Q&A: What’s behind MB leaders leaving Qatar?

A shift in Qatari foreign policy is a first step to end the political standoff between Qatar and fellow GCC states.

Several GCC countries criticised Qatar for hosting exiled Muslim Brotherhood leaders [Jaser Alagha/Al Jazeera]

Doha, Qatar – Several members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), recently unveiled plans to leave Doha “to avoid causing any embarrassment for the State of Qatar”, according to a statement issued by Amr Darrag, a senior MB figure. 

On Saturday, Darrag said on the group’s website: “We appreciate the great role of the State of Qatar in supporting the Egyptian people in their revolution against the military junta, and understand the circumstances faced by the region.”

Speaking to the New York Times on condition of anonymity, a Qatari diplomat said that the Brotherhood leaders decided to depart on their own without any request from Qatar. “Maybe for some of them, they saw from the media that the country is being pressed and they left of their own free will because they did not want to put the country in an embarrassing situation,” the diplomat said. 

The move raised questions about a possible shift in Qatari foreign policy. 

Qatar has faced increasing criticism from fellow Gulf Cooperation Council countries for hosting exiled Muslim Brotherhood leaders after Egypt declared the movement a terrorist organisation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates adopted the same position as well.

In March, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain pulled their ambassadors from Doha because Qatar did not honour an agreement among Gulf Arab countries not to interfere in each other’s internal affairs. The pact, known as the “Riyadh document” has not been made public yet. 

Al Jazeera spoke to Jamal Abdullah, author of “Qatar’s Foreign Policy 1995 – 2013: Leverages and Strategies,” and Head of the Gulf Studies Unit at Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, on the implications of the recent decision and what it may mean for Doha’s political influence in the region. Qatar is expected to host the next GCC summit meeting in December.

Al Jazeera: Recent press reports spoke about a Qatari decision to expel some leading Muslim Brotherhood figures. Could you put this decision within the larger perspective of GCC relations? In other words, is this one step forward on the road to reconciliation with other Gulf States?

Jamal Abdullah: I would like to begin with the fact that Qatar did not expel any of the Muslim Brotherhood members or any other residents within its borders. The word expulsion in this context is inaccurate since there was no announcement to expel any member of the group.

To comment on what had happened, there are two possibilities. The first one is that some MB members had decided on their own to leave Qatar because they sensed that their presence in the country can become a burden on the Qatari government. The second possibility is that the Qatari government might have asked some members of the Muslim Brotherhood to look for another host country in light of the regional political developments.

The departure of a number of the Egyptian MB group members from Doha, could indeed be a step forward in the direction of bridging the rift between Qatar and other GCC over the power struggle in Egypt in the aftermath of the coup led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in late July 2013.

by - Jamal Abdullah, Head of the Gulf Studies Unit at Al Jazeera Center for Studies

Qatar’s official line is that it would not expel, under any circumstances, whoever comes to it seeking shelter and lives within its border, except in cases when the country’s laws and legal systems are breached.

This vision has been asserted by the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, in his swearing-in speech in June 2013. He reaffirmed that Qatar would remain the “Mecca of the oppressed “.

With respect to the second part of the question, yes, the departure of a number of the Egyptian MB group members from Doha, could indeed be a step forward to repair the rift between Qatar and other GCC [members] after relations worsened over disagreements on how to deal with Egypt in the aftermath of the military-led coup in 2013.

Al Jazeera: Could this be considered concessions made by Qatar to end the political standoff? 

JA: Qatar is a pragmatic and realistic country when it comes to its foreign policy, so concessions, despite some politicians avoiding talking about it, is part of the political process for Qatar. It also seeks to protect its interests based on its foreign policy strategy as stated in Article 7 of its constitution.

Meanwhile, each country individually, or collectively must work together and work on their diplomatic relations in order to face the security threats that confront the whole gulf region. This is especially true considering that the GCC is facing a threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant, ISIL, in Iraq and Syria in the north and by the Houthies in Yemen in the south.

Al Jazeera: In light of the recent decision, do you think Qatar can no longer push or sustain its political influence in the region since it cannot afford any more political isolation? 

JA: On the contrary, Qatar will maintain its role and influence, but with a different approach. In the first decade of this century, Qatar’s outlook on the world was through soft power, thus it invested in media, education, culture, and its energy resources. 

But by 2011-2013, Qatar had shifted to using hard power when it actively took part in NATO’s military operations to topple the late Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi from power. Qatar, moreover, has provided logistical support to armed Syrian opposition groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The key change in Qatar’s foreign policy, however, came in 2013, when the young emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani assumed power and whose foreign policy opted to combine the two previous approaches. Thus Qatar’s new foreign policy approach under its new leadership is called “smart power” which facilitates elements from soft and hard power approaches to advance its interests. 

Al Jazeera: Given what we know about the Riyadh document, what are the other steps Qatar should or is expected to make in order to end the diplomatic standoff with Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain?

JA: Statements by several Gulf officials, including the Kuwaiti foreign minister, whose country was heading the recent GCC ministerial council held in Jeddah on August 30, as well as the Omani FM, all confirmed that the diplomatic crisis between Qatar on one hand, and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain on the other, was [finally] settled.

The return of the ambassadors [Saudi, UAE, and Bahraini] to Doha is expected to take place in the next few weeks. The Saudi ambassador is expected to return first while the UAE and Bahrain ambassadors are expected to return to Doha ahead of the GCC summit meeting, due to be held in December.

In my view, the outcome should not be judged by what Doha offered or what it intends to offer to end the diplomatic crisis with the other Gulf states. The Qatari view is that Doha did not create the crisis, nor had it recalled its ambassadors from the three Gulf states.

The Riyadh document is a binding agreement to all GCC member states. All are expected to honour what had been agreed upon, thus it was not only Doha that was asked to undertake specific measures, all other GCC states were also committed to put into action similar moves to repair the rift.

Reactions to GCC ambassador spat

 Al Jazeera: Does this mean that the GCC will now be united in the war against ISIL, given that both Qatar and Saudi Arabia recently agreed to join the US coalition against ISIL?

JA: Considering that Saudi Arabia played the role of a mediator in solving the dispute between Qatar and the other GCC states, through shuttle diplomacy efforts conducted by a high-ranking Saudi delegation, is an indication that Saudi leaders had understood their role to be responsible partners in addressing the threats facing the Middle East region in general and the Gulf region in particular. Accordingly, this was a step towards uniting the GCC states in the face of foreign threats.

All the Gulf states, in my view, including Saudi Arabia, have learned the lessons from the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is particularly true given that Saudi citizens who had fought in those wars, came back home, indoctrinated by ideas that constituted a threat to the country’s national security.

Al Jazeera: In what way will the relationship between Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood be affected by the recent decision?

JA: Qatar has always maintained good relations with religious organisations such as the MB and other political and nationalist movements in the region.  

As a specialist on Qatar’s foreign policy, I do not believe that Qatar’s relationship with the MB is based on ideology. Qatar, as a sovereign state, has relationship with every one including countries and organisations based on its own interests and on the changing realities.

One of the main reasons that made Qatar an indispensable player in resolving key disputes and crises in the region is its extensive contacts and relationships it maintains with different parties in the region and outside it.

Follow Ismaeel on Twitter: @ismaeelrn

Source: Al Jazeera