Brotherhood imam skips Doha sermon, but more needed for GCC to reconcile

That Youssef Al Qaradawi did not speak raises hopes that the spat involving Qatar and the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain might be slowly moving towards a resolution.

The Doha-based Youssef Al Qaradawi speaks to the crowd as he leads Friday prayers in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt in February, 2011. The outspoken pro-Muslim Brotherhood imam has been critical of the UAE’s policies toward Islamist groups, adding to friction between Qatar and other GCC states. Khalil Hamra / AP Photo
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ABU DHABI // A Muslim Brotherhood imam who has been critical of the UAE did not return to giving his usual sermon in Doha on Friday as expected, citing health concerns.

The sermon would have been Egyptian-born Youssef Al Qaradawi’s first since an unprecedented dispute between GCC states, and his words could have escalated tensions further.

That Mr Al Qaradawi did not speak raises hopes that the spat involving Qatar and the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain might be slowly moving towards a resolution.

“Although there are many underlying factors he certainly is a catalyst for the problems that came up in the past few months,” said Andrew Hammond, a Middle East analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The less he is visible the better to help solve the crisis.”

A popular spiritual guide for the Brotherhood, Mr Al Qaradawi had used his sermons last January to lash out at the UAE’s support for the interim government in Egypt.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have given billions of dollars in aid to Egypt after the country’s military removed president Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Brotherhood, from the presidency in July, following mass protests against his rule.

A crackdown against Mr Morsi’s supporters followed and the Brotherhood was declared a terrorist organisation.

Qatar was a key international backer for Mr Morsi’s government, offering Egypt substantial loans to help rebuild its battered economy.

Doha’s refusal to stop Mr Al Qaradawi’s high-profile criticism, which was broadcast on state-television, and also end its support for the Brotherhood, prompted Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Manama to withdraw their ambassadors last month.

Mr Al Qaradawi also had a show on the Qatar-based Al Jazeera network, which has drawn ire for its criticism of regional governments.

The withdrawal of the ambassadors was the result of long-simmering tensions over Doha’s policies aimed at raising its influence throughout the region.

Other GCC states considered Doha’s efforts to promote the Brotherhood as dangerous for their internal security.

Mr Al Qaradawi’s absence from television on Friday came after the Kuwaiti foreign ministry said there would be an imminent breakthrough in relations between the GCC countries.

But Mr Al Qaradawi not being on television was more a “stopgap” and showed that the dispute was not resolved, Mr Hammond said.

While the UAE might be pleased that Mr Al Qaradawi remains off air it will be more difficult for steps to be taken towards resolving the dispute with Saudi Arabia, which, like Egypt’s interim government, has labelled the Brotherhood a terrorist group.

“The Saudis have a more complicated attitude,” said Mustafa Alani, the Saudi director of security and defence studies at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Centre.

“The Saudis classify the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group on the same footing as Al Qaeda.”

He said that Doha is “unable or unwilling” to understand the threat posed by the Brotherhood to GCC countries and “tangible evidence” was needed that its policies have changed.

But the real problem lies in Doha supporting the Brotherhood when it acts in a way that threatens the security of other GCC states, he said.

“The question is the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood crossing borders. It’s a regional threat.”

He added that Doha “giving them media outlets and letting them attack other governments, there is the problem”.

“Without Qatar able to understand this, I think the relations, even if they are restored, will not be between friendly states,” Mr Alani said.

Since the dispute erupted last month, Doha has been careful not to escalate the situation. It did not withdraw its ambassadors in retaliation and made few public statements regarding the dispute.

But, Qatar has said it will not change its foreign policy.

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has travelled this month to Jordan, Sudan, Tunisia and Algeria.

While the tour was generally considered business as usual for a head of state, Mr Hammond said the visit to Sudan was “regarded problematically by Egypt and Saudi Arabia”. The visit came at a time when Sudan’s internationally isolated leader Omar Al Bashir appears to be renewing an old alliance with Sudanese Islamist leaders.

While major Saudi and European bank reportedly stopped doing business in Sudan last month, Qatar announced it will give the cash-strapped country $1 billion.