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.

With Morsi's ouster, Qatar has suffered painful setbacks. Qatar now finds itself in the embarrassing position of having to deliver several more shipments of free natural gas just to save face and retain a modicum of influence. Egyptian officials, meanwhile, say they have frozen a deal to buy additional Qatari gas because of Doha's political baggage.

The Saudis have regained their position of prominence in Egypt now that Qatar has flamed out. But that's not where the race ends. Saudi Arabia also now outpaces Qatar's influence among the political and military opposition in Syria.

Qatar was an enthusiastic backer of the Syrian National Council founded in late 2011. The Muslim Brotherhood's dominance of the SNC made Riyadh and a number of Western capitals queasy. As the war has dragged on, however, the Saudis began to gain the upper hand. By November 2012, the composition of the political opposition shifted more to Saudi Arabia's liking. Saudi officials engineered the Brotherhood's further diminution by expanding the Syrian Opposition Coalition to allow for greater representation of "liberals" and the Free Syrian Army. Saudi pressure forced the resignation of Qatar's man Ghassan Hitto as prime minister of the Coalition, and Riyadh has installed an ally as the Coalition's new president.

Similarly, Qatar has lost ground to the Saudis on the battlefields of Syria in recent months. The Saudis have stepped up their involvement in directing the rebellion against Assad. Syrian opposition sources reported in May that Qatar has taken a step back on the military file, yielding more and more to the Saudis.

With its influence cut down to size, Doha has now agreed to distribute all military assistance via the opposition's Supreme Military Command (SMC). Meanwhile, the Saudis are sending more heavy weaponry to the rebels and expand the geographic scope of their efforts to include Qatar's former strongholds in northern Syria.

Qatar clearly continues to maintain a leadership role in supporting the Syrian opposition. And Doha has made it clear that influencing the events in Syria will remain a top priority. This means that Qatari cash and other support will continue to flow.

Similarly, Qatar has not given up on Egypt. Notably, the Qatar-sponsored Al-Jazeera television network continues to play a significant -- and controversial role -- by hammering the military junta that displaced Qatar's Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood clients.

However, with the resurgence of Saudi Arabia, it is now clear that Qatar, the undersized Gulf emirate with outsized pockets, may have run too fast over the last year or two. Doha believed that it could overtake its slower and more conservative rival with rapid-fire spending, but the Saudis just kept methodically doing what they have always done: quietly buying influence to secure the old order.