The Riyadh Document: What could it mean?

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are apparently on their way to resolving their dispute with Qatar over its backing for the Muslim Brotherhood. A foreign ministers’ meeting was convened in Riyadh on Thursday, leading to a statement issued later in the evening.

The text in itself is extremely anodyne. It says that regarding foreign and security policy they agreed on “adopting mechanisms that ensure acting in a group framework so that no policies of any GCC country affect the interests, security and stability of any country and do not violate sovereignty”. It also talked about a mechanism for implementing what it termed the Riyadh Document, which implied that there was a specific set of points agreed by that name but which were not published. If there is such a document, it is not clear that it has at this stage been approved and/or signed by the Qatari emir.

As to what those terms could involve, UAE and Saudi figures close to government and in media are putting out apparent details, including expelling some Gulf Brotherhood figures and no agreement to return the ambassadors until Doha does what the rest want. UAE pro-government tweeter Hamad al-Hosani offered more alleged details, saying they were 15 Brotherhood figures would be expelled, including five Emiratis, two Saudis, six Bahrainis and two Yemenis. UAE and Saudi figures are also saying Qatar must prevent Egyptians on its territory from using foreign and domestic media platforms, not refer to the ouster of Mohammed Morsi last year as a coup, nor take a position against the general who removed him and is running for president in upcoming elections, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. If Qatar sticks to this then the ambassadors will return.

A few things jump out from this. Those who are being asked to leave have played little role at all in media agitation against other Gulf countries: there is no mention of the Egyptians being asked to leave. Doha is in any case hoping to remove some of them to London to take part in a new TV station Emir Tamim is setting up (as well as Turkey and Malaysia), partly because their conspicuous presence is irritating Qataris who are now watching more closely how the government spends its money. The recently-announced UK investigation into the Brotherhood could complicate this.

Doha would argue that it already adheres to most terms of the public agreement. It says it never financed the Brotherhood, and the case has never been proven outrightly that it did. That doesn’t mean that it hasn’t, perhaps by individuals offering money directly to favourites such as the cleric Yousef al-Qaradawi or visiting Brotherhood leaders, or Qatari charities passing money to causes in Egypt that are controlled by the Brotherhood. Those are activities that are equally relevant to Saudi backing for Salafi groups in Egypt. (It’s also worth noting recent Saudi and other incitement against Oman, driven by its ties to Iran: prominent cleric Mohammed al-Arifi said on Dubai TV last year that Sunnis should not pray with Ibadis, the Muslim sect dominant in Oman, and Oman said it had busted a UAE spy ring in 2011.)

Further, Al Jazeera already claims that it is not biased, rather it gives coverage to an issue that other, Saudi-controlled Arab media ignores or plays down – mass opposition to the military order. The channel has already instituted a subtle shift in its questioning of guests, I noticed, whereby there is more care to challenge all guests’ claims in the manner of BBC Arabic (the most fair, unbiased Arabic TV media at the moment, in my view). In the interests of neutrality, Qatar will argue that guesting some Brotherhood figures, or even just supporters, is entirely justified and in the spirit of the agreement. In Doha, figures inside Al Jazeera say the channel will tone things down a bit, while Qatar encourages some of the Brotherhood figures in Doha to move abroad.

Other claims have been made: a UAE source said that Qaradawi could move to Turkey. It had already been reported that he would move to Tunisia only for Tunisia to deny the claim. More likely is that he simply remains quiet for a while. Qaradawi has been resident in Doha for decades, and the Al Thani family feel gratitude and respect for him. They would not ignominiously turf out an octogenarian with huge following just like that. Other Saudi demands, such as closing Brookings or Al Jazeera itself, had ‘maximalist position in order to win specific smaller concessions’ written all over them.

Generally, then, I think what we can expect is Qaradawi staying away, Al Jazeera making an effort to appear more neutral while still identifying Egypt as a country on a contested political trajectory, while many of the Brotherhood figures who have recently piled into Doha slowly become less visible in coming months as they move to other countries. Whether specifics are addressed such as no use of the word of ‘inqilab’ (coup) by presenters or an end to the montages depicting Sisi as mastermind of a brutal crackdown remains to be seen.

The broader picture is that Doha is buying time. “The spat will end but they will wait it out,” a UAE observer put it. The path of independence from Saudi policy and providing a space for the main Arab political trends to debate and operate has been entrenched since 1995. Beyond that, Doha does not believe that Sisi is capable of bringing Egypt stability and is hedging its bets accordingly.

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