Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s visit to Doha at the end of July, right before heading to Washington, indicated that for the first time ever Saudi Arabia was no longer the most powerful player on the field, or at least ceased to be the only player that had significant influence on the Yemeni scene, as had been the case since the 1960s.
Qatar is currently playing an important political role in Yemen, extending the one that it played during the 1994 war between former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and then-Vice President Ali Salim al-Beidh — who were both partners in the same Yemeni national unity government — and their respective allies. That role was resurrected during the Yemeni government’s war against the Houthis, who constituted a suitable avenue for Qatar’s return to the Yemeni arena. During 2007 and 2008, Qatar was the prominent influence broker in the most important of Yemeni issues, whereby it succeeded in convincing the Houthis to endorse its role. Qatar’s initiative to end the war between the state and the Houthis in 2008 led to the latter’s re-emergence, and to the former president later describing the accord reached as the “Dokha (dizziness) Accord” instead of the Doha Accord, to symbolize his, and the majority of Yemeni factions, including the government’s, rejection of Qatari involvement — which made of the Houthis a faction equal in importance to the state.
It would seem that Qatar knew, at the time, the level of influence that Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar — the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated adviser to the current Yemeni president, who was also Saleh’s right-hand man before defecting from his ranks in March 2011 — had, because he represented the government of Sanaa during Qatari-sponsored talks with the Houthis. As a result, Doha endeavored to establish strong relations with the man, resulting in Qatar standing by his side, for it to exploit him on the Yemeni internal scene, especially following the former Yemeni president’s refusal to attend the Gaza Summit meeting held on Jan. 16, 2009, in Doha — a refusal that greatly complicated his relationship with Qatar.
The Arab revolutions that began in 2011 gave Qatar a golden opportunity to fully enter the fray and provide abundant financial, media and political support to the Yemeni opposition, which is mostly composed of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar’s foreign minister was the first international party who called on the former president to step down, a demand to which Saleh responded, in front of a huge crowd of supporters, during his Sabeen Square speech on April 8, 2011, when he said, “We derive our legitimacy from the strength of our glorious Yemeni people, not from Qatar, whose initiative we reject.”
Qatar did not content itself with switching allegiances from the Houthis to the Muslim Brotherhood inside Yemen. It even proved through its mediation efforts to free a Swiss female kidnapped by al-Qaeda in February 2012 — without even informing or coordinating with Yemeni authorities — that its influence in Yemen had become astronomical.
This leads to the information revealed by Saleh to Al Arabiya about the former Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and Col. Moammar Gadhafi, asking him to stop combating al-Qaeda while expressing willingness to mediate between them. This was an indication that he was not the intended target, implying that Riyadh was.
In that manner, Qatar succeeded in penetrating Yemeni political affairs, disregarding all previously established rules of political action there, and giving itself the ability to greatly and dangerously affect Yemeni and Saudi affairs.
Prior to Hadi’s visit to Doha, the Saudi press had indicated that the historical Qatari ally, the Muslim Brotherhood, was putting pressure on Hadi to visit Doha. This reflects Saudi dissatisfaction with Hadi’s visits to Doha, as well as signals that Riyadh’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood had deteriorated and that Qatar was vigorously replacing it on the scene.
Qatar’s role in Yemen can be likened to breathing air. Its effects are visible without it being palpable. Yet, it sometimes gains exceptional prominence such as when Qatar funded the establishment of a Yemeni television station affiliated with one of the Muslim Brotherhood’s factions in Yemen: the Yemen Youth Channel.
It seems that Doha is resolute on maintaining its alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen, following the obvious differences in opinion it had with Riyadh concerning the current events in Egypt, which led to the Muslim Brotherhood’s overthrow. The Saudi stance led to anger among the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood’s ranks and bolstered their ties with Qatar, to the point where Nobel prize winner and prominent Yemeni activist, Tawakkol Karman — who has strong relations with Doha — went to Cairo on Aug. 4 to support the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, but was stopped by Egyptian authorities and sent back to Sanaa aboard the same plane she arrived on. She was preceded by Al Jazeera’s reporter in Sanaa, Ahmad al-Shalafi, who was sent back to Yemen after covering the Rabia al-Adawiya events. Together, they are two of the most prominent Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated activists in Yemen, who also have very deep ties to Qatar.
More significant even is Doha’s relationship with the Ahmar family, the largest tribal family in Yemen, and the most important historical ally that Saudi Arabia has in Yemen. After Al Jazeera highlighted Hamid al-Ahmar’s opposition to Saleh’s regime, analysts began talking about Hamid becoming Qatar’s go-to man in Yemen, as the Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper published. This came at a time when Saleh was accusing Qatar’s allies who are part of the “Congregation for Reform” — individuals or parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood — of standing behind the attempt on his life and members of his regime in what has come to be known as the Presidential Palace incident that took place on June 3, 2011.
Details about the matter remain sketchy. What is certain, however, is that traditional Muslim Brotherhood forces in the capital of the country have maintained their relationship with Saudi Arabia, while Qatar has expanded its relations with Muslim Brotherhood forces in Yemen’s central areas — Ta’izz — through bolstering contacts with its Islamic figures. These figures, contrary to Muslim Brotherhood members in the capital, never had close and historic relations with Saudi Arabia.
Saudi- and Qatari-affiliated media outlets sometimes wage fierce battles, such as when Saudi media revealed information recently about Muslim Brotherhood figures loyal to Qatar standing behind the recruitment of tens of thousands of conscripts into the Yemeni army and security forces in the years since the Arab Spring revolutions began. And that, in fact, Qatar was financially supporting the Yemeni Congregation for Reform — the political arm of the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood and largest party in the coalition.
Furthermore, if the reports that Doha donated $80 million to the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood turn out to be true, then Saudi Arabia’s $10 million in financial support to the same party becomes insignificant compared with Doha’s generosity. It also would explain the level of spending during organized demonstrations as well as the money expended to buy loyalties during the revolutionary period against Saleh’s regime and the subsequent institutionalization of the party.
Ahmar is still the most powerful Yemeni figure after the president. He is ruefully and flexibly holding a center line between Riyadh and Doha, both of which did not express disagreement to his role, except when he adopted a stance in favor of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. He did this without exposing Riyadh’s position to attack, cognizant of the fact that Saudi Arabia was the source of his power and influence inside Yemen, at least during Saleh’s era. Furthermore, Hadi, in a remarkable move, took him along when he visited Doha. As a result, if he did resolve to stand on Qatar’s side, then Saudi Arabia would have been dealt a fatal blow to the traditional alliance by which it ruled Yemen for decades.
Yemen perhaps does not hold great importance for Doha, but its geographical location on Saudi Arabia’s southern border, and it being an arena and extension for many of the events occurring in the region, explains the level of attention that Doha is giving Sanaa.
Qatar knows that Saudi Arabia’s policy in Yemen is one of containing the threat through all means available, because Yemen is the country that most affects its security. Doha seems to have taken advantage of Riyadh’s inability to keep successfully managing the Yemeni dossier. Saudi reliance on Yemen’s poverty and the latter’s need for financial support to the point of gambling on the weakness of the Yemeni state, its rulers’ and opposition’s utter shameful and dishonorable dependence on Riyadh for decades has led Riyadh to disregard offering concessions of any type to maintain its good reputation among the Yemeni populace. This is true even among those who object to Doha’s interference in their country’s affairs.
Qatar is but one of many countries that have fought fierce battles — sometimes armed conflicts through local proxies — to gain a better foothold in Yemen. At a time when Doha, Riyadh, Tehran and Ankara’s agendas compete over Yemen, the ordinary Yemeni citizen finds himself lacking any meaningful nationalist agenda for his country. This is not new to Yemen, however, where most of the ruling class is but an extension of regional and international powers whose agendas contrast and are opposite to purely Yemeni aspirations or sensitivities. The difference this time though is the presence of a few new and powerful players, Qatar being one of them.
Farea al-Muslimi is a Yemeni youth activist, writer and freelancer. His work has appeared in The National, Foreign Policy, Assafir and many other regional and international media outlets. On Twitter: @AlMuslimi