Royal Rivalry in the Levant: Saudi Arabia and Qatar Duel over Syria

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 16

Syria's envoy to the UN Bashar al-Jaafari criticized the governments of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey for publicly supporting terrorism in Syria (Source FARS News Agency)

The cycle of calamity plaguing Syria continues to intensify with no end in sight. Syria’s predicament today is far removed from the initial outburst of mass dissent witnessed in March 2011 that saw the Ba’athist regime violently suppress demonstrations demanding political change and reform. This sequence of events paved the way for the incremental militarization of the uprising by defected members of the Syrian army and ordinary civilians.  While the circumstances behind these early episodes of the rebellion remain relevant, the initial displays of violent resistance combined with the formation of various competing political opposition blocs inside Syria and abroad have since given way to a lethal and expansive insurgency increasingly influenced by hardline Islamist currents. The stream of foreign fighters that are filling the ranks of the insurgency has added another layer of complexity to the Syrian imbroglio. These facets of the rebellion are particularly salient when contemplated against the backdrop of the opposition’s repeated demands for lethal arms and political recognition from foreign powers. In this context, understanding the role of foreign actors, especially the Persian Gulf monarchies led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in aiding and sustaining the various political and violent strands of the Syrian opposition, is essential to deciphering Syria.   

Saudi Arabia and Qatar appear united in their opposition to the Ba’athist regime. This appearance of unity, however, masks a deeper rivalry for regional influence that is being played out in parallel with the broader, multi-dimensional proxy battle that has come to embody Syria’s civil war. This shadow conflict is reflected in the agendas of the competing factions being backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar (al-Safir [Beirut], March 21). The friction between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has been readily apparent as the Syrian National Council (SNC), National Council for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCR), the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC) and other movements vie for primacy within the Syrian opposition (al-Hayat, June 8). The existing overlap in terms of ideology between the disparate insurgent factions and growing indications of their tactical and operational collaboration on the battlefield does not offset the persistence of major rifts between these groups.  

Widely viewed as the most active in its support for the Syrian opposition, Qatar has been accused of empowering many of the most ideologically extreme militant factions. This includes armed detachments affiliated with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and others associated with al-Qaeda, such as Jabhat al-Nusra (The Victory Front) (Financial Times [London], May 17). Ultraconservative Salafist factions such as Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya (Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant) and the umbrella Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) under which it operates, are also known to be favored by Qatar. In contrast, Saudi Arabia is seen as enabling armed factions operating under the auspices of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and its Supreme Military Council (SMC) as well as Islamist factions deemed to be lying outside of al-Qaeda’s purview (al-Safir, July 19). Saudi Arabia also tends to favor the factions that make up the umbrella Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF), which is seen as a comparatively more moderate than those that make up their SIF counterpart.  

Officially, the U.S. reluctance to provide more extensive and lethal forms of military support to the Syrian opposition is being attributed to the prevailing influence of radical Islamist currents within the insurgency. Reports that Saudi Arabia, with U.S. encouragement, has effectively supplanted Qatar as the principal supporter of the Syrian rebellion add another layer of intrigue to an increasingly convoluted situation (al-Safir, July 19). The decision by former Qatari Amir Shaykh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani to abdicate his throne in favor of his son may also suggest that important changes are forthcoming in regards to Qatar’s position toward Syria. The new Qatari Amir, Shaykh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, declared his opposition to the sectarianism and other divides that affect the Arab world (al-Akhbar [Beirut], June 28). This statement may reflect a coming shift in Qatar’s stance on Syria to one that is more in line with Saudi Arabia’s position. Yet the muddled and fluid nature of the Syrian uprising is not conducive to engineering an insurgency whose elements adhere to narrowly defined parameters. The role of independent financiers, charity organizations and sympathetic publics in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, among other places, is also vital to fueling the insurrection. The emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a violent faction believed to be an offshoot of al-Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), has raised another set of anxieties. ISIS’s July assassination of Muhammad Kamal al-Hamami, an FSA commander and member of the SMC in Latakia, is illustrative of the extent of the ideological divides within the insurgency (al-Arabiya [Abu Dhabi], July 12).  

Geopolitical Backdrop 

Due to Syria’s alliance with Iran and Hezbollah – a bloc known as the “Resistance Axis” – the uprising in Syria quickly assumed geopolitical overtones. The insurrection in Syria afforded the GCC a chance to undercut Iranian influence in the Middle East. In this regard, the resort to sectarian vitriol by the Sunni-led monarchies and affiliated clergy emphasizing the Shi’a pedigree of the Islamic Republic and the prominent Alawite face of the Ba’athist regime was calibrated to stir up religious tensions between Sunni and Shi’a believers. The provision of support for radical Islamist movements, especially ultraconservative Salafist groups, has been central to the foreign policy of Saudi Arabia and fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members. Consequently, the positions of Saudi Arabia and Qatar are often portrayed interchangeably when it comes to their shared goal of toppling the Ba’athist regime. Their fellow GCC allies, particularly the Sunni-led monarchies representing the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait and Bahrain, as well as wealthy private donors, religious associations and ordinary individuals, have likewise provided extensive moral, financial and logistical support to the political and armed factions struggling against the Ba’athist regime (al-Monitor, July 2; The National [Abu Dhabi], February 3). Saudi Arabia in particular saw the uprising in Syria as an opportunity to undermine the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition in Lebanon while strengthening the March 14 coalition headed by the Sunni-led Future Movement. 

The fall of entrenched despots in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, coupled with the groundswell of grassroots mobilization in Bahrain that would later prompt Saudi-led forces to intervene to prop up Manama under the auspices of the GCC’s Peninsula Shield force, sent shockwaves throughout the Persian Gulf (al-Jazeera, July 2, 2011). The ongoing crackdown by UAE authorities against purported members of the al-Islah (Reform) movement, which is accused of engaging in subversive activities and receiving support from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, combined with intensifying exhibitions of dissent by opposition forces in Kuwait, continue to raise anxieties within the GCC (al-Jazeera, June 19; al-Jazeera, April 19). While not a member of the GCC, Jordan is also highly vulnerable to the developments emanating out of Syria. It has become apparent that the royal dynasties are no longer insulated from the political turbulence shaking the Arab world.  

A close inspection of the respective approaches of Saudi Arabia and Qatar toward Syria reflect divergent strategies.  While a number of the key protagonists closely involved in Syria, including Saudi Arabia, have formally cut ties with Damascus and are actively engaging with the opposition, Qatar, for example, has gone as far as to transfer Syria’s embassy in Doha to the NCR (al-Jazeera, March 28). While Saudi Arabia has maintained an uncompromising diplomatic posture toward Damascus, the realization has started to set it in in Riyadh that the Ba’athist regime has proven far more resilient and capable than initially believed, while there is a consistent inability on the part of the political opposition and insurgents to assert and consolidate meaningful authority and some semblance of legitimacy (The National, May 15).  

Royal Rivalry 

The roots of the Saudi-Qatari rivalry run deep. In spite of their vast size discrepancy, Saudi Arabia and Qatar share many attributes. Both countries are parties to entrenched and multifaceted strategic relationships with the United States. Each also boasts tremendous energy wealth – Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest exporter of crude oil while Qatar is the world’s top exporter of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). Saudi Arabia and Qatar have also amassed huge reserves of international currency. Both operate monarchical systems of governance marked by varying degrees of authoritarianism and promulgate a common ideology derived from ultraconservative Wahhabist and Salafist philosophies. Yet the sum of these commonalities conceals a multitude of divergences on questions related to foreign policy. The disparate reactions by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to the wave of popular revolutionary upheaval that gripped the Arab world in late 2010 are exemplary cases in point. Fearing the potential of a grassroots revolt by its own people, Saudi Arabia viewed the calls for freedom, justice and democracy by Arab and Muslim publics with great trepidation. Saudi Arabia’s fears about the changing geopolitical landscape in the Middle East were compounded when the United States appeared to assent to the fall of Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. In contrast, Qatar viewed the wave of uprisings as a chance to enhance its regional posture and expand its influence globally. 

Despite its diminutive stature, Qatar has employed an ambitious and aggressive foreign policy that has allowed it to wield tremendous regional and international influence that far transcends its tiny geography and population. Qatar has effectively leveraged its wealth through institutions such as its network of Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWFs). It has also relied on instruments of soft power, including the al-Jazeera satellite television network, which is owned and operated by the Qatari royal family, to throw its weight behind the political opposition movements that have upended the status quo. Despite Qatar’s stance on the crisis in Syria today, it was not too long ago that Doha enjoyed a relatively amicable relationship with Syria, Iran and Hezbollah while serving as a mediator between regional and international rivals. Qatar, in essence, has excelled at engaging numerous and contradictory actors, including the United States; Qatar serves as host to a forward headquarters of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). 

Qatar also has a history of challenging Saudi Arabia. At one time, al-Jazeera provided members of the Saudi political opposition operating in exile with a forum to address Arab audiences (al-Jazeera, November 12, 2003). Qatar has also sought to circumvent Saudi Arabia’s preeminent position in the energy sector by proposing the development of a network of natural gas pipelines that would transport Qatari natural gas to Turkey and Europe (Today’s Zaman, January 11, 2011; The National, August 26, 2009). Many of the most economically feasible proposals involving pipelines originating from Qatar would involve traversing Saudi territory. This gives Saudi Arabia tremendous leverage over Qatar. The fact that Qatar shares the South Pars natural gas field – the world’s largest – with Iran is another point of concern for Saudi Arabia. Qatar’s interest in enhancing its ability to expand its natural gas footprint is often mentioned as a motivating factor in its strategy toward Syria. However, it was Qatar’s support for the numerous Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated associations and political parties in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and eventually Syria, that drew the ire of Saudi Arabia (Daily Star [Beirut], July 13). Qatar’s strategy also coincided with Turkey’s approach to the region. The electoral victory of now-ousted Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) helped midwife what came to be viewed as an axis between Qatar, Turkey and Egypt (al-Safir, July 22; Today’s Zaman [Istanbul], July 16).   

Saudi Arabia’s fears of the Muslim Brotherhood are manifold. At one point, Saudi Arabia provided refuge for persecuted members of the Muslim Brotherhood who were targeted by the likes of Gamal Abd al-Nasser in Egypt and Hafez al-Assad in Syria. Saudi Arabia also enabled exiled members of the Muslim Brotherhood to organize opposition activities designed to undermine the secular, socialist and pan-Arab nationalist ideals promulgated by republican Arab governments. However, as the self-proclaimed “Custodian of the Two Holy Sites of Mecca and Medina,” Saudi Arabia began to grow wary as the Muslim Brotherhood cadres active in the Kingdom began to make inroads among Saudis. The Wahabbist and Salafist principles that serve as the foundation of Saudi Arabia’s legitimacy, especially as they relate to the unquestioned loyalty demanded by its rulers, was inherently threatened by the activist-oriented approach to politics advocated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi animosity toward the Muslim Brotherhood also stems from the latter’s support for Saddam Hussein following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait (al-Monitor, July 4).  

Saudi Arabia is a deeply authoritarian regime that is witnessing growing displays of resentment and anger by disaffected members of its own population. This includes a sizeable segment of its youthful, politically aware and social media savvy population that is calling for greater freedom and reform and a sizeable Shi’a minority that faces severe discrimination by a political and religious establishment that views them as heretics and apostates. Consequently, Saudi Arabia fears the precedent of a democratic, modern and Islamist-oriented movement that can organize political action. It should come as no surprise that Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE and Kuwait, has welcomed Mursi’s fall in Egypt.  Democracy, by definition, severely threatens the viability of the royal family as the dominant political and economic entity. Saudi Arabia also harbors concerns over the potential return of Egypt as a major geopolitical player in the Middle East. Egypt’s limited rapprochement with Iran and Hezbollah under the FJP is a case in point. In the long run, Egypt may reemerge to challenge Saudi Arabia and rekindle their natural rivalry. Qatar, on the other hand, due its tiny population – almost 80 percent of Qatar’s population of 2.5 million is made up of foreign nationals – is relatively insulated from the kind of domestic opposition that threatens its neighbors. On account of its small size, it is also agile enough to recalibrate its foreign policy to benefit from what are often conflicting and contradictory regional interests. 


Foreign actors will continue to be instrumental in the course of events in Syria. Despite Saudi Arabia’s apparent efforts to rein in segments of the insurgency deemed to be threatening to the wider region, the Syrian insurgency is operating through its own inertia. The reconstitution of al-Qaeda-affiliated elements in Iraq that are making forays into Syria raises another set of important challenges. It is also unlikely that the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar will cease to be a factor affecting events in Syria. Meanwhile, the Ba’athist regime, emboldened by a series of major military gains over the last few months, is likely to prefer having to deal with an opposition operating under Saudi rather than Qatari auspices. Among other things, Syria may be calculating that Saudi Arabia’s growing anxiety over the course of the insurgency and its impact on regional stability may provide a window of opportunity for some sort of agreement to end the crisis.    

Chris Zambelis is a Senior Analyst specializing in Middle East affairs for Helios Global, Inc., a risk management group based in the Washington, D.C. area.