by Giorgio Cafiero
When Gamal Abdel Nasser’s secular Arab nationalist regime began purging Egypt of Muslim Brotherhood members during the 1950s and 1960s, many of these Islamists relocated to the Arab Persian Gulf monarchies. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—a conservative, pro-Western, and staunchly anti-Communist country—many of these Egyptians from the Brotherhood ascended socially as educated and upwardly mobile expatriates. They took on high-ranking roles in ministries and played an influential role in the country’s educational system. Seen as loyal to the UAE’s leaders, they geared their activism largely toward social causes such as trying to keep out alcohol and Western influence.
By the 1980s and 1990s, however, the UAE authorities began seeing the Muslim Brotherhood—an ideological anti-monarchical movement—as increasingly challenging the legitimacy of the Arabian federation’s rulers. Ever since the UAE leadership has seen the Muslim Brotherhood’s local branch—al-Islah—as the gravest domestic security threat. According to the leadership in Abu Dhabi, al-Islah is committed to overthrowing the federation’s emirates and establishing a theocratic order in the UAE. In 2014, Abu Dhabi designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization and has unsuccessfully lobbied Western governments to follow suit.
Historic links between Muslim Brotherhood offshoots in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and the Sunni Islamist movement’s franchises across the greater Arab world have led Abu Dhabi to conduct a staunchly anti-Islamist/anti-Muslim Brotherhood foreign policy. Based on the view that Islamists gaining power in countries such as Libya and Egypt would directly and indirectly embolden Islamists in the UAE and other Arabian Peninsula sheikdoms, Abu Dhabi has prioritized the weakening of the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
Abu Dhabi’s opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood is not solely about the issue of Islam in politics. At the heart of the UAE’s threat perception of al-Islah is the fact that the local Muslim Brotherhood branch is a non-state actor that has not pledged full allegiance to the state. The UAE’s vision for the region does not leave room for non-state actors to serve roles in political or social domains at the expense of the state’s authority.
When the Arab Spring uprisings erupted in 2011 the UAE’s perception of the forces of political Islam as a menace increased substantially. The fast pace at which strongmen lost power and Islamists made political gains in Arab countries unsettled Abu Dhabi. In the countries where Arab Spring revolts ended secular autocrats’ rule, the UAE has countered the Muslim Brotherhood through various means. In Egypt and Tunisia, Abu Dhabi has used its financial wealth to influence the political landscape on terms that are extremely unfavorable to Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and Tunisia’s Ennahda. In Libya and Yemen, the Emiratis have targeted local Islamists directly through unprecedented military interventions and via proxies.
Since its 1981 establishment, the GCC has served as a conservative anchor in the Middle East that has opposed revolutionary activism from any part of the Arab world’s political spectrum and both sides of the sectarian split. Although no other GCC states has gone to the pains that the UAE has to push back against Islamist factions in the region, most of the other Council members have shared Abu Dhabi’s view of the Arab Spring as a destabilizing development with negative implications for GCC security.
However, there was one exception—Qatar—which uniquely embraced revolutions that shook the MENA region in 2011. Important examples of Doha’s support for the Arab Spring were in Egypt, where Qatar’s state-owned network al-Jazeera played a pivotal role in shaping events that led to Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, and in Libya, where Doha’s ties with rebel forces were game-changing variables in Muammar Gaddafi’s fate.
Qatar’s support for the FJP in Egypt, Ennahda in Tunisia, along with Hamas and the Libyan, Syrian, and Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood offshoots led many secularists and Islamists alike to see Doha as ideologically supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet this interpretation of Qatar’s foreign policy as pro-Islamist is not entirely accurate. Qatar’s regional strategy was not based on an ideological commitment to political Islam but rather rooted in pragmatism. To maintain a proactive, ahead-of-the-curve approach to the region Doha invested in good relations with non-state actors across the Arab world’s political spectrum that Qatari decision-makers believed would shape the region’s future for better or for worse.
This strategy clashed with the Emirati leadership given all of Abu Dhabi’s concerns about Islamists in the Emirates challenging the UAE rulers’ legitimacy as well as the country’s unique brand of secularism, stability, and modernity. Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto leader of the UAE, has played a pivotal role in driving the so-called Anti-Terror Quartet—Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—against Qatar since the bloc severed economic and diplomatic relations with Doha six months ago. MbZ’s vision for the region is one in which secular strongmen such Egypt’s Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s and Libya’s Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar govern Arab states and outlaw any Muslim Brotherhood opposition.
In the final analysis, the bitter GCC dispute over the Qatar rift has much to do with non-state actors in the Sunni Muslim world and the threats—real or perceived—that such factions pose. Whereas the UAE sought to prevent challenges to the MENA states’ status quo in 2011, Qatar embraced rapid change. By backing the early victors of the Arab Spring almost seven years ago, Doha expected to gain more influence in the region.
Of course, the revolutions of 2011 did not pan out as the Qataris expected. The ouster of Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi in 2013, along with the rise of Haftar’s Operation Dignity in Libya, Ennahda’s loss of an election, and the Russian- and Iranian-backed Syrian regime’s resiliency unquestionably set back Doha’s agenda of empowering Islamists regionally. These events emboldened the UAE to capitalize on anti-Islamist sentiments in the region and lend more support to secularists in MENA states countering Islamist militias and political parties. Nonetheless, the reputation of Qatar as a “pro-Arab Spring” actor in the GCC remained and Doha’s influence contracted—yet never fully disappeared—from the Maghreb and Levant. Geopolitically and economically, Sudan and Horn of Africa states continue to be areas of Emirati-Qatari competition.
As underscored by this month’s annual GCC summit, which goes down as the least successful in history, the internal rifts within this sub-regional organization are thwarting the Council from fulfilling its objectives. The clash of visions between Doha and Abu Dhabi— often overlooked for years as analysis and discourse on Persian Gulf geopolitics focused far more on the geopolitical standoff between Riyadh and Tehran and the Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian divide—is a driving force behind the GCC’s move toward irrelevance as a transnational organization.
It is unclear how, and to what extent, the continued Qatar crisis will spark region realignment, particularly following the recently announced UAE-Saudi Arabia economic and military partnership. The tense standoff between Qatar and the UAE and its close allies has only worsened due to a harsh war of narratives in the media since May. Whereas both countries joined the GCC in 1981 to achieve common goals of greater collective security and economic integration, fundamentally different notions of security concerning the rise of Sunni Islamist non-state actors in the Arab world have left Doha and Abu Dhabi viewing the other’s foreign policy as responsible for exacerbating regional crises.
Photo: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi with Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani of Qatar.