How the Gulf Arab Rivalry Tore Libya Apart

Qatar and the UAE have deadly opposing interests in the North African state.

Qatar has maintained an activist foreign policy since its Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, overthrew his father in a bloodless palace coup in 1995. By launching the pan-Arab satellite network Al-Jazeera in 1996 and pursuing a more open relationship with Iran, Qatar earned a reputation as being the GCC’s “wild card.” Other Council members criticized Doha for not always keeping in mind the interests of its fellow Gulf Arab monarchies. Al-Jazeera’s coverage of other Arab nations’ affairs prompted several Arab regimes to criticize the network as early as 2002.

Another source of tension between Qatar and the rest of the Council has been the Egyptian-born senior cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, known as the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, who has lived in Qatar since the 1960s. Qaradawi’s sermons have angered Doha’s fellow Council members. Emirati leaders lashed out at Qatar for not silencing the cleric after he accused the UAE of siding “against Islamic rule.” According to WikiLeaks, in 2009 Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed met with U.S. officials and declared that Qatar is “part of the Muslim Brotherhood.” The prince also encouraged Washington to examine Al-Jazeera employees, predicting that it would discover that most of the staff were tied to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Regardless, the network was popular on the Arab street, where by 2011 many hailed Al-Jazeera as a promoter of democratic change and popular revolution. Yet, certain autocratic regimes across the region viewed the Muslim Brotherhood as an existential threat, and soon saw Al-Jazeera as Doha’s political weapon, being used to stir up trouble. Qatar’s critics observed that Qaradawi was a popular television host on Al-Jazeera. According to the Egyptian Independent, in March 2011 an Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood presidential nominee, Khairat al-Shater, traveled to Doha to address coordination between “the Brotherhood, the Freedom and Justice Party [the movement’s political wing in Egypt], and Qatar in the upcoming period,” leaving many to conclude that the Qataris were seeking to influence the outcome of Egypt’s first democratic election following Mubarak’s fall from power. Qatar and Al-Jazeera soon gained reputations as being pro–Muslim Brotherhood.

In March 2014, this tension reached a new level when the UAE joined Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in recalling their ambassadors from Doha to punish Qatar for its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood—an unprecedented event in the Council’s history. Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Manama accused Qatar of failing to abide by a November 2013 agreement that committed the six members to “principals of non-interference in the internal affairs of other GCC countries and not supporting anyone who threatens the security and stability of other GCC countries including organizations and individuals and not supporting the antagonistic media.”

Eight months later, Saudi Arabia hosted a meeting in which three GCC members and Qatar agreed to end their rift. The Emirati, Saudi and Bahraini envoys returned to Doha after deciding that, in light of the “sensitive circumstances the region is undergoing,” it was in the interest of all Gulf Arab nations to turn a “new page” and restore unity to the GCC. Tension between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has eased substantially since King Salman inherited the throne in January and softened Riyadh’s harsh stance on the Brotherhood, as part of a strategy to unite the wider Sunni Arab world against Iranian influence and Daesh/Islamic State.

The Emirati-Qatari Rivalry

The UAE, however, has not softened its stance against the Muslim Brotherhood. Throughout 2015, the UAE has grown frustrated with Riyadh’s overtures to the movement, while maintaining its anti-Islamist foreign policy. Libya has become a battleground in this Gulf rivalry. The extent to which the UAE has committed itself to countering Islamist groups in Libya was underscored in August 2014, when Emirati pilots flying out of bases in Egypt carried out strikes against Islamist militants seeking control of Tripoli. Although the UAE’s strikes were futile in terms of thwarting the Libya Dawn coalition from seizing control of the nation’s capital, the military operation signaled a watershed in Emirati foreign policy. This was the first time in which the UAE military waged strikes against a foreign country without international authorization.