Qatar and the UAE: Exploring Divergent Responses to the Arab Spring
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Qatar and the UAE:
Exploring Divergent Responses to the Arab Spring

During the Arab Spring, Qatar tended to support the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates, while the United Arab Emirates opposed them. This article argues that, despite these states' ostensible similarities, their different political structures fostered contrasting experiences with an ascendant political Islam. Subsequently, the policies reflected each leader's approach to statecraft: Abu Dhabi crown prince Muhammad bin Zayid Al Nahyan, who steers Emirati foreign policy, reacted with a security-focused check on such groups, while the former Qatari emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani sought to build relations with them.

The Gulf states of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have much in common. With overarching cultural commonalities, a similar approach to the role of religion in society, family and tribal links that cut across and deeply permeate both societies, and similar formative experiences after emerging as independent states, it is not controversial to suggest that more unites these states than divides them. Nevertheless, their history is interspersed with dispute and rivalry. A major rift emerged when the states adopted diametrically opposed positions in response to the Arab Spring. Though there have been exceptions, Qatar has frequently supported groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, whereas the UAE has opposed them.

On the domestic level, there are key structural differences between the states: the UAE is a federation and Qatar is a unitary state. The differing state structures yielded starkly different experiences with indigenous actors affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, such as the Islah movement ("reform", in full: Jam'iyyat al-Islah wa-l-Tawjih al-Ijtima'i, the Reform and Social Guidance Association). Islah emerged and became increasingly influential under the patronage of the UAE's poorer northern emirates, much to the concern of the country's ruling emirate, Abu Dhabi. Such a conflictual relationship did not exist in Qatar, where there was no equivalent federal entity or other grouping under whose auspices the Qatari affiliate of Islah could be nurtured. Ultimately in Qatar, Islah was co-opted by the state, leading to the dissolution of the group in 1999. The Qatari ruling elite's lack of concern over a potential challenge from Islah, or any Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, allowed the group to play an active part in the execution of Qatar's foreign policy.

In political systems that have evolved to institutionally reflect the perspectives and personalities of leaders, the approach of individuals is a key influence on state policy. The existence of such a system in the UAE meant that Abu Dhabi crown prince [End Page 544] Shaykh Muhammad bin Zayid Al Nahyan, the formal second-in-command of the Emirati military and a major player in its foreign policy, grew to see local Muslim Brotherhood groups as a liability, while the since-abdicated Qatari emir, Shaykh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, came to see the group as an asset. State policy is also influenced by the kinds of tools that leaders reflexively use. Muhammad bin Zayid's consistent focus on military and security was reflected in his securitizing approach to the growth of Muslim Brotherhood groups. Emir Hamad consistently sought to augment Qatar's importance with influential states and groups in the Middle East and North Africa. This snugly fits his approach during the Arab Spring, whereby he sought to make the Qatari state a key supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that at one stage seemed on the verge of becoming a regional power.


Asserting that Qatar and the UAE share a range of common characteristics is not a controversial notion; indeed, the leaders repeatedly say so themselves. Shaykh Zayid bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the emir of Abu Dhabi from 1966 and the first president of the UAE from 1971 until his 2004 passing, noted that "We, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries are one family that is joined together by a common history and the same customs and traditions which go back to our common cultural heritage and over which reigns the true spirit of our Islamic religion."1 Indeed, going back to when the British announced their withdrawal from the region in...