An intensifying spat between the governments of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates reveals just how unnerved the region's monarchies are becoming as Islamists come into power. This is one of many threats the Gulf Cooperation Council states have collectively faced in the past three decades, but there will be important nuances to how each of the Gulf Arab states copes as Islamists gain more power.
While the Gulf Arab states all are concerned that the Muslim Brotherhood could replicate its success in Egypt and Syria in other parts of the region, the UAE government has been the most active in trying to discredit the Islamist movement.
What is a Geopolitical Diary? George Friedman explains.
Over the past several months, the United Arab Emirates has stepped up arrests and rhetoric against Islamists allegedly belonging to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, charging them with sedition. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has recently started defending other Brotherhood affiliates in the region and went so far as to accuse the UAE government of plotting to assassinate Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. The conflict intensified this week when the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood came out in defense of 11 Islamist activists detained in the United Arab Emirates.
A suspect report then surfaced in the Kuwaiti press claiming that the Islamist government in Egypt organized a meeting in Cairo with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force commander, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, to strategize over how the Brotherhood can take control over Egyptian security forces. The report has been vehemently denied by both Iranian and Egyptian government contacts and appears to be designed to sow more tension between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian military — and with other Arab states — by exaggerating the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's recent interactions with Iran.
Regardless of whether the Gulf Arab states are coordinating a negative campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, there is no doubt that they share a deep concern that Islamist political forces in their own territories will be motivated by the Muslim Brotherhood’s momentum in the region to attempt revolutions of their own. The insecurity felt by these states is understandable. The Gulf Cooperation Council's monarchies preside over largely artificial geographic boundaries. With the rise of Islamists across the region, the Arab monarchs risk turning into relics of the post-World War II world.
The Gulf Arab states try to overcome their weaknesses by relying on a much more powerful outside patron (currently the United States) and whatever wealth they can accrue from their natural resources. When faced with a common threat, these states will try to overlook their tribal differences and age-old territorial disputes and pool their security and economic resources. It was the 1979 Iranian revolution that prompted the 1981 creation of the Gulf Cooperation Council as a mechanism to deal with the threat of a Shiite Islamist resurgence. Saddam Hussein’s attempt to redraw the map by invading Kuwait in 1990 was followed by the jihadist threat of the 2000s. The fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 made room for an Iranian resurgence that later threatened to enflame Shiite unrest in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The threat posed by Iran is now starting to wane, and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood is the new security obsession of the Gulf Arab states.
But these states would not necessarily use identical tactics in response to the common threat. Saudi Arabia, for example, is channeling money and support to more radical and less politically driven Salafists in Egypt and Syria, helping these groups compete with the Muslim Brotherhood. Kuwait, more concerned with keeping distance between its Shiite minority and Shiite bastions in Iraq and Iran, is cautiously watching Hadas, the Kuwaiti branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and can gear its press toward anti-Muslim Brotherhood reports without much risk. By contrast, Qatar, taking advantage of its small indigenous population, stable government and rising government revenues, has been actively supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and Egypt, using the Islamist momentum to augment its own foreign policy credentials.
The United Arab Emirates, also benefitting from a small indigenous population and stable government, doesn't have the same level of urgency that Saudi Arabia does in responding to the Brotherhood threat, but it does fear that political unrest in Saudi Arabia may inspire like-minded forces in the Emirates. This may explain why the United Arab Emirates can carry out pre-emptive and overtly aggressive moves against local Islamists without having to fear significant backlash.
Though the tactics will vary from state to state, the threat itself is clear. The rise of Islamist forces in the region will expose the insecurity of the Gulf Arab states. What makes this latest threat different from the ones previous is that Iran, Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda were all threats that could easily attract added support from outside patrons. The growing popularity of Islamists and the declining relevance of the Arab monarchies strikes a chord deep within these states. Each will respond according to the tools they possess and the level of insecurity they feel, albeit with varying levels of success.