The Muslim Brotherhood’s surprise announcement nominating Khairat al-Shater for the presidency has ruffled feathers not only in Egypt but also here in the Gulf. The two Gulf States that perhaps are most at odds with each other over this nomination are Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The small state of Qatar has not enjoyed good relations with the ousted Mubarak regime, in fact in a strange twist of irony Hosni Mubarak’s first official visit to Doha came only towards the end of 2010, only weeks before his downfall was championed by the Qatar state broadcaster Al Jazeera. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, enjoyed very warm relations with “al-Reyyes,” as Mubarak was referred to in the Gulf. During the 18-day Egyptian uprising, the Saudi King himself offered to make up for any funding that the US may withhold from its close ally.
The stakes between Egypt and these nations are high. Qatar and Saudi have promised the largest amounts of pledges to the Egyptian government; the first promised a staggering amount of US$10 billion in projects and financial aid while the latter promised up to $4 billion. Both states have transferred $500 million to Egypt’s coffers so far. At 130,000, the number of Egyptians living in Qatar pales in comparison with the 1.2 million Egyptians in the Kingdom, although Egyptian expatriates have assumed more prominent roles in Qatari society as advisors to the Emir and heads of institutions. Saudi investments in Egypt stood at $10 billion in 2011, with two-way trade exceeding $3.5 billion annually, whereas Qatari investment in Egypt stood at $430 million, with Qatari-Egyptian two-way trade having almost doubled in one year to $500 million in 2011.
Unlike other Gulf States, Qatar early on identified the changing dynamics within the Egyptian media landscape, launching Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr Egypt Live), a TV channel targeted specifically to the Egyptian market only ten days after Mubarak was ousted. Qatar’s Emir was also the only Gulf leader to visit Egypt and meet with Field Marshal Tantawi in his new capacity back in May 2011.
Until Shater’s nomination, the Gulf States of Saudi and Qatar were in agreement on maintaining ties with Egypt; today, however, divergent views may come into the forefront. At the outset, the prospect of Shater’s presidency will add more worries to Saudi Arabia, who in mid-February 2011, just a few days after the ouster of its ally Mubarak, issued a resolution to withdraw sections from public schools textbooks that it claimed “incite violence” and specifically named those segments dealing with the leaders of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood including Sheikh Hassan al-Banna, the group’s founder, and Sayyed Qotb, according to the London based Al-Hayat.
Although Saudi Arabia has not issued any official statement following the rise of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, columnists close to the Saudi regime have repeatedly spelled out the suspicion of Saudi decision makers regarding the group. Crown Prince Nayef, who has served as Saudi Interior Minister since 1975, is especially known for his distrust of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Back in 2002, Prince Nayef made the audacious statement saying, “Without any hesitation I say it, that our problems, all of them, came from the direction of the Muslim Brotherhood.” Then, following Mubarak’s downfall, Prince Nayef denounced a journalist as a “terrorist sympathizer” when he asked him whether his country would improve relations with the Muslim Brotherhood. According to the New York Times, Prince Nayef said his country felt “betrayed” by the Muslim Brotherhood after the Kingdom offered refuge to its members who were persecuted under Gamal Abdel Nasser “only to have them establish a competing political ideology.” Ironically, reports indicated that out of the 120,000 votes cast last winter by Egyptians living in Saudi Arabia in the previous parliamentary elections, a majority went to the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.
Furthermore, Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s former head of intelligence, who is known for his distrust of the Muslim Brotherhood, paid a visit to Saudi Arabia following Mubarak’s downfall and was shown publically on Saudi TV meeting with his long time Saudi intelligence colleague, the now powerful Crown Prince Nayef.
Qatar’s relations with the Muslim Brotherhood are poles apart from that of its giant neighbor. In early March, Shater paid an official visit to Qatar, a Gulf state that has been welcoming Muslim Brotherhood members for over half a century including the influential Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the late Abdul Muiz Abdel Sattar and Dr. Ahmad al-Assal. On his visit which lasted several days Shater “discussed coordination between the Brotherhood, the Freedom and Justice Party and Qatar in the upcoming period.”
The candidacy of Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, who was expelled from the Brotherhood and is experiencing a surge in popularity, may complicate matters within the decision-making circles of Doha. Prior to Shater’s nomination, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who enjoys strong relations with the Emir of Qatar, singled out Abouel Fotouh as his candidate of choice. Qaradawi had referred to Abouel Fotouh as “a cheerful man of good morals who deals with everyone” in comments last February; adding that he sees him “as the best candidate in terms of age and experience on Arab and Egyptian affairs.”
Qatar has recently been enjoying a rapprochement with Saudi Arabia that may witness a setback if the former was seen to promote Shater’s candidacy too enthusiastically. So far, Shater has appeared numerous times on Qatari-owned Al Jazeera Arabic in October and February, as well as the English version of the channel and both Al Jazeera Mubasher and Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr channels.
There is no denying the keen interest that these two wealthy and influential Gulf States will be paying to the Egyptian presidential elections. To Saudi Arabia, the notion of an influential Arabic Islamic leaning republic offering competing ideologies to its own Wahhabi teachings could pose a threat to its dominant role in the Sunni Muslim world. To Qatar, a relationship that it has carefully cultivated over decades may finally be bearing fruit, turning a once cold relationship with Egypt into a strategic and valuable partnership.
After a period of relatively close coordination following the Arab uprisings, the Gulf States of Qatar and Saudi Arabia will likely witness their first major foreign policy divergence should the prospect of a Muslim Brotherhood president in Egypt turn into a reality.
Sultan al-Qassemi is a UAE-based commentator on Arab affairs.