Qatar, Saudi Fight For Supremacy in Volatile Mid-East

Dubai: Qatar, a key supporter of Islamists who rose to power in Arab Spring countries, is losing ground in regional politics to Saudi Arabia, which appears to have seized the reins on key issues, notably Egypt and Syria.

The decline in Qatar’s regional diplomacy comes as its powerful emir Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani unexpectedly abdicated in favour of his son Tamim last month.

The country had transformed itself into a key regional player but began to retreat as heavyweight Saudi Arabia re-entered the political arena after lagging behind in the immediate period following the eruption of the Arab Spring uprisings in December 2010.

The ouster of Egypt’s Islamist president Mohammad Mursi last week by the army and the election by the Syrian opposition of Saudi-linked Ahmad Assi Jarba as new leader stripped Qatar of strong influence in both countries.

“Qatar had tried to take a leading role in the region but overstepped its limits by openly backing the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Syria, and other Arab Spring states,” said Kuwaiti political analyst Ayed Al Manna.

Realising the damaging effects of their policies, Manna noted, “the Qataris sought to cut down on their commitments” which were already affected by the emir’s abdication and the sidelining of the influential prime minister Shaikh Hamad Bin Jabr Al Thani.

As a result, “Saudi Arabia, a historical regional US ally, regained its role” in coordination with other Gulf rulers, said Manna.

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah was the first foreign head of state to congratulate Egypt’s interim president Adly Mansour, hours after he was named to replace Mursi. And on Tuesday, the kingdom pledged $5 billion  in assistance to Egypt.  The United Arab Emirates, which has cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood in the past few months, offered Egypt an aid package of $3 billion followed by Kuwait with $4 billion.

Two countries, whose relations have been historically tense or at least marked by mistrust, support two different approaches of political Islam that emerged strongly in the wake of the Arab Spring. Qatar sides with political parties linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, whose experience was cut short despite the strong media support they enjoyed from the influential Doha-based Al Jazeera news channel.

Successful in more ways than many imagined during the past decade, especially through its full-fledged support to the immensely influential Al Jazeera television network, the Qatari quest for regional leadership suffered significant setbacks as the conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and elsewhere, altered Doha’s maverick policies.

In fact, Qatar lost ground to Saudi Arabia, whose views were articulated on Al Arabiya and other Saudi-owned networks, precisely because Riyadh showed patience.

Consequently, it was safe to post that the waning in Qatari diplomacy, ostensibly articulated through powerful media outlets and support to key Islamist movements, was neither accidental nor unexpected.

Prejudicial accusations were levelled against Al Jazeera for distortions of the truth, with several employees in Egypt quitting amid concerns over the Doha-based managers’ alleged biases towards the Muslim Brotherhood.

Although Al Jazeera denied that its coverage lacked balance, the station’s alleged pro-Brotherhood stance was clearly linked to Doha’s policies. Similarly, the generally pro-Saudi Al Arabiya network confronted matching accusations, ostensibly displaying anti-Brotherhood positions, which drew the ire of Egyptian Islamists. This Al Jazeera-Al Arabiya competition notwithstanding, Doha was anxious to place fresh markers on its media checker-board, now that Abdul Bari Atwan, an outspoken Palestinian journalist and long-time editor-in-chief of London-based Al Quds Al Arabi newspaper was forced out of his position. Atwan antagonised many governments, including its Qatari backer, with radical views, which explained his departure.

Atwan’s parting editorial spoke volumes. Al Quds Al Arabi, he affirmed, “always confronted occupations, corrupt and repressive dictatorships and foreign hegemonies… it has always championed the oppressed, the repressed and the usurped.”

Meantime exiled Shaikh Yousuf Al Qaradawi, a Qatari protégé and frequent Al Jazeera guest issued a  provocative religious decree (fatwa) calling on his fellow Egyptians to “support correctness and restore President Mursi to his legitimate post.”

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia promotes Salafist groups that focus less on politics and more on implementing Sharia Islamic law on daily life matters. Saudi King Abdullah has reiterated his country’s stance against mixing Islam with politics. “Islam rejects divisions in the name of one party or another,” he said in a statement marking the start on Wednesday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. “The kingdom will never accept” the presence of political parties, that “only lead to conflict and failure.” Agencies

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