Despite its ongoing spat with the United States, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will remain undeterred in its crusade to topple Bashir al Assad in Syria. And despite recent tensions, its wealthy little neighbor, Qatar, will remain onside in this quest.
President Obama recently visited Saudi Arabia for a long-anticipated meeting with King Abdullah. The visit was viewed as an Administration effort to directly assuage Riyadh’s nervousness over American inaction and perceived shifts in American policy in the Middle East on the Iranian nuclear program, the status of Egypt, the civil war in Syria, and Iran’s role in Iraq. Visit observers reported no closure between Washington and Riyadh on these issues during this visit.
Then again, the Saudis really didn’t need to close the policy gaps with America to pursue their top drawer regional aims. Riyadh’s most pressing need is to keep its vital Sunni Arab neighbors onside.
Thus when it comes to Saudi vital interests in the region, the Kingdom’s long smoldering struggle with its tiny, uber-rich, Wahhabi-based Islamic neighbor, Qatar, is more consequential. This rivalry has escalated sharply in the past two years, stoking a subtle joust over regional primacy into a highly visible row. On March 5th, Saudi Arabia, followed by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, withdrew its Ambassador from Qatar in protest of Doha’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood and “moderate” Islamists in the region. The three states accused Doha of using the Brotherhood to violate a multi-lateral Gulf State accord not to interfere in each other’s internal affairs.
Long willing to poke at each other over perceived slights, indiscretions, and hypocrisies across state-run media outlets Al-Jazeera (Qatari-owned) and Al-Arabiya (Saudi-owned), these Sunni Arab neighbors have nonetheless found common ground in the past. They worked side-by-side to erode Hezbollah influence in the Lebanese military after the 2006 Hezbollah-Israeli war. They were in lockstep when working to topple the universally despised Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. And, most recently, they have not only both declared that Assad in Syria must go, but have taken active steps to defeat his regime.
But this tapestry of agreement has frayed in recent months. Qatar views Iran as a problem that can be managed. Saudi Arabia views Iran as a mortal danger that must be given no quarter. Qatar has championed the Muslim Brotherhood as a vehicle for political evolution across the Middle East, while the House of Saud came to loath the Brotherhood two decades ago, viewing it as a threat to stability and order in the Muslim world. The Brotherhood’s dramatic ascent in Egypt put Saudi Arabia on the back foot and one down in its tiff with Qatar. But the Brotherhood’s subsequent – and even more dramatic – fall in Egypt reversed Qatar’s foreign policy fortunes and left Riyadh ascendant in support of Egypt’s conservative generals and in its demand that Qatar cease its support for Brotherhood. Subsequently, Riyadh has inveighed Doha to cease its support for Brotherhood-aligned Islamists in Syria and elsewhere around the Gulf. On March 7th, Saudi Arabia declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group.
The Qatari-Saudi stand-off has convinced some western analysts that the Arab Sunnis lack staying power in their efforts to topple Bashir al Assad from power in Syria and to roll back Iranian influence across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. This is an imprudent conclusion. Despite the ongoing diplomatic fracas, the ties that bind Saudi and Qatari long-term interests vis-à-vis Iran and shorter-term interests in Syria are stronger than their differences.
First and foremost, the Saudis and the Qataris fundamentally agree that Iran’s influence has grown too large in scope and substance in the Gulf region and across the Levant. While Qatar will continue to maintain a nuanced approach and publicly cordial relations with Iran, it is clearly working to counter the expanse of Iranian influence in the Middle East and especially to curb the influence of Hezbollah as an Iranian proxy.
Second, Qatar has an enormous stake in seeing Bashir al Assad fall from power in Syria, one at least as big as Riyadh’s. Qatar was the first Gulf Arab country to call for Assad’s ouster, citing his persecution of Syria’s Sunni population. Despite a series of Iranian requests to change its policy toward Assad, Qatar has held its course in strong support for Syrian opposition groups. Doha has invested an estimated USD 3 billion in Syrian opposition groups since the spring of 2011 and it remains at the forefront of financial and humanitarian support for the opposition despite a less overt profile there from the summer of 2013.
Finally, Qatar’s political leadership has changed dramatically in the past year. The June 2013 abdication of Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani in favor of his 33 year old son Sheikh Tamim was very significant for both Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Coupled with the subsequent and equally significant replacement of long-dominant, activist Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani with Doctor Kahled al-Attiyah, this abdication removed the most strident supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood from power in Doha. The abdication reportedly had to do most with Emir Hamad’s faltering health. But his departure coincided rather curiously with the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood and other regional Islamist groups supported by Sheikh Hamad and Hamad bin Jassim to seize the opportunities created by the Arab Spring.
In his twenty years as Qatari Foreign Minister, Hamad bin Jassim was a vocal champion of the Brotherhood. During his two-decade reign, Emir Hamad took many risks in support of the Brotherhood, including granting a modern media platform on state-owned Al-Jazeera television for Egyptian exile Imam Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s pro-Brotherhood proselytizing. But Hamad and his Foreign Minister failed to foresee the extent to which the Egyptian Brotherhood would prove to be miserable at governance and the degree to which Iran and Russia would steel Bashir al Assad’s military, forcing Saudi Arabia to pursue a far more assertive role in opposition and insisting that Riyadh’s leadership choices ascend to the top of the Syrian opposition.
Emir Tamim and Minister al-Attiyah are unencumbered by this history of detailed Brotherhood support, and thus have space for a tactical accommodation with Saudi Arabia. Neither played a hands-on role in support for the Brotherhood, Hamas or other Islamist groups championed by their predecessors. While they can be expected to hold firm on Qatar’s general foreign policy autonomy, they also can tone down support for controversial individuals and movements in a manner difficult for their predecessors.
The scope for a tack away from the Brotherhood and toward Saudi political sensitivities is already evident in Qatari pronouncements about Syria. Weeks ago, Emir Tamim stated that Qatar had the highest level of coordination with the Friends of Syria Group and in particular with Saudi Arabia. At the end of the day, the new Qatari Emir has the necessary freedom of movement to acknowledge that his father’s unilateral agenda was too ambitious for the moment. Tamim can accept what Hamad could not: Qatar lacks the diplomatic heft to drive a unilateral political agenda throughout the Gulf region – for now. We should therefore expect Tamim to effect a tactical understanding with Riyadh for coordinating future policy initiatives, especially in Syria and with respect to Iran.
Many important policy implications flow from the determination that Saudi Arabia and Qatar will find common ground and stay the course in Syria. But one clear implication stands above the others: The civil war in Syria will not end soon or peacefully. Iran’s stated goal is the preservation of the Assad regime. Despite lingering tactical differences on what will follow, the Saudis and Qataris will settle for nothing short of Assad’s fall. These are irreconcilable goals. The stakes are so high that each side will continue to pursue them doggedly and with growing support for those inclined toward increasingly lethal means.