Originally published under the title, “Amid rumors of Mashaal’s expulsion, Doha trying to regain alliance with Egypt, Saudi Arabia.”Under its previous emir, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Qatar strutted the world stage. It is still not clear whether reports in Turkish newspaper Aydinlik concerning the expulsion by Qatar of Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal are accurate. Hamas officials have indignantly denied that their leader is shortly set to quit his Doha home. But certainly, Mashaal’s expulsion would fit with the broader pattern of recent events. Recent months have witnessed a number of acts by Qatar suggesting it is seeking to repair relations with its fellow Gulf monarchies, and with Egypt. Hamas, the enemy of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the Saudis, can have no part in this.
The expulsion of Mashaal, if it takes place, will be the latest concession by Doha to the wishes of Cairo and Riyadh.
Qatar’s latest moves are the fruit of partial defeat for Doha in its regional agenda; Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the winners. Lets take a look. Qatar’s latest moves are the fruit of partial defeat for Doha in its regional agenda.
Qatar, in the first two years of the regional upheaval that began in 2011, appeared to be riding high. The tiny emirate backed the Muslim Brotherhood movement; its enormously influential Al Jazeera channel pumped out propaganda on behalf of the movement and against its enemies. In late 2012, at what was evidently its high-water mark, the Qatar-Brotherhood alliance appeared to be forming a new power bloc in the Middle East. The Brotherhood had achieved power in the most populous Arab state – Egypt. It Tunisian iteration, al-Nahda, won elections there.
Militias associated with a Brotherhood-type outlook and financed by Qatar, such as the Tawhid Brigade of Aleppo, were playing a key role in the Syrian war – and victory looked within reach. Turkey, under the rule of the Brotherhood-influenced AK Party, had drawn close to Qatar and saw itself playing a key role in the emergent Sunni Islamist alliance.
Doha had antagonized its fellow Gulf monarchies to distraction, in the service of a new power bloc that apparently is not going to come into existence after all.
Two years on, nearly all of this is in ruins.
Most importantly, the army is back in power in Egypt and is engaged in an attempt to crush the Brotherhood. In Tunisia, Nahda lost elections in 2014 and has ceded power to its non-Islamist rivals. In Syria, a regionwide mobilization by Iran of its allies and proxies, and the determined support of Russia as well as rebel confusion and disunity, have saved Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.
This has left both Qatar and Hamas somewhat beached. Doha had antagonized its fellow Gulf monarchies to distraction, in the service of a new power bloc that apparently is not going to come into existence after all.
Hamas, meanwhile, had also placed its bets on this emergent Sunni Islamist bloc.
The Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood had removed itself from Damascus, rejected the Iranian attempt to exhort it to declare its support for Assad, and suffered a major loss in Iranian funding as a result.
RECENT MONTHS have seen both Qatar and Hamas seeking to adjust themselves to this new reality, but in different directions.
In mid-September, Doha ordered several prominent members of the Egyptian Brotherhood to leave the emirate. They had been offered asylum after fleeing their country following the military coup in July 2013. The first indication of improved relations with other Gulf states came after a surprise summit of Gulf Cooperation Council countries on November 16, 2014. As a result of this meeting, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates agreed to return their ambassadors to Qatar after an absence of eight months. In the days after, Saudi King Abdullah II received a phone call from Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.
The GCC summit in Bahrain in early December saw further Qatari concessions on Libya and Egypt, where Doha’s position had run in direct contradiction to that of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Doha gave its full support to Sisi and his “road map” for Egypt at the summit; afterward, Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid Bin Mohammed al-Attiya pledged Doha’s support for Sisi, and spoke of the importance of Egypt’s regional role. Then, on December 20, Sisi met with an envoy of the Qatari emir, in a meeting brokered by Riyadh.
Thus, the Mashaal departure, if indeed it takes place, will be the latest in a string of concessions offered by Doha to the Cairo-Riyadh alliance – which is emerging as the key power arrangement among the Sunnis at present.
Qatar is of course enormously wealthy, but it is also a flimsy state, lacking hard power of any kind. For its economic and business activities to continue to flourish, it cannot afford to stray too far from existing power alliances, which will inevitably be dominated by states other than itself.
For a while, the Qataris thought they were set to be the financiers and cheerleaders of a new, Egypt-centered bloc – yet that bloc was stillborn. The Qataris are now accommodating themselves to this reality. Hamas, too, must make its own new arrangements, and indications are that the movement is leaning in the direction of renewed rapprochement with Iran. The year 2014 saw a gradual thaw in relations between Hamas and Tehran, though all suspicion is unlikely to have dispelled. Hamas’s needs are different from those of Qatar. And of course, Hamas has no way to align with the Cairo-Riyadh alliance – which regards it as an element of the Brotherhood they are seeking to defeat.
Qatar is enormously wealthy, but it is also a flimsy state, lacking hard power of any kind. This leaves Tehran or Ankara as possible backers – or more likely, a hedging and a combination of the two. Of course, one should not assume that Qatar will entirely end its support for Islamist movements. Doha has not fallen in love with Riyadh; it is repositioning out of necessity and through clenched teeth. The more extravagant Egyptian demands – such as that Doha expel prominent Brotherhood preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi – are unlikely to be fulfilled; Qaradawi has lived in the emirate since 1961.
Ultimately, what the Qatari concessions indicate is the burgeoning strength of the Cairo-Riyadh alliance, which has forced a Qatari realignment while appearing to offer no, or hardly any, gestures in return. This new alliance (which has good, if largely silent, relations with Israel), is perhaps the most important diplomatic development in the region since 2011. As of now, with the US seeking rapprochement with Iran, the main blocs facing one another in the region are the Iranians and their allies against the Saudis and their own. The Brotherhood and the Salafists are a factor, to be sure, but for the moment a weaker one. In sum, the travails and maneuvering of Qatar and Hamas reflect the disarray of the Sunni Islamist camp.
**Jonathan Spyer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.