Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Humbled Qatar may curb Lebanon extremists

[Originally posted at NOW]

As Saudi Arabia elbows aside Qatar’s influence across the region, militant Islamists in Lebanon may feel the squeeze.

The dramatic ouster of Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi last Wednesday has been quickly interpreted by analysts as a significant setback for the foreign policy of Qatar, the Gulf state which had asserted itself as the prime supporter and financier of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated government since the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Having poured $8bn into the country under Morsi, the argument goes, Qatar had placed its biggest bet yet on the Islamist movement of which it is the key global patron, and with the fall of Morsi this has turned out to be a blunder. The revelation Tuesday that Qatar’s rivals Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have collectively pledged $8bn in aid to the post-Morsi government – exactly matching the sum offered by Qatar previously – appeared to further signify the Gulf state’s loss of influence.

Egypt is not the only country in which Qatar appears to have lost ground to the Saudis. Last month, NOW reported the Kingdom was seeking to monopolize control of the political opposition in Syria, which has long been criticized as too heavily weighted toward the Brotherhood. The subsequent selection of Saudi-backed Ahmad Jarba as head of the Syrian National Coalition, quickly followed by the resignation of Qatar-backed Ghassan Hitto from the post of rebel prime minister, have been seen as the successful fruits of these efforts.

Not all analysts, however, see such developments as straightforward losses for Qatar. “It’s not really that clear,” said Andrew Hammond, recent author of The Islamic Utopia: The Illusion of Reform in Saudi Arabia, currently based in Doha. “The Qataris in recent months have obviously been involved in a process of succession… so I think they’ve been happy to be out of the picture to a certain degree and [to be] acceding to these pressures of the Saudis muscling in on the scene,” he told NOW, referring to the recent replacement of Emir Hamad al-Thani by his son, Sheikh Tamim, as head of state. “I think they’ve bought themselves time by having this shift in who’s in charge officially here. I don’t think it necessarily means they’re not going to come back.”

Nor, argues Hammond, is Qatar likely to drop its historical alliance with the Brotherhood. “The Brotherhood’s representatives in Qatar have been here for a long time. [Prominent pro-Brotherhood cleric Sheikh Yusuf] Al-Qaradawi is just as close to the new emir as he was to the father. So, it would be a lot to imagine that they would suddenly shift in one go when they’ve had a relationship with these people for a long time.” Indeed this relationship, adds Hammond, while partly based on self-interest, is also “more nuanced.… there is a certain sympathy [Qatar] has for [the Brotherhood]. They do genuinely see them as being in the middle of the Arab political spectrum.”

In any case, to the extent that Saudi has gained at Qatar’s expense, the effects could be beneficial for Lebanon, according to former MP Mosbah al-Ahdab of the Democratic Renewal (Tajaddod) Movement. Ahdab told NOW that while Saudi chiefly sponsors the non-Islamist Future Movement, Qatari funds in recent years have been primarily directed at Islamist factions, including the majority of militant groups in his native city of Tripoli.

“It would be very reassuring if the Saudis started taking an interest in Lebanon again, because for some time we have been in the hands of Qataris who have been throwing money left and right, radicalizing the whole situation, and creating fighters who have no coordination and no goal. It’s been very dangerous.”

Future MP Mustafa Alloush agreed, adding to NOW that the unwinding of Qatari influence in Lebanon is already underway, as evidenced by the recent crushing of the armed movement of Sidon-based cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, often rumored to be a Qatari client.

“Qatar played some dangerous games by financing radical and extremist movements in an attempt to counter the Saudi influence on moderates. What happened [to Assir] and the [limited] reactions proves that these movements are weaker now. So in Lebanon, we will see empowerment of the moderate movements, and weakening of the extremist ones.”

Hammond, however, argues that Lebanon may not necessarily benefit from an ascendant Saudi Arabia.

“My impression is that it won’t necessarily make the situation more peaceable in Lebanon because the Saudis have their people there, and they’re going to push them, and that’s going to lead to more conflict with Hezbollah. From their perspective, they just want to fight Hezbollah, to push their influence back, and whether that in the short term leads to a calmer situation in Lebanon is another question entirely.”

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

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