Saudi Arabia Vies With Qatar For Influence Post-Arab Spring

In the years following the popular uprisings that overthrew many Arab dictators, Saudi Arabia has struggled to exert greater influence in the vulnerable region, reports Fehim Tastekin.

al-monitor Lebanon's Druze leader Walid Jumblatt speaks during a news conference at the presidential palace in Baabda, near Beirut, Jan. 24, 2011. Photo by REUTERS/ Mohamed Azakir.

Topics covered

saudi, qatar, arab

Apr 16, 2013

Saudi diplomacy is of a character most difficult to discern — silent as a snake gliding through the desert sand. A Saudi interference could be discerned only by the direction in which events begin to evolve.

Due to the new activism in Turkish foreign policy, our paths have often crossed with the Saudis. Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia may seem to be acting in unison in a wide region stretching from Egypt and Yemen to Syria and Lebanon and Iraq and Bahrain, but a serious competition is underway between them.

There are two factors that determine the shade of Saudi Arabia’s reactions to the Arab uprisings and its regional policies: First, its struggle against Iran to build up a Sunni shield against Shiite influence; and second, rivalry with Qatar and Turkey, the two countries with which it cooperates to counter the Syria-Iran axis.

To understand Riyadh’s regional policies, let’s start with the most recent development — the machinations over Lebanon’s prime minister.

For many years, Lebanon has been the theater of a proxy war between the Saudis and Syria and Iran. The Damascus-Tehran duo has molded its Lebanon policy via the Shiite Hezbollah and its Christian allies, while Riyadh has done so via the Hariri family and Sunni groups. Whoever lures to their side the wild card — Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, famous for his vacillations — forms the government.

Subtle machinations in Lebanon

The pullout of Syrian troops from Lebanon following the 2005 assassination of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri had strengthened the Saudis’ hand. But a new equilibrium was set in 2006 when Hezbollah twisted Israel’s arm and weighed into politics.

The bickering, however, continued. In 2011, Hezbollah brought down Saad Hariri’s government and installed Najib Mikati as prime minister with the support of its Christian ally Michel Aoun and Jumblatt. Hariri went abroad and was unable to return.

Saudi Arabia was sidelined in this process. But as the Syrian crisis took Lebanese politics hostage, Riyadh found a fresh opportunity to intervene.

When the “Saudi’s man” — internal intelligence chief Ashraf Rifi — came to the end of his days in office, the March 14 alliance, led by Hariri’s Future Movement, insisted that his tenure be extended. The Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance, for its part, demanded amendments in the electoral law before the June polls on grounds it gave an “unfair” advantage to the Future Movement. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Mikati threw in the towel.

The Saudis skillfully installed Tammam Salam in the prime minister’s seat. They have always found an opportunity to meddle thanks to a provision in the Taif Agreement, which stipulates that the prime minister’s office be held by a Sunni. With Syria’s “remote control” in Beirut out of order amid its civil war, the Saudis got a free hand to maneuver and grabbed the laurels of the “big brother who untangled the knot.”

Even though Salam is not a prominent pro-Saudi figure, Lebanese pundits see him as the Saudis’ return ticket to Lebanon. Salam may have engaged in secret talks with the Saudis and the United States during that process, but it is impossible for him to make headway without taking Hezbollah into account.

Qatar, meanwhile, is playing for the patronage of the Sunnis without provoking Saudi anger, having set foot in Lebanon by mediating an end to the 2008 crisis between Hezbollah and Hariri’s bloc.

Backing Salafists against the Brotherhood

By securing their ground in Lebanon, the Saudis got an opportunity to influence also developments in Syria. But the rivalry there is even more heated. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are targeting the same enemy through different proxies.

Observers agree that Saudi Arabia fears the prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood, backed by Qatar and Turkey, coming to power in Syria as it did in Egypt. Brotherhood rule in the two key countries of the Middle East could swiftly undo the status quo in Jordan and bring to power the Islamic Action Front, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Jordanian wing. It is obvious who would be next in line. The spillover of the domino effect to the Gulf would be the Saudis’ worst nightmare.

A Shiite wave on one hand and a Sunni wave of “political Islam” on the other … So far, the Saudis have managed to protect their backyard from the “Shiite deluge” through the “guided handover of power” in Yemen and the military intervention in Bahrain.

The multi-actor Sunni front, however, requires delicate calculations.

The Saudis are known to have long backed the Salafists in Egypt as an antidote to the movement of “political Islam” that the Brotherhood embodied. The Salafists did not lay a claim on power, guided by the notion that “politics is illicit without a Sharia state,” a stance that served the Saudi purpose.

To see the Saudi aversion to the Muslim Brotherhood, it is enough to look at the broadcasts of Al-Arabiya. The channel, for instance, keeps harping on all blunders of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. Or take the Qatari-Saudi tussle for the control of Al-Azhar University. In response to an attempt to install the Qatari-backed Yusuf al-Qaradawi at the helm of the university, Al-Arabiya gives the floor to Salafists.

In this new period, the Saudis were the losers also in Palestine. Undoubtedly, Qatar’s move to snatch Khaled Meshaal away from Damascus and emerge as the new boss of Hamas, rattled mostly the Saudi nerves. Riyadh now favors the “secular” Fatah against Hamas, the Brotherhood’s Palestinian wing.

Who is backing whom in the rough-and-tumble on the Syrian front is worth an article on its own.

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