Old battles, new contenders in the Gulf
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - The founding document of the League of Arab States, laid out during
World War II, said the league would "draw closer the relations between member
States and coordinate collaboration between them, to safeguard their
independence and sovereignty".
The statement, hailed at the time as a heroic attempt to unify the Arab world,
was proudly signed off by several leaders, including Syria's Jamil Mardam Bey,
Saudi Arabia's Emir Faisal, and Egypt's King Farouk and his prime minister
Mustapha Nahhas Pasha. A tri-partite alliance between Syria, Egypt and Saudi
Arabia was born in the 1940s along with the League, and it
remained intact - despite coups, revolutions, and political upheavals in all
three capitals - until relations were soured between Cairo and Riyadh on one
front and Damascus on the other in 2005.
The main reason for animosity was Iran. Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah argued that Iran was flexing its muscle in the
Arab world - via Syria - in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories.
They feared Iranian power and its pledge to expand the Islamic Revolution of
1979 would inspire Saudi Shi'ites, exposing the weaknesses of Saudi Wahabi
Islam and perhaps bringing down the House of Saud.
In this respect they seem to have held a similar agenda to the United States
when it came to breaking Iranian influence in the Arab and Muslim world. When
Israel went to war against Hezbollah in 2006, several heavyweights in Riyadh
and Cairo saw the war as a blessing in disguise. They hoped that the Israeli
Defense Forces would do their dirty work for them and rid the so-called
"moderate camp" of the pro-Iranian military group in Lebanon.
Both countries were not pleased, however, to say the least, to see both
Hezbollah and Iran emerge victorious in Lebanon. The situation is repeating
itself today, as Israel wages bloody war against yet another Iranian ally, this
time the Islamic group, Hamas - for similar reasons, they want Hamas to be
crushed in Gaza.
On the other front stands Syria, which remains firmly committed to both Hamas
and Hezbollah. This stance leaves its relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt on
a razor's edge.
Newly added to the equation is Qatar, an emerging power bent on marketing
itself as an Arab nationalist state and replacing Saudi Arabia as the political
heavyweight in the Gulf. When the current war on Gaza started in late December,
Syria and Qatar were first to call for a ceasefire and demand an urgent meeting
of the Arab League. They wanted to save Hamas from the Israeli onslaught, but
Cairo and Riyadh reasoned that if Hamas was not annihilated, Iran would have
gained full control of the Gaza Strip.
If this were to happen Cairo fears it would effectively be sharing a border
with Iran, so it reasoned that sleeping with the Israelis - it hosted Israeli
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on the eve of the Gaza onslaught - was a better
option. This explains why, despite three calls for an Arab Summit, Egypt has
refused to yield, unless international observers are placed in Gaza to
dismantle Iranian influence in the Strip.
This was refused by Syria, Qatar, Iran, and the Palestinians themselves. When
Doha decided to go ahead with its summit on Friday, with or without a quorum,
Riyadh and Cairo decided to boycott the entire event and sent neither a foreign
minister, nor even a minister, to attend.
The problem with Qatar
For a long time, the Saudis did not take Qatar seriously, seeing it as a small
country with little weight in Arab affairs. Twenty years ago, a foreign leader
wishing to hear the Gulf's opinion on any political matter had to make a stop
in Riyadh. No other visit was necessary if Saudi Arabia okayed an initiative.
Nowadays, anyone wanting to get anything done in the region has to visit both
Doha and Riyadh.
Twenty years ago, if Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal had been told "Doha needs
to be consulted", he would have probably laughed "What is Doha?" The situation
is very different in today's world and that was made clear when Qatar brokered
the ceasefire in Lebanon last May. That resulted in the Doha Agreement, which
in turn, led to the election of current President Michel Suleiman - filling a
post that had been vacant since November 2007. Earlier, when the Lebanese
wanted to end their civil war, a reconciliation conference was held in Taif,
This time, they turned to Doha, and posters all over Beirut carried the slogan,
"Thank you, Qatar" (much to the dismay of Saudi Arabia, which saw its role in a
traditional ally state diminishing). In the past, for example, Palestinians
wanting to hammer out their problems went to Mecca, while today, reconciliation
efforts between Hamas and Fatah were held in Damascus, under the watchful eye
of the Qataris.
Much is being said about an ongoing feud between Saudi Arabia and Syria, which
many believe, is nothing but a proxy war between the Saudis and Iran. Very
little is being said, however, about the incredible struggle taking place
between Saudi Arabia and Qatar for supremacy in the Gulf. Qatar's weight
shifted after the discovery of tremendous gas reserves, and the increasing role
it played in disputing internal Arab affairs. Qatar was first noticed by the
international media in 1991, when its tanks provided fire support for the Saudi
Army during the Gulf War, as it fought the Iraqi forces of ex-president Saddam
More recently, because of economic liberalization, Qatar has made headlines as
the country with the highest GDP per capita in the world, followed by
Luxembourg. In April 2006, Qatar announced that it was giving the Hamas-led
government in Palestine, boycotted by the international community, an
impressive $50 million. One year later, spreading its dollar influence to the
rest of the world, Qatar pledged more than US$100 million to Hurricane Katrina
relief efforts in the United States. The money was earmarked for universities
damaged by the hurricane in Louisiana.
Twenty years ago, when the Saudis did not know how to locate Doha on the map,
the small country seemed more like a sleepy little town. It is now dotted with
skyscrapers, thanks to gas reserves that are expected to last for another
hundred years. According to experts, natural gas and oil production should
result in overall daily energy production of around 5 million barrels by 2012.
These figures are troubling to the Saudis, as is Qatar's political influence,
mirrored today by its ruler Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani. Although the
ruling family's history is troubled, with Hamad not coming to power until
launching a palace coup to oust his father in 1995, the 57-year-old Hamad has
performed with flying colors when it comes to modernizing his nation and
outflanking the Saudis. Part of it is because he is over 30 years younger than
Abdullah, and while the Saudi monarch received no formal schooling (nor did his
brother and predecessor King Fahd), Hamad studied at the Sandhurst Military
Academy in the United Kingdom. He served in the Qatari Army after graduation,
and rose to become commander-in-chief, modernizing the army and leading it
during the Gulf War of 1991, when it famously - and to Saudi betterment -
helped liberate the Saudi town of Khafji from the Iraqi Army.
While Abdullah is limited to the narrow interpretation of Islam, followed by
his Wahabi sect, Hamad is more liberal and open-minded. This has enabled him to
do wonders, with his emirate using initiatives that would be taboo in Saudi
Arabia's theocracy. One is the grand role he has given to his wife Sheikha
Moza, who oversees the Qatar Education Foundation which has brought world-class
American universities like Georgetown and Carnegie Mellon to Doha.
Hamad has transformed Qatar into an athletic hub, hosting events like the Asian
Games and Asian Soccer Championship. He gave women the right to vote in 1997, a
fact which stands in sharp contrast to Saudi Arabia, where women have no voting
rights, are restricted in costume, cannot drive, and cannot mingle in public
with men. In 1996, he spent $150 million to set up al-Jazeera TV, which quickly
became the most influential Arabic satellite news network in the world. Jealous
of the success story, Saudi Arabia founded its own al-Arabiyya in 2003. The new
outlet has served as a direct competitor and has tried to lure top-notch Arab
journalists with higher wages.
The war drags on ...
The events in Gaza served as yet another opportunity for each rich Gulf state
to prove itself. Outflanking the Saudis with his "commitment to Arabism" and
generosity, Hamad donated $250 million for Gaza. This was part of a fund, which
he called for, to help re-build the Gaza Strip.
Appearing on national television, Hamad called on Arab states with ties to
Israel - a clear reference to Egypt - to sever these links, and insisted that
all Arabs should attend the summit in Doha on Friday - this time a message to
Saudi Arabia. Countering his plans, the Saudis called for an Islamic summit in
Riyadh on Thursday to drown the Qatari initiative. Firing back, Hamad called
for freezing the Arab Peace Initiative, which was once called the Abdullah
The initiative, put forth by the current King when he was Crown Prince during
the Beirut Summit of 2002, calls for collective peace and normalization between
22 Arab states and Israel if the Israelis return occupied land to Syria and
Lebanon and let the Palestinians establish their own state with Jerusalem as
If Hamad's call for a freeze were to happen, this would drown an initiative
that is very dear to the heart of the Saudi monarch. The basic outline of the
plan was extraordinarily formulated during an off-the-record conversation
between he and veteran New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in February
2002. It was also an attempt to divert world attention from the fact that Saudi
Arabia had produced 11 out of the 19 hijackers who struck at the World Trade
Center during the September 11, 2001, attacks.
A history of embarrassment
After seeing these sharp differences, and the bloody images coming out of Gaza,
Arab masses are questioning the wisdom of maintaining the Arab League. It can
neither "mend bridges between Arabs", nor "safeguard their independence". After
all, two founding members of the League - Iraq and Palestine - are fully
occupied, while a third and fourth - Syria and Lebanon - still have land
occupied by Israel.
The Israeli war on Gaza has carried into its 20th day, resulting in nearly
1,100 deaths and nearly 5,000 Palestinians wounded, in addition to a massive
demolition of the Strip. Yet Arab leaders still cannot agree on holding a
meeting, let alone important decisions concerning solidarity with the
Palestinians. The Arab League is completely unable to change that reality, and
already Arab states have fallen back on their donations to the Cairo-based
organization, seeing its worthlessness. As of 2009, the League's budget has
reached $46 million - up from $36 million in earlier years. Many ordinary Arabs
argue that this money would be better used if channeled to the Palestinians in
The history of Arab weakness, especially during Arab summits, is a phenomenon
worth examining. As early as 1948, during a summit to discuss an upcoming war
in Palestine, embarrassing arguments broke out between Amin al-Husseini, the
Mufti of Jerusalem and the pre-Yasser Arafat leader of the Palestinians, and
Syria's Shukri al-Quwatli. Husseini demanded that volunteer Arab warriors be
placed under his command, while Quwatli objected, wanting them under the
command of Syria.
Husseini bitterly reminded Quwatli that he had donated generously to the Syrian
nationalists when they were fighting the French, and expected the Syrians to
reciprocate. He said that he would not recognize a resistance movement in
Palestine not under his command, and sent Quwatli a list of expenses, salaries
and military needs for 12,000 recruits which Syria was expected to provide.
Quwatli snapped back, "If the Palestinian people want to make the Mufti
commander of everything in Palestine, then I would be more than happy to give
him everything. That way I could rid myself of all the responsibility which
rests on my shoulders, and all the problems I face in trying to save Palestine.
I could relax. By pushing forward with my efforts to defend Palestine, I am
risking Syria's very independence!"
When he stormed out of the meeting, Husseini spoke to reporters saying: "The
Arabs have never been united on any topic before as they are united today on
Palestine." This was not true, to put it mildly, and prompted a senior member
of the British Foreign Office to remark: "As the Arabs have always been without
a strategy, there was no clarity or feeling about what they should do on the
land that they call Palestine."
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.