As Qatar and the UAE strive to smooth over a relationship strained by Egypt-related politics and the remarks of prominent scholar Sheikh Yusuf Al Qaradawi, analyst Michael Stephens, Director at the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar, argues that compromise can be the only way forward for the two states.
It is unusual for Gulf states to express their differences in public, but one of these rare occasions occurred recently, when Qatar and the UAE clashed over comments made by Sheikh Yusuf Al Qaradawi.
Over the past few months, the Qatari national of Egyptian descent has been expressing his discontent about the political events in Egypt, and the support given by other Arab states for the interim Egyptian government, led by Field Marshal Abdul Fatah al Sisi.
Both sides are unhappy about this turn of events. In discussions with some of the Emiratis and Qataris engaged in regional politics, many have expressed to me a deep sense of anger about the situation.
From the UAE’s point of view, Emiratis object to Al Qaradawi’s brazen criticism, which they see as an interference regarding a matter of national interest. UAE officials refrained from responding for a long time as the Qatar-backed cleric berated them from his pulpit, but Emirati patience now appears to have run out.
On the other hand, Qatari officials assert that Al Qaradawi is his own man, and that the UAE has no right to criticize Qatar over the words and viewpoint of a hot-headed sheikh.
No ordinary cleric
Given the seriousness of the dispute, it might be reasonable to assume that Qatar could quickly resolve the issue by instructing the garrulous scholar to moderate his tone, or restrict his access to public forums – particularly his appearances on Al Jazeera.
But the problem is that Al Qaradawi is no ordinary cleric; he belongs to that exclusive bracket of religious leaders who commands transnational support across the region.
He is capable of issuing a fatwa that can inspire millions to change their opinions or actions on a given matter, stretching from issues as mundane as the correct way to pray, to deeming fighting in Syria a jihad.
Additionally, Al Qaradawi’s viewpoints enjoy widespread emotional support among Qatar’s population. It would be extremely difficult to punish him without upsetting many of the more traditional strains that run through Qatari society, as well as the powerful Saudi religious figures who have recently found the sheikh’s viewpoints on issues of regional politics more in line with their own.
Punishing such a man does not come without cost.
Throughout history, states that have tried to bully powerful clerics have often found themselves on the losing side.
The English King Henry II’s infamous decision to remove the threat of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170, and the Shah of Iran’s attempts (alongside Saddam Hussein) to quiet Ayatollah Khomeini are perhaps history’s two best-known examples of state attempts to control populist religious figures backfiring badly.
True, Al Qaradawi is not more powerful than the state in which he resides, and is in no danger of “becoming the state” in the way that Khomeini eventually did.
But the relationship between Qatar and the cleric dates back five decades, and Qatar’s ruling family evidently supports his presence in the country, showing him a deference that acknowledges his regional stature while ensuring that he keeps quiet on issues of domestic policy.
In short, the Qatari leaders would have no desire to rid themselves of a turbulent priest.
What this means is that the UAE, upset though it is by Al Qaradawi’s comments, will not receive the type of concession from Qatar that is needed to placate its anger. The best hope is for a compromise that neither side would particularly be happy with, but ultimately would be the only way to solving the issue.
Qatar’s ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad has built solid relationships with Emirati Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, and ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid. Personal respect and mutual goodwill that exists between the two nations’ highest authorities should be sufficient to see that both sides avoid a dangerous break in relations.
It is in the interests of both countries to prevent such a break. Beyond the political level, the UAE and Qatar are experiencing a closer integration than ever before, as movement of finances, materials and personnel is increasing.
To view the two countries as separated islands is to overplay the hand of politics in what is essentially a growing interdependence. As Qatar’s economy grows, so does the interest of the UAE, and in particular Dubai.
In my own work, I see this first-hand, as the interest of Dubai financial institutions in Qatar increased steadily through 2013. The idea that Qatar’s growth comes at the expense of the UAE is a misnomer – in fact, it complements it.
For now, this economic relationship overrides political issues like the Muslim Brotherhood and associated firebrand sheikhs. While it might be difficult for both the Emiratis and the Qataris to accept the others’ position on the political group, it is unrealistic to expect that either country will do an about-turn and admit fault in this particular spat.
Pride, nationalism and national interest all play their parts. Both sides have reasonable concerns, and being a Gulf Arab does not behove a unified political position on Egypt or its politics.
The sooner Qatar and the UAE accept that Qatar has one position on Egypt, and the UAE holds another, the sooner this issue can be put aside.
Both sides also need to step back for a second and think about the issues in a calmer light. Al Qaradawi can be managed – his influence is naturally dimming as he grows older, and Qatar may be able to gently blunt his access to media without causing too much offense to either the sheikh or his followers.
For the past three weeks, for example, Al Qaradawi has not given his regularly scheduled Friday sermons. The scholar apparently tweeted that he has been getting over a cold, but rumors abound that he was in fact pulled off the pulpit to allow tensions to ease.
For its part, the UAE should realize that Qaradawi is from Egypt, and he is entitled to an opinion on the country. Given the UAE’s overt support for the new Egyptian government, this means he is going to disagree.
Qatar took serious criticism for supporting one side of Egypt’s political struggles. Similarly, the UAE must understand that every Egyptian does not support its position on Egypt, and that criticism will naturally arise for it having taken that position.
The UAE and Qatar have spent too long now looking menacingly at each other. The time has come to look beyond and realize that the ties that bind are stronger than the ties that divide.