Experts see Qatar making tactical adjustment, not dropping Islamist support

"Qataris would not encourage Islamists to depart without serious threats from other GCC members."

September 18, 2014 04:51
3 minute read.

Qatar's ruler, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, reaches out to German Chancellor Angela Merkel September 17 in Berlin. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Qatar’s gesture in deporting seven Muslim Brotherhood members does not represent a major strategic shift, but rather a temporary, tactical adjustment to overcome building pressure on the country, Gulf experts tell The Jerusalem Post.

Qatar had asked the seven senior figures from the movement to leave the country after its neighbors pressed it to stop backing the Islamists, according to a London-based Brotherhood official.

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Israel, Egypt and other Gulf states have slammed Qatar for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements in the region.

Qatar bankrolled the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, who was overthrown by the military a year ago.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have since poured in money to support Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who led the takeover in Egypt and has since been elected president after outlawing and suppressing the Brotherhood.

A report in the London-based pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat on Tuesday said that Qatar may move to expel many more Muslim Brotherhood members and other Islamists from the country.

David Andrew Weinberg, a specialist on Gulf affairs and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Post that “Qatar’s foreign policy gains a lot in the short term from backing radical Islamists, but occasionally it has demonstrated a willingness to temper this support in response to consistent, targeted pressure from the outside.

“The Qataris would not be encouraging members of the Muslim Brotherhood – and now, apparently, Al-Gamaa al-Islamiya [another Egypt-based Sunni Islamist movement] as well – to depart without serious concerted threats from other GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] members,” Weinberg said. “Indeed, if the press reports are an accurate indication of what transpired, Qatar very possibly was facing serious additional sanctions from Saudi Arabia and the UAE leading up to the GCC summit at the end of August.”

The threat from Islamic State persuaded the Saudis to freeze their effort to punish Qatar, but “the handful of Brotherhood leaders who have already started leaving Qatar indicates that Doha didn’t get away without making any concessions,” he said.

“But Saudi Arabia – and especially the UAE, which is focused in on the Brotherhood issue with laser precision – are not going to be satisfied with only cosmetic changes to Qatari policy,” Weinberg argued.

Asked about the Al-Hayat report and possible additional deportations, Weinberg said it is unclear whether Qatar is going to follow through. “We’ve heard rumors of this sort before, but up until now all of the verifiable Qatari concessions on the Brotherhood issue have been insignificant.

“Qatar is making tactical concessions to prevent certain targeted costs that could be imposed by its neighbors,” he said, noting that there are no broader indications of Qatar going through a strategic realignment.

Further, Weinberg asserted that Gulf states and Egypt are likely to be unhappy with the concessions that Qatar has on offer. Egypt demands the Islamists be handed over for trial, “something that is clearly not in the works,” he said.

Also, there is no evidence that Qatar is preparing to deport senior Hamas officials, including its top leader, Khaled Mashaal, Weinberg said.

Eran Segal, an associate researcher at the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at the University of Haifa, told the Post that the Qatari move to expel Muslim Brotherhood members can probably be linked to the meeting in July in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, between Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah.

“It is probably too early to say if this is a different strategy or just a tactical move to pacify the Saudis,” said Segal, adding that it could also be a result of US pressure in light of the military campaign against Islamic State.

“I never saw much ideology in Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, just pragmatism and opportunism, so it is not a surprise move,” Segal said, adding that the move to deport Islamist group members could be reversed at anytime.

Brandon Friedman, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University and a researcher at its Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, pointed out that Yousuf al-Qaradawi, one of the most important Sunni clerics in the world and who supports the Muslim Brotherhood, is still based in Qatar.

The Qatari move “is a sop to the Saudis, but they are not giving in entirely,” said Friedman.

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