Wedged between the threat of the Islamic State and Islamist militants, a U.S.-Iran rapprochement and the lingering effects of the 2011 Arab Spring, GCC member states have adopted various strategies to manage the changing geopolitical landscape of the region. This lack of coordination in regional policy has been most visible in the fractious debate over Qatar's support of mainstream Islamist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, groups that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi view as a threat to regional monarchies.
A Jan. 6 leak about Meshaal's expulsion from Doha was strongly denied by Hamas representatives. However, the incident speaks to changes that Qatar will likely make to how it presents its relationships with Islamist groups such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar has also been supporting anti-Islamic State Salafist groups and other Islamist factions in the Syrian conflict, with these groups often competing directly with Saudi-backed groups on the battlefield. Following an easing of tensions between Qatar and GCC member states Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates last month, Qatar has been slowly working toward implementing a series of concessions meant to continue to reduce tensions and demonstrate goodwill between the emirate and the larger bloc.
Mainly, Qatar has been quietly working to relocate controversial foreign residents (many of them affiliated with mainstream Islamism) to safe locations elsewhere in the region. Algeria and Tunisia are rumored to be discreetly accepting Islamist figures because of their working relationships with Qatar and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups. It is Turkey, however, that Qatar is likely to coordinate with on the issue of supporting mainstream Islamists in the region.
The Turkish and Qatari governments announced a deepening of bilateral relations on Dec. 19 that included the signing of a memorandum of understanding to found a "supreme strategic committee" to facilitate further cooperation between both countries regarding issues of mutual interest. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani held a joint press conference in Ankara following the signing of the memorandum of understanding, while the Turkish and Qatari ministers of defense signed a separate agreement on military cooperation. In addition to their mutual ties, the two leaders mentioned that they had discussed matters of regional concern, from Syria and Libya to Iraq, Cyprus and the Palestinian territories.
The Turko-Qatari relationship has grown over the years, with Doha and Ankara both electing to work with moderate regional Islamists, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar and Turkey have both had strained ties with Egypt and the Gulf States — led by Saudi Arabia — following the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood-backed Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi. Moreover, Doha and Ankara have supported similar groups in Libya, Tunisia and Syria.
It is not surprising that Turkey and Qatar are currently solidifying ties. The timing — the same week that Qatar announced a process to explore mending ties with Egypt and repairing relations with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — reflects Qatar's long-term commitment to support regional groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar also seeks to reduce its dependency on its neighbors for regional defense and to form security links with a stronger regional state. Preferably, the state would not border the emirate and share its misgivings over Saudi and Iranian intentions for the region. Turkey best fits these requirements, and we are likely to see not only strengthening ties between Ankara and Doha but also continued Qatari support for many of the same Islamist groups, if only discreetly.
A Regional Intermediary
A shift toward discreet support will enable Doha to retain its links with Islamist groups as well as maintain close ties with Ankara — something Riyadh is unable to do because of regional competition between itself and Turkey. Qatar is unlikely to fundamentally change its position on supporting the Muslim Brotherhood or entering a more strategic relationship with Turkey. Qatar will adjust the tone and style of its engagements, however, so as to appear less defiant of Saudi and GCC expectations. Meshaal may be moved out of Doha as part of these efforts, and Turkey is the most logical refuge for him. But it is more likely that Qatar will allow Meshaal to stay and quietly limit his activities and public profile. The coming weeks will also see Doha and Cairo cautiously reengage one another, but this will likely lay the foundation for a different style of GCC engagement with groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
The GCC — primarily Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — will need to undertake face-saving measures before beginning to reset relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and other mainstream Islamists. If Saudi Arabia and other GCC member states are going to work to improve ties with these groups (a scenario Stratfor views as likely), they will need to do so on their own terms and avoid appearing as capitulating to Qatari pressure. Doha will use its traditional status as regional intermediary and its own improved ties to help facilitate an accord — tacit or otherwise — between Gulf monarchies and mainstream Islamism.