GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

Family Name:
First Name:
James M
Title of Paper:
Qatar: Challenging Saudi Arabia with an alternative view of Wahhabism
Paper Proposal Text :
As Saudi Arabia seeks to impregnate itself against the push for greater freedom, transparency and accountability sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, a major challenge to the kingdom’s puritan interpretation of Islam sits on its doorstep: Qatar, the only other country whose native population is Wahhabi and that adheres to the Wahhabi creed.

Yet, despite being a conservative Gulf state, Qatari conservatism is everything but a mirror image of Saudi Arabia’s stark way of life with its absolute gender segregation, total ban on alcohol and refusal to accommodate alternative lifestyles or religious practices. Qatar’s encouragement of women’s advancement in society, less strict separation of genders, allowing non-Muslims to consume alcohol and pork, sponsorship of Western arts like the Tribeca Film Festival, and expected accommodation of Western fans whose ways are widely viewed as un-Islamic in the Muslim World Cup, offers young Saudis a vision of a conservative Wahhabi society that is less restrictive and less choking and grants individuals irrespective of gender greater control over their lives.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s diverging world views have manifested themselves in differing policies towards the popular revolts and protests sweeping the region. While Saudi Arabia has adjusted to regional change on a case-by-case basis, Qatar has sought to embrace it head on as long as it is not at home or in the Gulf neighborhood. Like Saudi Arabia, it seeks to maintain the status quo in its immediate neighborhood witness the sentencing to life in prison in November 2012 of a Qatari poet for criticizing the royal family.

At the core of the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar are fundamentally different strategies of self-preservation. While the royal families of both have sought to buffer themselves by boosting social spending, Saudi Arabia has opted for maintenance of the status quo where possible and limited engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria overshadowed by its deep-seated distrust of the group and support.

Qatar, by contrast, has sought to be on the cutting edge of history and at the same time has deployed a sophisticated soft diplomacy with its hosting of the World Cup, development of a comprehensive sports sector to position itself as a global hub, creation of world class museums and sponsorship of the arts. In effect, Qatari support for the Brotherhood and popular revolts in the region constitutes an integral part of its foreign and defense policy, designed to ensure that it is embedded in the international community in a way that enhances the chances that foreign nations will come to its aid in a time of need.

That policy is based on the realization that no matter what quantity of sophisticated weaponry Qatar purchases or foreigners it drafts into its military force, it will not be able to truly defend itself. It also stems from uncertainty over how reliable the United States is as the guarantor of last resort of its security.
That concern has been reinforced by the United States’ economic problems, its reluctance to engage militarily post-Iraq and Afghanistan and its likely emergence by the end of this decade as the world’s largest oil exporter.

Qatar’s strategy effectively puts it at loggerheads with Saudi Arabia. Whether the Saudi-Qatari rivalry will contribute to sparking change in the kingdom or reinforce monarchial autocracy in the region is likely to be decided in Qatar itself rather than in the political rivalry between the two elsewhere in the region. Qatar has already witnessed a foretaste of potential battles to come with Saudi -backed conservatives who also enjoy support of some Qatari royals twice boycotting major state-owned companies, voicing opposition to the sale of alcohol and pork in the country and questioning the emir’s authority to rule by decree.

Qatar’s strategy of embracing the Brotherhood and putting itself at the cutting edge of change elsewhere in the region as well as it soft diplomacy contain risks Saudi Arabia is likely to exploit. Fault lines in Egypt have deepened and hardened as Egypt teeters on the brink under President Mohammed Morsi, making Muslim Brothers in Arab nations in the throes of change reluctant to assume sole government responsibility. Jordan’s Brotherhood-related Islamic Action Front (IAF) boycotted parliamentary elections in January 2013 official because of alleged gerrymandering. Privately, the IAF, with an eye on Egypt is believed to have shied away from getting too big a share of the pie for their taste.

Similarly, Qatar’s winning of the right to host the 2022 World Cup may have opened a Pandora’s Box of change that could reverberate throughout the Gulf with the status of foreign workers who constitute a majority in some of the smaller Gulf states serving as the monkey wrench. Under increasing pressure from international trade unions who have the clout to make true on a threat to boycott the Gulf state, Qatar has suggested it would allow the formation of independent unions created to engage in collective bargaining.

If Qatar proves true to its word, it raises the specter of foreigners gaining greater rights and having a greater stake in countries that have sought to protect national identity and the rights of local nationals by ensuring that foreigners do not sprout roots. That efforts goes as far as soccer clubs opting for near empty stadiums because there are not enough locals to fill them rather than offering the population at large something that even remotely could give them a sense of belonging.

Qatar’s foreign, sports and culture policy seems forward looking despite conservative opposition at home and at first glance appears to put the tiny Gulf state in a category of its own. Yet, the challenge it poses to Saudi Arabia ultimately could prove a challenge to itself.

This paper will explore whether Qatari policy is simply buying time or in the final analysis will pose a challenge to Saudi Arabia, other Gulf states and itself because it fails to address fundamental issues underlying the wave of protests as well as demographic issues looming in the region.