Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi will visit Qatar on 26 and 27 March to attend the 34th summit of the Arab League. His visit is the first to the wealthy natural gas monarchy, but follows numerous visits to Cairo in recent months by various senior Qatari officials, including the country's emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem, and the head of the intelligence service, Ahmed Nasser bin Jassem.
These visits marked a dramatic strengthening of relations between the two countries, particularly since the coming to power in Egypt of an Islamist president from the Muslim Brotherhood. This is the group that manages the relationship with Doha, rather than the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, bypassed several times by both parties when it comes to visits by senior officials of the two nations. These include particularly visits to Doha by Khairat El-Shater, vice-supreme guide and financial strongman of the Muslim Brotherhood, and architect of this bilateral relationship.
The renewal of ties between Egypt and Qatar, after the frostiness and suspicions that had marked relations under former President Mubarak, have led to massive financial support provided by Qatar to Egypt, which is crumbling under the weight of an unprecedented economic crisis since the popular uprising of 25 January 2011 and which is desperately seeking donors to come to its aid.
Doha has granted Egypt $5 billion, including a $1-billion grant and $4 billion worth of deposits at the central bank. Qatar has also promised $18 billion worth of investment over five years that would focus, according to Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil, on two mega tourist projects: the first in East Port Said, worth $10 billion, and the second in the Red Sea region, worth $8 billion.
This massive assistance caused a general outcry among various forces of the Egyptian opposition, backed by several local media outlets, yelling at interference, even domination, which it might give to the small emirate in terms of the formulation of Egypt's internal and external policies. Reports abound in this sense of 'concessions' made by Cairo in return for Qatari largesse: Egypt would no longer be opposed to a system of rotation for the post of Arab League secretary-general, allowing other countries, possibly Qatar, to take the head of the pan-Arab organisation.
Cairo would also be committed to supporting Qatari candidates for leadership positions in regional and international organisations. On the other hand, Egypt would agree to grant Qatari investors benefits that do not apply to other nations. They would be exempt from property laws for foreigners. Cairo would also have acceded to Doha's request to import Qatari gas.
Refuted by both the Egyptian and Qatari authorities, these accusations by the Egyptian opposition have their basis in the association between massive financial assistance and an unfailing foreign-policy activism by the monarchy of Al-Thani since the coming to power of Hamad bin Khalifa in 1995. The following year, he created the emirate's media arm, the satellite television channel Al-Jazeera, a tool of its foreign policy.
The Egyptian government under Mubarak has repeatedly complained about its coverage, deemed biased, of the news of the land of the pharaohs. It was one of the reasons for the coldness and tension that characterised relations between the two countries.
At the outbreak of the uprising against Mubarak, Al-Jazeera played a role in encouraging protests against the regime. After the accession to power of the Muslim Brotherhood, the channel, which has since lost some of its audience due to the creation of several local TV stations, made a turn in favour of the the country's new masters. A document from the US State Department in 2010, revealed by WikiLeaks, stressed that the government of Qatar manipulates Al-Jazeera coverage to serve its political interests.
These interests are closely related to the economic interests of the emirate. Since 2010, Qatar has become the richest country in the world in terms of per capita income. Its sovereign investment fund occupies the 12th place in the world with $115 billion. The huge foreign currency reserves of Qatar, the world's largest exporter of liquefied natural gas since 2006, are placed in lucrative investments, which are selected at the same time to allow the emirate to gain political influence and prestige regionally and internationally.
Since the outbreak of popular uprisings that toppled regimes in several Arab countries and the rise of Islamist movements, Qatar has built on these new forces. The emirate, which prohibits all kinds of political representation and, surprisingly, where the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood was dissolved in 2003, believes that Islamism is the future political force in the Arab world.
It has therefore decided to invest in this rising movement outside of Qatar, giving financial, political and sometimes military support to Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates the scene. This was – and remains – the case in Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Egypt.
Doha sees that forming an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, through checkbook diplomacy, is a way of creating a regional basis to an increased economic and political influence in the Middle East and beyond. Put differently, Qatar took advantage of the economic decline, the political instability and the consequent weakening that has resulted from the Arab Spring in several countries to advance its own desire to settle itself as a key regional power.
Regional ambitions of the tiny emirate, based on its natural gas wealth, are not a secret. It has already acted as a mediator, with varying success, in several regional conflicts in recent years: Lebanon, Palestine (between the PLO and Hamas), Sudan (Darfur), Yemen, Afghanistan, and the border dispute between Eritrea and Djibouti. The advent of the Arab Spring, which has affected countries as central to the Arab world as Egypt and Syria, gave it a 'historical' opportunity to advance its pawns and earn points against competitors such as Saudi Arabia.
As surprising as it may seem, Qatar took a position contrary to those of other Gulf monarchies vis-à-vis the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. These countries, especially Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, are sceptical – even hostile – to the accession to power by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere. Their position dates back to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, when the Brotherhood had opposed US intervention to liberate Kuwait.
This position, interpreted as support for the Iraqi invasion, was seen as an act of ingratitude by those countries, which had welcomed and given shelter to several members of Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and other Arab nationalities fleeing persecution in their home countries since the 1960s. Only Qatar has parted, since the mid-1990s, from the consensus forged by the Gulf oil monarchies. Its foreign policy has been based since that time on a delicate balance between contradictory elements in order to establish its role as mediator in the Middle East and its stature as regional power.
Hicham Mourad is a professor of Political Science in Cairo University and Editor in Chief of Al-Ahram Hebdo. He holds a PHD in International Relations from Paris-Sorbonne University.