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What the Qatar crisis shows about the Middle East

- June 27, 2017
A man walks past the Qatar Airways branch in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, after it had suspended all flights to Saudi Arabia following a severing of relations between major gulf states and Qatar. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

The crisis among the Persian Gulf monarchies — pitting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against Qatar — might be resolved in the short run but is very unlikely to be solved for the long term. Kuwaiti mediation and American prodding might bring the two sides to some face-saving compromise, where the Qataris accept some of the 13 demands forwarded to them by the Saudis and Emiratis, but the fundamental differences between the two sides will not be easily composed.

For those who see the current regional crisis in the Middle East through an exclusively sectarian lens, the fact that Iran quickly jumped to Qatar’s defense is just another example of the larger Sunni-Shiite conflict.

The real underlying conflict is not about Iran but about very different understandings of how political Islam should relate to the state among the Sunni powers of the Middle East. Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are all Sunni majority in population and ruled by Sunni monarchs, but have very different stances on this issue. Turkey and Egypt, the two largest Sunni republics, are also on different sides.

In a recent article, I contended that the inability of Sunni Middle Eastern states to form an effective alliance against Iran stems from the profound differences among them about the nature of the threats they face.

Qatar and Turkey, the UAE and Egypt, and Saudi Arabia represent three different positions on this thorny question. The Qatar crisis is only the most recent, and clearest, manifestation of this intra-Sunni conflict.

Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood

Qatar bet on the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the Arab world long before the Arab Spring, providing support for Brotherhood groups in the region; safe haven for Brotherhood exiles like the Egyptian preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Hamas leader Khaled Mashal; and a platform for populist and electoral Sunni Islamist views in the regional satellite channels of the Al Jazeera network.

This populist Sunni Islamist stance, while certainly not liberal democratic, seeks power through electoral means. This vision was shared by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who saw in the Muslim Brotherhood’s successes after the Arab Spring the possibility of a bloc of similar regimes, with Turkey at its head.

A post-Assad Syria would be the next member of that bloc, which is why Erdogan was the first regional leader to call for the Syrian president to step down.

Saudi Arabia’s religious rule

Saudi Arabia represents the antithesis of populist, bottom-up Sunni Islam. The monarchy long ago made its Salafi religious establishment, known as Wahhabi, a partner in supporting its rule.

The Saudi men of religion are now state bureaucrats, advocating a puritanical and xenophobic social interpretation of Islam and endeavoring to spread that interpretation throughout the Muslim world by loyally supporting the monarchy and by counseling that it is the duty of good Muslims to obey the rulers. This is top-down, not bottom-up, political Islam.

Top-down Islam inside borders

The United Arab Emirates, while allied with Saudi Arabia, represents a third trend in political Islam. Official Islam in the Emirates is tightly tied to state authority and subservient to it. Unlike in Saudi Arabia, the Emiratis have no ambition to propagate Islam beyond their borders. Just the opposite — they support anti-Islamist forces in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere. This is top-down Islam, but in one country.

In this they are joined by Egypt, once the center of Arab politics, but now, given its domestic economic and political problems, more a follower than a leader. The great center of Sunni Islamic learning in Cairo, al-Azhar, certainly has ambitions beyond Egypt’s borders. But it does not have the financial capacity to challenge the Saudi-funded institutions of global Salafi Islam.

It is interesting to note that the UAE has made overtures toward al-Azhar, perhaps looking to fund its own challenge to both global Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood, in the name of a tamed state Islam.

Ideological conflicts inside the region

Add in the Salafi Islamist militant position represented by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, and the ideological conflicts within the Sunni world become even more fraught. They share the puritanical Salafi interpretation of Islam with Saudi Arabia but hate the Saudi rulers as sellouts to the United States.

They are a bottom-up, populist movement but reject the electoral course taken by Erdogan’s party and the Muslim Brotherhood. State Islam within the existing regional borders is the antithesis of their message of a united Muslim community. The Islamic State and al-Qaeda have attacked the Turkish, Saudi and Egyptian regimes on numerous occasions.

The Sunni states cannot act in concert because, even though they might all worry about Iran, they see each other as potential, if not actual, threats to domestic regime stability. The Egyptians and the Emiratis view the Muslim Brotherhood as their major domestic threat, and thus see Qatar and Turkey as the allies of their domestic enemies.

That is why Cairo and Abu Dhabi are insisting that Qatar shut down Al Jazeera. The Saudis worry that Qatar, which officially shares the Salafi Wahhabi brand of Islam, can play into its own domestic politics, mobilizing opposition to their regime.

Egypt is unwilling to get behind the Saudi effort to unseat Bashar al-Assad in Syria because it fears Islamist groups like the Brotherhood will benefit. Saudi Arabia has historical ties to the Brotherhood but has recently distanced itself from it, and sees populist, electoral political Islam as a domestic threat.

Turkey worries that successful pressure on Qatar might lead to regional pressure on itself. Turkey and Saudi Arabia have both been on the same side as the Islamic State and/or al-Qaeda in regional fights — Turkey in Syria and Saudi Arabia in Syria and Yemen — but can neither control nor trust the Salafi Islamist militants, who seek to overthrow them at home.

President Trump’s vision of a Sunni world united with the United States against both Iran and terrorism is unlikely, as long as the Sunni regimes of the Middle East hold such divergent views about the relationship of Islam to politics. In a Middle East supposedly dominated by a sectarian Sunni-Shiite conflict, the Sunnis don’t have their act together.

Gregory Gause III is a professor of international affairs and the John H. Lindsey ’44 Chair at the Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University.