Religious Tensions Underlying the GCC Rift

The speed at which poor relations between Qatar and several Gulf Co-operation Council states escalated was astonishing. It was only a few weeks ago that the Qatari Emir had been invited to Riyadh as part of the grand “Arab-Islamic-American Summit.” But in the space of a few days, the GCC has faced the largest set of challenges in its existence, with Saudi Arabia leading the charge to seemingly bring Qatar in line with what it sees as acceptable parameters for a GCC state to operate within, particularly in terms of the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran and support for different militant groups. The rift, though, is revealing some interesting fault lines within the GCC. They’re not Sunni-Shia divides, but rather intra-Sunni divides. The irony is that Saudi and Qatar are actually far more on the same side in that divide than they are with anyone else in the GCC.

Saudi Arabia is the political authority over the two main holy sites of Islam—Mecca and Medina—and many within the Kingdom use their financial wealth, both through private and public institutions, to promote their varying brands of purist Salafism. Qatar’s claim to influence is based mainly on its outsized media apparatus, particularly through the different parts of the ‘Al-Jazeera’ network, and its connections to a variety of Muslim Brotherhood led or inclined organizations. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has developed strong diplomatic relations internationally, which, given its size, is disproportionately effective compared to the rest of the GCC and much of the Arab world. The hub of Dubai gives it a largesse that other Gulf states can only but envy. 

But the three countries also have differences between them: one set of those differences has to do with the three capitals’ stances on Islam, as religion, and not simply in relation to political Islamist groups.

Saudi Arabia is the heartland of the different intellectual trends that come from Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab, who created the Wahhabi movement in the 18th century. That movement was met with a great deal of resistance—including from the founder’s own father and brother—both within the Arabian peninsula and far beyond it, who regarded it as heterodox on various religious points, particularly in terms of how it viewed Muslims that it did not agree with.

In the latter 20th century, some in Saudi Arabia also engaged with different Muslim Brotherhood figures. The Brotherhood’s own intellectual origins are far more recent than the Wahhabi movement, and are a product of a kind of ‘modernist Salafism’ in Egypt in the early 20th century. There are now different strands of purist Salafism, or Wahhabism to its detractors, in the Kingdom, but increasingly, the Muslim Brotherhood engagement is becoming rarer. The Brotherhood is still engaged with when it comes to Syria and Yemen, for example, and without much reticence. However, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, for example, will find little sanctuary in Riyadh. At the same time, Saudi continues to support purist Salafi figures worldwide, and through Madinah University, it continues to produce more purist Salafi religious functionaries in the hundreds and thousands. 

Qatar’s religious politics are not originally all that different from Saudi Arabia’s—but in practice, they are now quite distinct. Like Riyadh, Doha officially upholds Ibn Abd al-Wahhab as a great reformer and mainstream religious figure. Even more than Riyadh, Doha has engaged heavily with the Muslim Brotherhood over the years—but unlike Riyadh, it is continuing to do so, and without hesitation. If there are moves to curb its direction in this regard, that is only due to pressure from other GCC states, as what was seen a couple of years ago. It has promoted its own trends of purist Salafism as well—the largest mosque in Doha was named after the founder of that approach for good reason—and the official religious establishment is very much purist Salafi in its dogma. Nevertheless, Doha has also developed over the last couple of decades a relationship with the modernist Salafism of the Muslim Brotherhood. The latter explains the privileged presence of Yusuf al-Qaradawi in the state of Qatar. The financial resources of Doha are significant, but perhaps much more so is the various media ventures Doha engages in, primarily the ‘Al-Jazeera’ network, in Arabic and in English, through which it also promotes the religious approaches it favours.

The UAE, while closely aligned with Riyadh politically at the present moment in time, is far less aligned with it on religious grounds. Historically, the religious differences have been a source of tension. The UAE’s religious and political elite is particularly concerned with maintaining an educational religious link to normative Sunnism, including Sufism, which it sees represented by the likes of the Al-Azhar in Egypt, the Qarwiyyeen in Morocco, or the Nahdlatul Ulama of Indonesia. Domestically, particularly since 2002, the UAE has actively restricted space for both Saudi style Salafism, and the political Islamist ideas and religious approach of the Muslim Brotherhood. 

Internationally, the UAE has been promoting and supporting what it sees as normative Sunni religious figures, such as Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah of Mauritania and al-Habib Ali al-Jifri of the Yemen to name the two most prominent. When it comes to other members of the GCC, Abu Dhabi is probably far more common in terms of its religious approach. Bahrain and Kuwait, for example, are far closer to Abu Dhabi religiously speaking than either are to Qatar and Saudi—the only two Sunni states in the world that have officially purist Salafi religious establishments.

Politics makes for strange bed-fellows, and for the time being, even while their religious perspectives are not so far apart, the Saudis and the Qataris are on the outs with one another, mainly for political reasons pertaining to Iran. Due mainly to convergence on the Iranian question, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have made common cause, but there are deep fractures on the level of religious ideas between Saudi Arabia and much of the rest of the Gulf, including the UAE. It may well be that sometime in the future, that creates another tension of its own. 

It should be noted that this current conflict is not about a consistent principle. It is not a rift caused by, for example, Doha wanting to support revolutionary causes, and Riyadh or Abu Dhabi wanting to oppose all of them. These GCC states mostly supported, and opposed, the same uprisings in 2011, even if they often backed different parties after the uprisings were complete. It is not a rift that is clearly defined by solely ideological or solely pragmatic considerations, but rather a combination of the two. In the end, the major power players in this conflict—the Saudis, the Qataris and Emiratis—are separated by two basic factors. The first is each capital’s assessment of what their national interest is better served by. The second is the power that each capital has in achieving them. As such, we can expect the rift to continue for quite some time.

Dr. H.A. Hellyer is a nonresident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: H.A. Hellyer

Image: Photo: Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa attend a press conference after their meeting that discussed the diplomatic situation with Qatar, in Cairo, Egypt July 5, 2017. REUTERS/Khaled Elfiqi/Pool