In recent weeks, it has become clear that Saudi Arabia has moved into a central position as the primary backer of the Syrian rebels. This follows a protracted period in which the Saudis’ Gulf rival — Qatar — was the most visible supporter of the rebellion. What is the significance of this change, and what can be learned from it regarding the larger Saudi-Qatari rivalry and the insurgency in Syria?
Both Doha and Riyadh have supported the rebellion against the Assad regime from its outset. Saudi Arabia in particular sees the conflict in stark terms as a vital battle to dislodge Iran from its foothold in the Levant.
But the pattern of Qatari and Saudi support has differed significantly. Most importantly, the two Gulf states have widely differing views of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Saudi Arabia is concerned at the possibility of internal strife within its own borders. It sees the Muslim Brothers as a potential source of internal subversion. Riyadh therefore has watched the rise of the Brotherhood to political influence across the region over the last two years with deep concern. This is of course in contrast to Saudi policy in previous years, which saw the Muslim Brotherhood as a counterweight to secular Arab radicals — when such people mattered.
There is much Saudi anger at what is seen as the fecklessness of the Obama administration in failing to grasp the danger represented by the Brotherhood, and in thus allowing them to achieve power in Egypt. This anger also extends to Qatar, whose attitude and consequent policy toward the Muslim Brothers is in direct contrast to that of Riyadh.
Qatar, unlike Saudi Arabia, has no fear of the Brotherhood as a potential source of internal unrest. This is explainable by reference to the different nature of the two societies. Saudi Arabia has a population of 16 million citizens (along with nine million expatriates). Not all Saudis are rich. Not all Saudis support the monarchy. Many are susceptible to the potential appeal of the Brotherhood’s message. Qatar, by contrast, has a population of only 250,000 citizens, along with 1,650,000 mainly non-Muslim expatriates. Qataris constitute an immensely privileged caste in the country, which has the highest GDP per capita and one of the lowest tax rates in the world. Qatar’s immense gas and oil wealth, tiny and privileged citizen population, and large population of non-Muslim non-citizens make it immune to any threat of Islamist subversion from within. This makes possible a very different (and in Saudi eyes highly irresponsible) approach to the Muslim Brotherhood.
These differences have been reflected in the approach of the two countries toward the Syrian rebellion.