Of all Qatar’s policy innovations since a coup brought the emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, to power in 1995, its overt alliance with Islamist movements linked to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has perhaps been the most controversial so far. There is deep unease in Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over the ascendancy of the Brotherhood, a well-established political outfit that seeks power through democracy, following the uprising that brought down Hosni Mubarak two years ago.
And since last November, when President Mohammad Mursi adopted sweeping powers and then rushed the completion of an Islamist-friendly constitution, Egypt has seen civil strife between various Islamist and non-Islamic factions that is grinding the economy into the Nile mud as tourists stay away, industry slows down and the government cannot pay its bills.
So it has become rather fashionable in many circles to predict the imminent demise of Qatar’s alliance with the Brotherhood. The question of Qatar – whose natural gas wealth has transformed the small Gulf state’s fortunes – has become a favorite parlor game from Cairo to Dubai.
Influenced by this pervasive anti-Brotherhood atmosphere in their host countries, diplomats, analysts, policymakers and journalists wonder if Qatar as a state will be forced to change tack, or whether there could be backlash against certain members of the ruling elite themselves for the insolence of their dissonant tone.
Inside Qatar itself, however, there is little sense that Islamists are about to be knocked off their pedestal. A notable presence in university departments, think tanks and other non-governmental organizations, they also form a constant stream of visitors for seminars and forums. Although there is no official Brotherhood branch in Qatar, leading Brotherhood-linked preacher Yousef al-Qaradawi has been in Doha for decades and is a key reference for many Qataris.
“Qaradawi is not new in Qatar and the Brotherhood is not new in Qatar. When the modern state was established, the Education Ministry and other institutions were set up by many Muslim Brotherhood people,” said Jassim Sultan, a Qatari who runs the Islamist, pro-Brotherhood website 4nahda.com.
Like others, he believes the close circle around the emir responsible for policy is driven by a strategic vision of how to secure independence from Saudi Arabia rather than ideological affinity for the Islamists per se.
Salah Elzein, a Sudanese who heads the Al-Jazeera Center for Studies, agreed and said Qatar had played a key role in making the Brotherhood acceptable to Western powers.
“The Qatari leadership realized Islamists would be a power to reckon with. At same time, Qatar was in good relationship with Israel and West. There is a huge difference in the way the United States deals with Islamists compared to 10 years ago,” he said. “People miss that Qatar invested a lot [in Islamists]. It started way before, it didn’t happen just now as mere opportunism with the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Qatari rulers have traditionally promoted Saudi Salafism. The founder of the modern state, Sheikh Jassim, who died in 1913, was a follower of the puritanical Wahhabi school of Saudi Arabia. The presence of Qaradawi and Brotherhood cadres from Egypt since the 1960s was seen as a moderating force, and liberals have gained in recent years as the leadership plots to turn Doha into a world city that will host sports fans from around the world for the 2022 World Cup.
A large mosque in the name of Mohammad Ibn Abdul-Wahhab, the Salafist ideologue who helped found the modern Saudi state, was opened in 2011 in Doha, in an apparent effort to mollify Salafists over liberal and Brotherhood gains.
“The Salafi hard-liners are not happy about the opening [to other groups], but they are quite free here, there are no restrictions against them,” said Mohammad Alahmari, a Saudi who runs a Doha think tank.
There is unease over the Brotherhood policy among liberals.
“The Muslim Brotherhood is running the show. They have a monopoly and you get attacked if you attack the Brotherhood. It’s new and it became more clear that Al-Jazeera is backing them in the last five years,” said Najeeb al-Nuaimi, a former justice minister.
Tensions with the UAE have led to some Qataris being barred from entry at airports and an official from Qatar Petroleum has been held in detention this year for undeclared reasons.
“Maybe most people support it, but intellectuals ask, where will this lead to?” said Hassan al-Sayed, a constitutional law professor at Qatar University. “Some think it could lead to disasters, politically, financially, even on a personal level.”
Dissent among the public has focused more on the breakneck growth of Doha and plans to expand the country’s population to some 5 million people, although Qatari nationals form less than 300,000 of a 1.9 million population at present. Little more than a sleepy backwater in the 1990s, the city has been transformed beyond all recognition. The sleepy downtown area of the old Souq Waqef faces off against the otherworldly skyscrapers of the West Bay district, which, arising out of the sea on reclaimed land, give the impression of floating on air.
“There is no precise information about reasons and justifications for controversial public policies. This means that Qataris are always surprised by policy decisions, as if they were a private affair that citizens have no right to know about or take part in,” wrote academic Ali al-Kuwari in a book published last year called “The People Want Reform In Qatar Too,” the result of a year of monthly salons among intellectuals organized by Kuwari.
And the jailing of poet Mohammad Ibn al-Dhaib al-Ajami after a poem that attacked Arab rulers in the wake of the uprisings in 2011 revealed a certain regime jitteriness.
Even if Qatar wanted to, decoupling from a widespread and influential organization like the Brotherhood would not be an easy task. Nuaimi says it will depend on the fate of Islamist rule in Egypt and Tunisia: “They think the Brotherhood is the political future of the Arab world. I think they are wrong. I predict that in five years they will be out in Egypt and Tunisia and then Qatar will put them aside.”