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Saudi Arabia’s attempt at a Qatari coup backfired - now wait for the blowback

How Doha can play the tribal game that Riyadh has already started

Palace coups - such as that in June 2017, when King Salman sacked his crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, and promoted his son Mohammed bin Salman, to the post - may not be as easily replicated in Qatar.

More than two months into the Saudi-Qatari crisis, Riyadh has still failed to destabilise Qatar and turn it into a pariah state.

Consequently, Salman and his son are resorting to old tribal intrigues and capitalising on internal Qatari royal house divisions.

Hajj gave Saudis a pretext

It’s very much like the old British colonial policy in the Gulf, which often led to the sacking of a difficult sheikh and his replacement with a docile and obedient one.

Unfortunately for Riyadh, Qatar does not have an opposition of any obvious sort that the Saudis can patronise to precipitate domestic havoc in Doha.  

A view of the clock tower in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, where preparations are underway for the Hajj (AFP)
Instead the Saudis found an obscure Qatari sheikh, with business connections and marriage ties to Saudi Arabia, to pursue the old strategy of creating an alternative leadership should Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the emir of Qatar, continue his defiance.

Salman flew the God-sent Sheikh Abdullah ibn Ali ibn Jassem al-Thani, a little known member of the ruling house in Qatar, to Tangier for a meeting.

Saudi news agencies announced that Abdullah is a scion of a ruling family branch that was in power for decades until 1972. His brother, Ahmad, was deposed in 1972 by Tamim’s grandfather.

Suddenly, Abdullah assumed virtual notoriety on Twitter as the “Voice of Reason” who will deliver salvation to the small besieged emirate. He would, it seemed, rescue Qatar’s faithful from the sin of failing to perform the Hajj – which begins next week – amid sanctions and blockades.

The implication was that Tamim is responsible for the current troubled journey to Mecca, with his continued defiance of the Saudis

The implication was that Tamim is responsible for the current troubled journey to Mecca, with his continued defiance of the Saudis, his refusal to accept their conditions for the lifting of sanctions and his disinclination to return to the Gulf fold under Riyadh’s supremacy.

After the meeting, Salman ordered his staff to set up a special operations meeting room to deal with Qatari pilgrims who normally would travel by land and air to Mecca.

But this year, their journey is more complicated due to the Saudi-imposed blockade. The king wants Saudi airlines to take the pilgrims from Doha or be escorted by Saudi transport to the other side of the Arabian Peninsula.

The newly promoted sheikh is credited with facilitating negotiations with the Saudi king, albeit unauthorised by Doha, on behalf of those Qatari pilgrims who wanted a smooth journey to Mecca.

Salman hoped to precipitate an immediate rift between Tamim and his people by promoting another member of the al-Thani family as the lead figure in such negotiations.

Saudi falls behind Qatar

But this did not happen. Instead the Qataris used social media to renew their allegiance to their young sheikh. If Abdullah had any hopes or fantasies of replacing Tamim, then these must surely have evaporated by now.  

A quick survey of the virtual world, where most Gulf things happen, leads one to realise that the Saudi coup was easily aborted.

Abdullah immediately lost credibility when he started tweeting praise for the Saudi king and invoked the Al-Saud historical war cry, “ikhwan nura” (the brothers of Nura).

A portrait of Qatar's emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, in Doha in July 2017 (AFP)
Qataris simply responded by flooding the internet with praise for their emir, whose family branch is held responsible for prosperity which has made the state’s Saudi neighbours so jealous.

When Tamim’s father doubled the salaries of his employees, built cities grounded in education and provided generous welfare, Saudi royals felt uncomfortable at failing to provide equivalent resources for their own citizens.

Saudis were, and are, still facing housing shortages, rising prices and a shrinking welfare state. Before the crisis, most young Saudi graduates and female teachers aspired to find jobs in Doha rather than Riyadh.

Ali al-Dhafiri, a Saudi journalist, was a successful and much appreciated Saudi face on al-Jazeera Arabic until he resigned during the early days of the crisis and returned home.

The old method of the Saudi leadership to divide the Qatari ruling family may have worked a hundred years ago but it is not certain that it will work now

Many Saudi lecturers and female teachers aspired to move to Qatar. Hatoun al-Fassi, a specialist in ancient Arabian archaeology, taught at Qatar university for several years until she was suspended. Muhammad al-Ahmari, one of the most prolific writers whose books on Islam and democracy are well-researched and thoughtfully presented, renounced his Saudi nationality and became a Qatari several years ago. He is now a director of a research centre in Doha.

Young Saudi journalists and intellectuals used to write in Qatari-sponsored media, and the websites of its many research forums. Saudi graduates hoped to find employment in the many Qatari higher education institutions, especially the newly founded Doha Institute for Graduate Studies

Saudi Arabia is unlikely to succeed in its coup attempt and see an al-Thani puppet rule Doha. It seems that, in the absence of any real opposition to the current Qatari emir, promoting another one is not that simple and if anything has backfired.

The old method of the Saudi leadership to divide the Qatari ruling family may have worked a hundred years ago but it is not certain that it will work now.

Qatar enjoys one of the best miracles that oil and gas wealth can guarantee. A small population with enormous wealth has proved resistant to the kind of intrigues that the Saudis plotted in Riyadh.

Qatar can play the tribal card

The Saudi conflict with Qatar is not simply about the 13 conditions that Qatar should meet before it is brought back into the Gulf fold.

Sponsoring terrorism, supporting Islamism and promoting controversial news on Al Jazeera are simply not the full story behind the Saudi drive to put Qatar back in its small place.

Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and Saudi Arabia King Saud ibn Abd al Aziz in Cairo in 1956 (AFP)
During the 1950s and 1960s, Nasser’s Egypt tried to destabilise Saudi Arabia using anti-imperialist rhetoric and Arab nationalism – but neither path succeeded in overthrowing the regime in Riyadh.

Qatar is different. To destabilise Doha, Saudi Arabia had only Abdullah. The emirate, meanwhile, has many sticks to send shivers in the Saudi backyard.

From an army of disgruntled Islamists to young neo-Arab nationalists who refer to themselves as “al-orobiyoun al-judud” (“the new Arab nationalists”), Qatar patronises multiple modern Saudi political trends, including young intellectuals and activists eager to find a forum and outlet for their ideas. Qatar can easily continue to improvise as it has done already.

More importantly, Qatar can also play the tribal game that the Saudis have already started. Almost all the major Arabian tribes of Ajman, Shammar, Mutair and Otaiba have cousins and extended families on both sides of the border.

For example, the Shammar, who once ruled from Hail in the north of Saudi to Sinjar in Iraq, are well represented in Qatar. There, they have found employment and better salaries than either their cousins in the Saudi National Guard or those working as unsuccessful farmers in the Nafud Desert and around their historical town in the north of the country.

The same applies to other tribal groups, especially those who continue to hold vendettas against the Riyadh regime for excluding them from any important government positions.

Many tribal groups have no serious affinity to al-Saud and can easily switch allegiance as they used to do in the past. Tribal leaders, and there are many aspiring ones, are pragmatic political actors who pursue their own interests

Many among them resent the fact that they had been used to establish the kingdom as Unitarian warriors (ikhwan al-tawhid) only to be eliminated and dismissed immediately after the mission was accomplished.

The Saudi government is mistakenly thought of as a tribal kingdom. In fact, it marginalised all tribal groups and eliminated their troublesome leadership. It incorporated the tribes in the National Guard but failed to incorporate them in government and leadership. In this part of the world, history matters.

Many tribal groups have no serious affinity to al-Saud and can easily switch allegiance as they used to do in the past. Tribal leaders, and there are many aspiring ones, are pragmatic political actors who pursue their own interests. They switch allegiance depending on their specific needs and follow the one who promises to fulfil their aspirations.

Although their rhetoric emphasises a rigid tribal code, any historian can trace their oscillating loyalties and their shrewd manoeuvres. Only an Orientalist can still hold the view that Arabian tribal allegiances follow rigid codes like fossils from the past.

They are, above all, shrewd political actors who have survived the colonial past and the onslaught of the nation states. They may express themselves in archaic poetry and celebrate camels, coffee pots and chivalry of a bygone era but they remain a dormant force that governments can mobilise should they need them.

They are now educated and willing to switch from old rhetoric about tribal solidarity and glory to new political ideas. Kuwait’s famous lawmaker and activist Mussalam al-Barak, who had been in and out of prison for defying the Al-Sabah ruling family, is a stark example of the “tribal modern”, who can mobilise across tribal divides. Qatar can easily find a Saudi version who will no doubt trouble Riyadh.

By attempting to meddle in Qatari royal family politics, the Saudis are playing with fire and they risk burning their fingers.

Their desperate attempt to promote an alternative Qatari leadership is an awkward blast from the past that has so far failed to achieve its objectives.

- Madawi Al-Rasheed is a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at LSE

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Photo: Abdullah bin Ali bin Jassim al-Thani meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) in Jeddah on August 16, 2017 (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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