The New Major Middle East Divide: How Intra-Sunni Power Competition is Reshaping the Region

By: Kevin Truitte, Columnist

Photo by: www.sharqforum.org

Regional competition between Middle East countries in the four decades since the Iranian Revolution centered on the Sunni-Shia divide. Sectarian tensions triggered a number of conflicts, from the Iran-Iraq War to the Saudi Arabia-Iran feud. However, since the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, a new, intra-Sunni rivalry has emerged in the Middle East. This new divide pits the revisionist, Islamist camp led by Qatar and Turkey against a Sunni statist camp led by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. Though these two factions have yet to engage directly in armed conflict, their competition has generated proxy wars, information campaigns, and power projection across the region—and as far afield as the halls of power in Washington.

The 2011 Arab Uprisings toppled authoritarian governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya; it also destabilized Syria and Yemen. Buoyed by these revolutions, Qatar and Turkey pursued a policy of engagement and economic support to previously suppressed political Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.[i] Alternatively, these revolutions scared Gulf states such as the Emirates and Saudi Arabia. These nations increased domestic spending and security crackdowns against Islamists to head off domestic challenges. The rise of the Islamists would reach its zenith in 2012, when Egypt elected Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammed Morsi as president. Yet this victory for the Brotherhood would prove fleeting. By mid-2013, the Egyptian military overthrew Morsi in a coup, beginning a brutal crackdown on Islamists, with the explicit support of the UAE and Saudi Arabia.[ii]

Qatar’s support for Islamists is a means of spreading the tiny emirate’s political influence. This support challenged the UAE-Saudi bloc, whose antagonism to Islamism derives from the political movement’s opposition to their governments’ Salafist, state-based authorities. In 2014, these tensions escalated to the point where Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt withdrew their ambassadors from Doha.[iii] After a brief respite, relations further soured, then completely collapsed, in 2017. Despite Turkey’s early efforts to remain neutral, the country’s pro-Islamist stance—which caused a deterioration of relations with Egypt after the 2013 coup—and alliance with Qatar drew Ankara into the regional spat.[iv] Turkish forces deployed to the peninsular state to stave off any attempts to overthrow the Qatari Emir.[v] Since mid-2017, both sides used information operations—including hacking and disinformation campaigns—to discredit one another. They have also sent support to rival allied factions—both regional states and non-state actors—in conflict across the region, including within Libya and on the Red Sea.[vi]

The quarrel between the Sunni statist and pro-Islamist camps has spilled beyond the shores of the Persian Gulf. Nowhere has this been more evident than in Libya. As an early supporter of the Arab Spring, Qatar emphatically backed the overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi—contributing arms, training, and airstrikes to topple the dictator.[vii] Qatar and Turkey extended support to Islamists and their allies in western Libya, including to groups linked to al-Qaeda affiliate Ansar al-Sharia.[viii] Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt emerged as strong backers of General Khalifa Haftar, the strongman military leader in eastern Libya who launched a campaign to take control of Benghazi in 2014. These nations provided Haftar’s forces with weapons, in violation of an international arms embargo, and supporting airstrikes against rival factions.[ix] In solidarity with the Sunni statist bloc, the Haftar-allied, unrecognized eastern Libyan government condemned Turkey and Qatar’s support for “terrorist groups,”[x] and cut ties with Qatar.[xi] Both sides have continued supporting their proxy allies in Libya, fueling and sustaining the ongoing, intra-Sunni conflict.[xii]

This rivalry has also begun to manifest elsewhere in the region. Turkey and Sudan recently agreed to construct a joint naval base at Suakin, a Sudanese port city on the Red Sea.[xiii] Qatar reached a separate agreement with Sudan to finance expansions of Khartoum’s largest port, Port Sudan.[xiv] These agreements came as Sudan withdrew its ambassador from Cairo over a water dispute with Egypt, and as the Egypt, UAE, and Saudi have bolstered their own military presences in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.[xv] Tensions between the rival factions will likely increase in the Red Sea region—a major international energy and trade chokepoint.[xvi]

The two competing Sunni blocs have also sought influence in the United States. Both sides continue to pour millions into lobbying powerful policymakers and key influencers in Washington.[xvii] The Trump Administration issued two markedly different responses to the breakdown in relations between Qatar and the other GCC states. The Department of Defense and Department of State criticized the move, and the U.S. military continued joint military exercises with Qatar,[xviii] even going so far as to halt joint exercises with several of the other Gulf Arab allies to pressure them to end the spat.[xix] The American national security bureaucracy views the conflict as a distraction from more important American foreign policy problems, such as the fight against the Islamic State and containing the Islamic Republic of Iran. On the other hand, President Trump condemned Qatar for funding extremists.[xx] Moreover, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, has sought to align American foreign policy activities with the Saudi-led bloc, especially policies with respect to Qatar and other regional issues like Libya.[xxi] Members of Congress have also criticized Qatar and Turkey.[xxii] Though neither side appears to have won a significant victory in the PR war, their continued efforts to vilify one another through marketing campaigns and lobbying will work against the U.S. goal of bringing these countries—all American allies—to the negotiating table.

The intra-Sunni competition has implications that extend far beyond the borders of its participants. It has exacerbated tensions in Libya, and made the possibility of a peace deal difficult in that country. The competition poses risks to the stability of the vital maritime economic artery that is the Red Sea region. It has also sewn limited divisions within the United States government over which side, if any, to support, and has frustrated US efforts to move the rival Sunni blocs towards reconciliation. The “cold war” between the revisionist Islamist nations and the Sunni statist governments has no end in sight. This divide will continue to shape the direction of the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond.

 

 

[i] David B. Roberts, “Qatar and the UAE: Exploring Divergent Responses to the Arab Spring,” The Middle East Journal, Volume 71, No. 4, Autumn 2017: 544-562, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/676790/pdf.

[ii] https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/saudi-arabia-cheers-the-coup-in-egypt/

[iii] Rori Donaghy, “UAE and Qatar: public relations warfare,” Middle East Eye, October 30, 2014, http://www.middleeasteye.net/in-depth/features/uae-and-qatar-public-relations-warfare-155477673.

[iv] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Turkey Sees Itself as Target in Saudi-Led Move Against Qatar,” The Wall Street Journal, June 15, 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/turkey-sees-itself-as-target-in-saudi-led-move-against-qatar-1497519004

[v] Umut Uras, “No timeline set for further Turkish forces in Qatar,” Al-Jazeera, February 1, 2018, www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/01/turkey-deploy-air-naval-forces-qatar-180131151537660.html

[vi] Marc Jones, “Hacking, bots and information wars in the Qatar spat,” The Washington Post, June 7, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/06/07/hacking-bots-and-information-wars-in-the-qatar-spat/?utm_term=.ef41366ca62a.

[vii] David Roberts, “Behind Qatar’s Intervention In Libya,” Foreign Affairs, September 28, 2011, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/libya/2011-09-28/behind-qatars-intervention-libya.

[viii] Fehim Tastekin, “Turkey’s war in Libya,” Al-Monitor, December 4, 2014, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/fr/originals/2014/12/turkey-libya-muslim-brotherhood.html.

[ix] “UN report: UAE violates Libya arms embargo,” Al-Jazeera, June 14, 2017, www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/06/uae-violates-libya-arms-embargo-supplies-haftar-lna-170613132424261.html.; “Egypt, UAE carried out Tripoli air strikes: U.S. officials,” Reuters, August 25, 2014, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-libya-security-airstrikes/egypt-uae-carried-out-tripoli-air-strikes-u-s-officials-idUSKBN0GP1VJ20140825.

[x] “Official says Qatar, Sudan and Turkey are ‘triad of terrorism’ in Libya,” Al-Arabiya, June 29, 2017, https://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/gulf/2017/06/29/Libyan-army-complains-about-foreign-backed-domestic-terrorism-.html

[xi] “Libya’s eastern-based government cuts diplomatic relations with Qatar,” Reuters, June 5, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/gulf-qatar-libya/libyas-eastern-based-government-cuts-diplomatic-relations-with-qatar-idUSL8N1J21JY.

[xii] Karim Mezran and Elissa Miller, “Libya: From Intervention to Proxy War,” Atlantic Council, July 11, 2017, www.atlanticcouncil.org/publications/issue-briefs/libya-from-intervention-to-proxy-war.

[xiii] Ali Kucukgocmen and Khalid Abdelaziz, “Turkey to restore Sudanese Red Sea port and build naval dock,” Reuters, December 26, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-sudan-port/turkey-to-restore-sudanese-red-sea-port-and-build-naval-dock-idUSKBN1EK0ZC.

[xiv] “Qatar-Sudan deal to build the largest port on Red Sea coast,” The Peninsula, November 16, 2017, https://thepeninsulaqatar.com/article/16/11/2017/Qatar-Sudan-deal-to-build-the-largest-port-on-Red-Sea-coast.

[xv] Pesha Magid, “Turkey plays catch-up with militarization in Red Sea,” Al-Monitor, Janaury 23, 2018, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2018/01/increasingly-dangerous-militarization-red-sea-egypt-turkey.html.

[xvi] Jeremy Bender, “These 8 narrow chokepoints are critical to the world’s oil trade,” Business Insider, April 1, 2015, www.businessinsider.com/worlds-eight-oil-chokepoints-2015-4

[xvii] Theodoric Meyer and Nahal Toosi, “Lobbyists cash in on dispute between Qatar, Saudi Arabia,” Politico, July 19, 2017, https://www.politico.com/story/2017/07/19/lobbyists-cash-in-on-qatar-240735.

[xviii] “US and Qatar navy begin exercises amid Gulf crisis,” Middle Easy Eye, June 15, 2017, www.middleeasteye.net/news/us-and-qatar-navy-begin-exercises-amid-gulf-crisis-1353497833.

[xix] Jon Gambrell, “US suspends military drills with Gulf Arab allies to pressure solution to Qatar crisis,” Associated Press, October 6, 2017, www.businessinsider.com/us-suspends-military-drills-with-gulf-allies-2017-10.

[xx] Karen DeYoung and Sudarsan Raghavan, “Trump seems to undercut Tillerson’s remarks on Qatar,” Washington Post, June 9, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/arab-countries-place-dozens-on-new-qatar-terror-list-deepening-dispute/2017/06/09/fd727fab-e750-4fdd-ac23-26256e8e0493_story.html.

[xxi] Max Greenwood, “Kushner holding talks with Saudi prince: report,” The Hill, December 1, 2017, thehill.com/homenews/administration/362888-kushner-holding-talks-with-saudi-arabian-prince-report.

[xxii] “Paul Ryan Condemn Turkish Embassy Clashes,” Voice of America, May 25, 2017, https://www.voanews.com/a/congress-paul-ryan-condemn-turkish-embassy-clashes/3870979.html; Laura Koran, “Members of Congress push for US to take tougher line on Qatar,” CNN, November 21, 2017, https://www.cnn.com/2017/11/21/politics/us-congress-qatar-hamas/index.html

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