• Similarities between Saudi Arabia and Qatar could prove insufficient to keep the peace
  • Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood creating a rift in the Gulf community
  • Possible collapse of The Gulf Cooperation Council further threatens stability in the Middle-East

There are a few great similarities between neighbors Saudi Arabia and Qatar: both are sweaty, dusty, desert countries – whose autocratic monarchies sustain legitimacy by excessively pampering the inhabitants – utilizing the black gold in its inexhaustible supply.

However, behind this face-value fraternality, a deep rift is growing. This is not a trivial spat over who has the biggest, say, skyscraper. Rather, a geopolitical scuffle that could permanently change the fragile political sands in the gulf. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – an oil and security band of brothers comprising Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – is currently undergoing the biggest test of its union. The issue is a significant ideological split with Qatar, whose support for the Muslim Brotherhood, amongst other things, has left it ostracized from the rest of the Gulf community. In March, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain withdraw their ambassadors from the regional pariah; prompting a shoulder-shrug of surprise from the outcast peninsula. So, how is it that these similar countries could take such contrasting views, threatening an essential security pact? In short, it’s one of many complex state-relations issues that has resulted from the legacy of the Arab Spring.

The main difference between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and its allies is over foreign policy towards Egypt. When Mubarak and his cronies were shown the door in 2011, Saudi’s desert despots were left dismayed at the decline of their stalwart. This Saudi misery was compounded when the Muslim Brotherhood, under the pseudonym of the Freedom and Justice Party, won the Egyptian presidency a year later. While the Brotherhood and the Saudi regime may share a devotion to a form of political Sunni Islam and ostensibly be ideologically similar, it is for that exact reason that the Saudis see them as such a threat. They pose a greater potential for political instability than any secular party would in the deeply religious Saudi Arabia, enjoying a great amount of underground support from those who think the monarchy is out of touch with the traditions of Wahhabism.

When President Morsi was ousted last July, the Saudis were quick to capitalize on the military coup, giving their unequivocal rhetorical, logistical and financial support to the new de facto president, Gen. el-Sisi; encouraging a firm clamp down on all things Brotherhood. However, to its alarm, the Saudis found their Qatari sibling supporting the wrong team. The Qataris have aided the Brotherhood (sending an $8bn cheque made out to Mr Morsi, for example), and used their exceptional tool of soft power – the state-run Al-Jazeera network to bring shame upon the ruling military and implicitly denounce the coup.

The Qataris have also buddied up with extremist factions on the rebel side of the Syrian Civil War: the Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. At the same time, the Saudis have decried the two, together with the Brotherhood, as illicit ‘terrorist organizations.’ These Syrian jihadist groups, who have a large Saudi membership, are also seen as a threat to the House of Saud; believing clerics, not kings, should rule over Mecca. Relations have further been strained by Qatar’s reluctance to follow the regional hegemon and freeze Shia’ Iran influence in the Arab Gulf.

This spat is unlikely to result in any military conflict, although sanctions on Qatar are a real possibility. These penalties could lead to the collapse of the GCC, or at least Qatar expulsion, and hamper the ability of the Gulf States to act in unison on trade and foreign policy issues.  As the Sunni/Shia’ divide reaches its bloodiest point this century, and the Israel/Palestine issue yields little cause for optimism, further cracks in the Middle-East could, as history shows, lead to unforeseen and dire consequences.