In a Wall Street Journal article last week, three journalists reported on Saudi Prince Bandar's play for authority in Syria. The journalists were unable to contact Prince Bandar to interview him directly for the piece, but in the article they reported on one of his recent missions, in which he had been working to secure the removal of Bashar Al-Assad. The article reports that Prince Bandar has been "jetting from covert command centres near the Syrian front lines to the Elysee Palace in Paris and the Kremlin in Moscow, seeking to undermine the Assad regime."
The article provides an insight into the intentions of the Saudi regime and its efforts to influence events in Syria, stirring up quite a controversy in the days that followed.
The journalists Adam Entous, Nour Malas and Margaret Coker revealed that Prince Bandar had taken "a swipe" at Qatar when he said that the country was "nothing but 300 people … and a TV channel," reportedly also saying "that doesn't make a country." The quote was attributed, in the article, to "a person familiar with the exchange." Prince Bandar's comments are not unexpected; there have been a number of reported power struggles between the two regional players, Saudi and Qatar, for some time now. Differences over Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Palestine, to name just a few, have coloured the relationship between the two governments. When the quote by Prince Bandar was reported, Qatar's foreign minister responded via twitter saying that, "one Qatari citizen is worth an entire people and the Qatari people are equal to an entire nation." He added, "This is what we teach our children, with all due respect to the others."
Qatar did not release an official response, despite the foreign ministers tweets, and Saudi Arabia has declined to comment on the story. Two days after the story broke, the Saudi News Agency reported that a Saudi official had denied Prince Bandar's comments. However, when MEMO contacted the Wall Street Journal journalists behind the story they confirmed that the sources behind the account of Prince Bandar's words were knowledgeable and reliable, and that they were sticking by their story. The journalists' confirmation of the account reveals much about the Qatari / Saudi relationship today.
Tensions between the two governments have recently become heightened over Syria. Whilst both countries want Assad gone, there is no agreement on who may replace him. The Saudis have raised concerns that if they cannot influence it otherwise, an Islamist government could come to power in Syria. This is the primary concern behind Saudi's involvement in Syria and explains its support for American military intervention. Saudi has been urging America to take a stand on Syria. In fact, Prince Bandar is reportedly close to the administration and has been in constant contact with the Americans on the issue.
While Qatar is also opposed to Assad and is keen to see him removed, Saudi Arabia has been concerned by Qatar's lackadaisical approach to Islamist governments. The Qataris have not opposed the formation of Islamist governments in other countries in the region as Saudi has done, and the Saudis fear that if the Qataris have any influence on events in Syria, the same could be repeated there. The Saudis also believe that the Qataris (along with Turkey) are arming the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
The two governments have been battling one another for power in the region for some years now. However, since the outbreak of the Arab Spring, the intensity of their power struggle has deepened. In Yemen, recent reports indicate that Yemeni politicians are drawing closer to the Qatari regime, as illustrated by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi's visit to Doha before his visit to Washington. While Yemen was previously seen as a Saudi stronghold, the Qatari's have been increasing their influence in Yemen following the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011. Saudi Arabia has expressed unease at the situation and Saudi press reports indicate that the country is unhappy with the growing influence of Qatar in Yemen.
In Palestine, the Qataris and Saudis have been vying for power through their respective support for Hamas and Fatah. The Saudis are bank rolling Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah in the West Bank, while Qatar has pledged, and delivered, large infrastructure development projects to the war torn Gaza Strip ruled by Hamas. The Qataris, who have been close to Hamas for some time and have allowed them a base in the country on various occasions, have been seen as supporting the government in Gaza over and above the Fatah-led administration in the West Bank.
In Egypt too, there has been a struggle for power. The Saudi influence behind the recent coup against the Muslim Brotherhood has been all too obvious. Saudi Arabia presented serious financial rewards to the coup government in Egypt, around $5 billion, whilst Saudi's allies, the UAE and Kuwait, offered an additional $3 billion and $4 billion dollars respectively. Prior to the coup, Qatar had not only provided political support to the Muslim Brotherhood and their democratically elected government, but had also invested $8 billion in the country.
Since the Arab Spring, Qatar has backed a number of the newly formed Islamist governments, supporting their ascension to power. Despite the instability in the region, Qatar has continued to back the Muslim Brotherhood and their affiliates throughout the Middle East. Saudi Arabia meanwhile, threatened by the trend towards Islamist governments, has largely opposed these new governments. Concerned that the Arab Spring and Islamist governments threaten the existing models of entrenched royal power in the Gulf, Saudi has wanted to see the continuation of autocratic regimes in the Middle East.
And it is because of these competing political interests that the two governments have been vying for power in the region. Although both governments want to assert their influence, Qatar has taken to supporting the new post-Arab Spring players, whilst Saudi attempts to hold on to the old regimes. Syria, now at the centre of unrest in the region, is a key asset to gaining further influence. Although the two countries initially worked together to arm the rebels in Syria, the Saudis were unhappy working with their rival. It was at this point that the discord, as reported by the WSJ, broke out between the two, and Prince Bandar insulted the Gulf nation.
Given that the journalists have now confirmed Prince Bandar's quote was attributed to a reliable source, it will be much harder for the Saudis to deny it and perhaps harder for the Qataris to ignore. Either way, tensions between the two will almost certainly increase.