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Revising Qatari policy on Egypt

The change in Qatar's ruler could, and pragmatically should in time, allow the emirate to improve its relations with Egypt, cutting losses incurred from supporting the Muslim Brotherhood

Hicham Mourad , Sunday 13 Oct 2013

The decision of Egypt, announced 19 September, to return to Qatar $2 billion that was deposited in the Egyptian Central Bank, coming after the failure of negotiations to turn them into treasury bonds, is another indication of the deterioration of bilateral relations between the two countries after the dismissal 3 July of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood.

On 20 September, the Egyptian attorney general issued an arrest warrant against the famous preacher of Egyptian origin, a naturalised Qatari, Youssef Al-Qaradawi, for inciting the murder of security forces. Al-Qaradawi, a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, who often made his appearances on the Qatari Al-Jazeera satellite channel, called Muslims to jihad against the interim regime to ensure the restoration of Morsi and his function. Cairo also recently rejected a Qatari request to increase the number of weekly flights made by Qatar Airways between the two countries from 28 to 42. At the same time, negotiations are suspended on the purchase by Egypt of Qatari natural gas.

These signs, and many others, are indicative of deteriorating of relations between the two countries. On 4 September, Interim President Adly Mansour warned that the patience of Egypt is "running out regarding the Qatari stance." He was referring to the support of Doha for the Muslim Brotherhood and the deposed president, which has translated into very biased media coverage of the political crisis in Egypt by Al-Jazeera, which follows the viewpoint of the Brotherhood. The Qatari channel was consequently banned from broadcasting from Cairo.

Like Turkey, Qatar, which was the main provider of financial support to the regime of the Muslim Brotherhood, with $7.5 billion in multiform assistance, is plummeting in Egypt. It is mainly supplanted by Saudi Arabia, its main rival in the Arabian Peninsula, but also by the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, all hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood and happy for their fall in Egypt. The natural gas wealthy emirate had staked everything on the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Arab Spring countries. Doha seemed to have made the winning bet with Islamists' accession to power in Egypt and Tunisia. But their scathing fall in the most important country in the Arab world is sobering today to the Qataris, because it means a serious diplomatic setback for them — the main supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world.

The overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was felt as an earthquake by the Qatari royal family, which had invested heavily in their regime, financially and politically. Their fall came just days after a crucial event in the history of the emirate: Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, in power since June 1995, abdicated in favour of his son, Tamim, 33 years, on 25 June 2013. This gave rise to much speculation. The departure of the architect of the growing regional and global influence of the emirate, and his government team, including the influential and energetic prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani, should result in a relative decline of Qatar's regional status, at least for a certain period, due to the inexperience of the new leader.

Some evidence suggests that the new emir is conducting a gradual revision of the foreign policy of his country, including towards the Muslim Brotherhood. The young Emir thus made his first visit abroad in August, to Saudi Arabia, which could mean the beginnings of a rapprochement with Riyadh and its regional positions or, at least, the desire to reduce diplomatic confrontation with that country.

The resounding fall of the Brotherhood in Egypt is currently the subject of critical thinking within the Qatari regime, according to sources close to the emir. The support for the Muslim Brotherhood by Doha was justified by reasons of realpolitik and not ideology, expressing its willingness to use its support as a tool of projection and diffusion of Qatari political and economic influence in Egypt, in the region and beyond. Their fall should encourage Qatar, for practical reasons and by pragmatism, to reorient its policy and reduce its commitment to the Muslim Brotherhood, to preserve its long-term interests in Egypt. In this sense, Doha has not lost time to recognise the interim regime in Egypt (unlike Turkey), by sending the congratulations of the new emir to the new president, Adly Mansour, on 4 July, the same day as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Tamim Al-Thani also seems inclined to focus on internal issues. In his inaugural speech on 26 June, he spoke mainly of domestic issues. Qatar is expected to spend a lot of money and energy to prepare for the FIFA World Cup in 2022. It must spend for this purpose some $150 billion on urban development projects, as well as the construction of roads, a new airport and a new port. These huge expenditures could result in a reduction in spending of the emirate on foreign policy issues.

Reassessment and reorientation of the regional policy of Qatar should, however, be put in place progressively. Contradictory signals, at least for a certain period of time, may appear. Thus Qatar, which has recognised the interim regime, continues to call for the release of the deposed president and members of the Brotherhood, Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera continues its biased news coverage of Egypt, calling the removal of Morsi a "military coup."

A possible change of Qatari foreign policy, however, should not touch certain constants, such as the willingness to follow an independent policy, but not necessarily, this time, in confrontation with Saudi Arabia. This new policy will probably be less activist, less interventionist, more cautious and consensual. The change at the head of the emirate should enable young Tamim progressively to make this change, from the assessment of losses and political setbacks due to the inconsiderate alliance forged with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

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