Coup in Cairo demonstrates Riyadh and Doha competition

The Saudis, long the dominant power in the Gulf region, has clashed with Qatarover its support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

July 11, 2013 04:39
3 minute read.
Mohamed Morsi supporters perform drill in Cairo

Mohamed Morsi supporters perform drill in Cairo 370. (photo credit: Reuters)

As the dust begins to settle around the coup that unseated President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, the Egyptian front in the Saudi-Qatari regional power competition has come into sharp relief.

Despite officially greeting the power transition with royal congratulations, Qatar has been put on edge by the overthrow of Morsi, whose affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood drew large sums in aid and loan guarantees from Doha. Circles in Riyadh, on the other hand, have welcomed the return of a secular-military alignment to power in Cairo – joining the United Arab Emirates Tuesday in a pledge of $8 billion that recalled a warmer stage in Saudi-Egyptian relations prior to the January 2011 revolution.

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As members of the region’s de facto “Sunni axis,” which is aligned with the United States and resistant to Iranian influence, both the Saudis and Qataris are substantially invested in the internal politics of Egypt, the largest state in the Arab world. However, the past few years have witnessed a competitive rift between Saudi Arabia, a longstanding conservative regional power, and Qatar, propelled to regional ambitions in recent years by petroleum – and by news media-fueled soft power gains.

Since the 2011 outbreak of the Arab Spring, whose revolutions rocked Arab republics but left neighboring monarchies largely unscathed, Qatar has sought openings in its bid for regional power, Yoel Guzansky, a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, told The Jerusalem Post.

“Qatari-Egyptian relations were really bad during the Mubarak era,” Guzansky said.

“Part of it was Qatar’s independent foreign policy of punching above its weight, which annoyed everyone. Traditionally, Egypt, the major Arab state, played the role of regional mediator – and this small state tried to change that.”

With the weakening of stubborn regimes in traditional power centers like Cairo and Damascus, Qatar went about the business of choosing clients – welcoming the rise of longterm allies in the Muslim Brotherhood with billions in material support, and taking a lead role in backing Islamist elements in the armed Syrian opposition. In one of the most noteworthy trends of the Arab Spring, Doha largely set the tone of international media coverage, using the state-run broadcast giant Al Jazeera to stir sympathy for regime change in Egypt, Syria and Libya.

Though identified in popular conception with conservative Islamist forces in the region, the Saudi monarchy, long the dominant power in the Gulf region, has clashed with Qatar in recent years over the latter’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Wary of the radical politics and ideological challenge of the Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia has countered Qatari-backed Brotherhood activity by picking a motley crew of allies, from Egyptian Salafists to Syrian secularists.

On the heels of the Saudi friendly army’s return to power in Cairo, which itself follows months of Saudi success in reasserting leadership over the Syrian rebel camp, analysts have begun to speculate about the end of Qatar’s bid for regional power under its new leader, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani.

“It’s the million-dollar question,” Guzansky said. “Qatari power might have peaked.

They certainly took a blow in Egypt. The Saudis have taken over leadership of the Syrian rebels. More, we don’t know where the new emir’s focus will be – internal or foreign? People have recently begun to question why billions of dollars are invested in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, but not [in] Doha’s highways. Not to mention, everyone now sees Al Jazeera’s true colors.”

Additionally, recent Egyptian developments have reinforced the alignment of the United Arab Emirates – a longtime Brotherhood foe and patron of the Mubarak regime – with Saudi Arabia, to the exclusion of Gulf neighbor Qatar. Outnumbered in his immediate backyard and pushed to the sidelines on the Egyptian front by the newly announced $8b.

Saudi-Emirati aid package, Al- Thani will have to strongly reconsider his small kingdom’s regional policy of “punching above its weight.”

“It’s still early to know what Doha’s policy will be vis-à-vis Egypt,” Guzansky said. “I think Qataris will do risk evaluation and try to save what they can.

It’s really difficult, because they don’t look objective—especially because Al Jazeera still appears to support the Brotherhood.

Now you see their line, but maybe they’ll shift their line again. They’ll have to see where the wind blows.”

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