Saudi Press Agency.

Muslim Brotherhood

Analysts have taken this to represent Qatar’s continued backing of the Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular regard as a major subversive threat to their political stability.

On 3 March, the UAE’s Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi sentenced a Qatari doctor, Mahmoud Abdulrahman al-Jaidah to a seven-year prison term for links to a “secret illegal organisation”. This follows the sentencing of 20 Egyptians and 10 Emiratis in January for links with an Emirati Islamist society known as Al-Islah, which prosecutors say is an international branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Simon Henderson at US think-tank the Washington Institute for Near East Policy writes that despite Qatar sharing the same political structure as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, it “apparently tolerates the group as long as its energies are directed abroad”.

This has gone as far as championing the group’s rise in the Egyptian revolution, supporting its influence in Syria’s opposition and funding its affiliate Hamas in Gaza.

The joint UAE-Bahrain-Saudi statement continues that this includes threats “via direct security work or through political influence, and [supporting] hostile media”, a thinly veiled reference to Al-Jazeera. The Qatari television network has given a weekly platform to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian Islamic theologian and key brotherhood ideologue living in exile in Doha.

In early February, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry requested Al-Qaradawi’s extradition to face charges over a mass jail break during the 2011 uprising. Doha has refused to cooperate.

Al-Qaradawi has also earned the ire of the UAE, saying its support for the army-backed government in Egypt was tantamount to “opposing Islamic rule”.

Past tensions

Relations between Riyadh and Doha have often been strained since the seizure of power by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani in a bloodless coup in 1995.

The emir emphasised Qatar’s independence from Saudi Arabia’s domination of the GCC framework. Qatar promoted itself as a regional peace-broker, negotiating a deal between rival political factions in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Sudan.

Qatar’s new emir, 33-year-old Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, replaced his father in June last year. The prime minister and foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, was also replaced by Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah. There is little sign of a change in direction from Doha.

The Muslim Brotherhood is not the only source of tension with Qatar, however. Fractures have emerged between the six-members over different approaches towards Iran. Sheikh Tamim has reached out to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, expressing his desire to enhance bilateral relations and inviting him to visit Doha.

“Qatar will not capitulate,” says David Roberts, a lecturer at King’s College London. “The new emir seems to have other priorities to his father, but he shares his broad vision on Qatar’s foreign policy ambitions. He has not really changed Qatar’s policy direction in either way; it has just been carried by momentum since he took over.”

Qatar has so far opted to keep its ambassadors in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Manama. Further escalation of the incident could entail the hosts expelling the diplomats, although this appears unlikely.

“If it was just a demonstrative slap in the face then it doesn’t really matter, but if this leads to escalation then could be serious implications”, says Roberts.

Qatar Airways, for example, is planning to launch a new Saudi carrier, Al-Maha Airways this year to compete for domestic flights in the kingdom. Further escalation of the diplomatic crisis could threaten the nascent airline before operations even begin.

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