Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1183, (6 - 12 February 2014)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1183, (6 - 12 February 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Al-Qaradawi all over again

Gamal Nkrumah assesses the repercussions of the diplomatic row between Qatar and the UAE, at the heart of which is the controversial Egyptian-born,Qatari-based preacher Youssef Al-Qaradawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Arab world has had to contend with the fractious reality of contemporary Gulf Arab politics in recent months. The brouhaha reached a deafening crescendo when the United Arab Emirates (UAE) threw right punches this week at Qatar in row over the controversial Egyptian-born preacher Youssef Al-Qaradawi who accused the UAE in a televised sermon of harbouring ex-President Hosni Mubarak’s “man”, former presidential candidate Ahmed Shafik.

This pattern of confrontation between the two oil-rich neighbours looks set to continue. Perhaps a multiplicity of factors is currently at work. First and foremost, Qatar is increasingly viewed by its neighbours as deliberately cultivating a streak of overconfident, reckless arrogance and rash actions that have alienated the country from the Arab Gulf fold.

For all its supposed veneer of civility, many of its Arab neighbours see Qatar as a quarrelsome hotbed of militant Islamist civil discord in the region — especially in “Arab Spring” countries, and Egypt in particular. The rivalry of satellite television channels, the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera and the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya supported by Saudi Arabia, is widely viewed as an expression of Qatar’s attempts to eclipse the traditional prestige and influence of Saudi Arabia and its staunch ally, the UAE.

Al-Qaradawi’s statements are viewed provocatively by authorities in the UAE as the indulgence of a passionately held personal and political ambition: a doggedly determined campaign to discredit the interim Egyptian government, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. His sermons are widely seen as threats to public order in all three countries.

The UAE Foreign Ministry, therefore, in retaliation summoned the Qatari ambassador Sunday to protest remarks made by Al-Qaradawi, a cleric who openly sympathises with the Muslim Brotherhood, banned in both Egypt and the UAE. By implication, Egypt has become deeply immersed in the power politics of the Gulf.

Al-Qaradawi has been enmeshed in a complex, constantly shifting power struggle within the Arab world over the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organisations, with Qatar’s tacit connivance and financial backing, its neighbours concur.

The UAE is enraged by what it deems to be an ill considered and unsanctioned act of folly by a sister Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state. In a weekly Friday prayers sermon in Doha, Al-Qaradawi lashed out at the UAE, accusing the oil-rich nation of “standing against Islamist regimes in the Arab world and punishing Islamist leaders and helping hurl them into jail”.

Qatar’s Ambassador to the UAE Fares Al-Nuaimi, was promptly summoned to the Foreign Ministry in Abu Dhabi and delivered “an official letter of protest” over the “insults” levelled by Al-Qaradawi.

This is certainly not the first time that the controversial cleric, who projects himself as a champion of the militant Islamist cause, has been the centre of a diplomatic row. But the UAE summons was the first time a member of the six-nation GCC (that includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) had taken such an action against another GCC state, signalling the worst diplomatic debacle since the GCC’s formation in 1981.

The UAE’s overriding strategic concern appears to be the containment of the Muslim Brotherhood and to sweep up pockets of resistance to its policy of eradicating the remaining vestiges of militant Islamist influence, personified in preachers such as Al-Qaradawi.

Al-Qaradawi wields tremendous influence through his regular appearances on Al-Jazeera television from his base in exile in Qatar, where he has lived for decades.

He is a staunch backer of Egypt’s deposed Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE strongly support the interim Egyptian government that replaced Morsi last July. Moreover, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been among the most important financial backers and benefactors of the interim Egyptian government.

The shadows of an even more decisive diplomatic confrontation involving Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt on the one hand, and Qatar, on the other, appear to be ominously looming. Al-Qaradawi’s comments came just days after the UAE jailed a group of 30 Emaratis and Egyptians to terms ranging from three months to five years for forming a Muslim Brotherhood cell in the country. A major diplomatic pitched battle seems imminent, unless a last minute rapprochement is reached. An agile diplomatic manoeuvre by one or the other of the contenders, or shrewd politicking, is sorely needed to calm nerves amid an impassioned groundswell of resentment. A flurry of diplomatic activity is underway.

The Brotherhood is banned in much of the region, and the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia pledged billions of dollars in aid to Egypt after the overthrow of Morsi, who hails from the Islamist organisation.

Qatar, however, has backed the Brotherhood in several countries swept by the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, and has criticised Cairo for banning the group and launching a deadly crackdown against it.

Qatar, nevertheless denies bad intentions. On Saturday, Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled Al-Attiyah disavowed Al-Qaradawi’s remarks, saying, “they do not reflect Qatari foreign policy” and insisting that ties between the two nations (Qatar and the UAE) are “strategic in all aspects”. Yet, Abu Dhabi appears unconvinced about Qatar’s sincerity and is seeking commitment by the Qatari authorities to silence preachers like Al-Qaradawi bent on overthrowing the established order in the Gulf.

Nevertheless, in what is seen as a conciliatory move, the UAE Foreign Ministry officially stated that its response “did not reflect a decisive stance rejecting Al-Qaradawi’s speech”, and therefore Abu Dhabi had to take “an unprecedented measure” and summon the Qatari ambassador.

The motive behind Al-Qaradawi’s seemingly injudicious act of provocation is not difficult to divine. What is more confounding is how this diplomatic row will be played out.

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