How Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the Tortoise and the Hare of the Middle East

By quietly supporting Egypt's old order, Riyadh has slowly overtaken its Gulf-region rival.
Saudi Arabia has made strategic gains on its regional rival, Qatar. (Michael Dalder/Reuters)

The toppling of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt was a major setback for Qatar. The uber-wealthy Gulf emirate had pumped billions of dollars into Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood government, only to watch it fall to the Egyptian military seemingly overnight. Within days, Qatar's Saudi rivals swooped in, declaring support for the military's fight against "terrorism and extremism" and pledging $5 billion in aid.

The Saudis are the Gulf's traditional power brokers, and they have been waiting for this moment. They were left in the dust in 2011, when their longtime ally Hosni Mubarak was toppled. Qatar, a country with longstanding antipathy for the Saudis, gave the Brotherhood a seemingly endless line of credit to inflate Morsi's popularity and let him ignore the need for economic reforms that would have prompted unpopular austerity measures. When Brotherhood movements began rising across the region, the Saudis appeared to have lost the race.

But Saudi patience has paid off. In a Middle Eastern version of Aesop's fable The Tortoise and the Hare, the Saudis have regained regional influence while the ambitious Qataris overextended themselves and then lost steam.  

Qatar's brief stint as the patron of Egypt was a blow to the Saudis, who have worked hard to cultivate good ties with Cairo over the years. As wards of U.S. policy in the region after the Cold War, relations between the two states blossomed. Between 2004 and 2009, trade between the two Arab powers increased some 350 percent. In 2008 alone, Egypt imported approximately $1.3 billion worth of goods from Saudi Arabia.

Once regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and Egypt had found common cause against the Muslim Brotherhood in recent decades. In Egypt, the Brotherhood threatened Mubarak's secular government, Egypt's alliance with Washington, and the peace treaty with Israel. The Brotherhood's mixture of politics and religion also threatened the Saudi system, which claims a religious mandate and discourages political activism among its subjects. The Kingdom's longtime minister of the interior, the late Prince Nayef, famously declared in 2002 that, "our problems, all of them, came from the direction of the Muslim Brotherhood."

Thus, when protests erupted against the Mubarak regime in 2011, Saudi Arabia was one of the few countries that stood by the longtime leader. But the Saudis could do little to save their ally; they watched with horror as Washington abandoned him. To add insult to injury, the Muslim Brotherhood filled the vacuum Mubarak's demise left.

Qatar, a global financial backer of the Brotherhood, quickly began drawing up plans to reinforce the organization's gains. In August 2012, the Gulf power gave $2 billion to Egypt. Then in January 2013, Qatar provided Egypt with $2.5 billion more. In April, it pledged an additional $3 billion.

Doha had also proposed a number of lucrative investments in Egypt. For example, in January 2013, Egypt's prime minister said that Qatar was interested in plowing $18 billion into projects in East Port Said and the North Coast. Additional reports in September 2012 suggested that Qatar was looking to invest in a $3.7 billion oil refinery project in Egypt.

Presented by

Jonathan Schanzer and David Andrew Weinberg

Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where David Andrew Weinberg is a senior fellow.

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