For years Saudi Arabia has been criticized for promoting extremism around the world. Saudi Arabia with its massive amount of petro dollars has funded schools, groups (and politicians) in countries across the globe. Up until the US invasion of Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia was one of only three countries to have formal diplomatic relations with Afghanistan while under the rule of the Taliban.
Saudi Arabia has a bizarre setup, where the royal family can do what they want in exchange for allowing the Sheikhs who follow an extreme version of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism control various policies. Some Sunnis do not even consider Wahhabi to be Sunnis, but rather a cult.
Saudi Arabia is still promoting extremism, but a new country is starting to outshine its larger neighbour, Qatar. Besides Saudi Arabia, Qatar is the only other country that officially embraces Wahhabism. Qatar has a population of less than two million people, but it wields power thousands of miles away. The most recent example in the US, is the entry of Al Jazeera through the purchase of Al Gore's company, Current TV.
Qatar has a GDP per capita of over $100,000, making it one the richest country in the world. The unemployment rate is close to zero, and the country has vast reserves of oil and natural gas.
Saudi Arabia along with Qatar, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman make up the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, commonly referred to as the GCC. These six countries formed the alliance over 30 years ago. However, today the alliance has one main goal, stop the Iranian Shia influence in the region.
With the exception of Oman (where Ibadiyya is the major following of citizens), all the countries of the GCC are Sunni controlled. However, many GCC countries have large Shia populations. In fact, Bahrain is a classic apartheid state where the 25% Sunnis rule the 75% of the population who are Shias.
When uprisings broke out in Bahrain in early 2011, Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent in troops to help crush the uprising. The move to militarily intervene was backed by the GCC. Iran officially claims Bahrain a province of its country. Iran had a role in the uprising, although the extent of its involvement is a subject of controversy. A source close to many heads of state in the region told us that Iran has in fact played a very large role in the rebellion.
Bahrain is not the only country with a large Shia population. Saudi Arabia is approximately 20% Shia, with many followers located in the oil rich regions of the country. Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE all have large Shia minorities. The GCC is united to stop further Iranian influence in the gulf area.
Recent events make one wonder how strong of an alliance truly exists. Qatar's actions are starting to raise some eyebrows even in Saudi Arabia. Although Saudi Arabia promotes extremism, it has grown more cautious as these policies could backfire. Saudi Arabia has been fighting Al-Qaida attacks at home and has been somewhat cautious about Saudi citizens going to fight against Assad in Syria. The UAE recently arrested cells of Muslim Brotherhood members, leading to tension with Egypt (there will be an in-depth article on that topic to follow).
Qatar appears to be over-reaching in terms of its global presence, and this is likely scaring other countries in the GCC. The fear is not one of jealousy, but rather one of even more extreme movements gaining power in the Gulf. We believe that the GCC is currently at a major crossroads where Qatar could face the wrath of its neighbors if it does not cease its current foreign policy. This ties into the first part of the article and to Egypt in particular.
We will explore the tension between Qatar and other GCC members and why we believe the current situation is 'unsustainable' in part two of this article.