Wahhabism vs. Wahhabism: Qatar Challenges Saudi Arabia*

22 Pages Posted: 10 Aug 2013

See all articles by James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey

Nanyang Technological University - S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies; University of Wuerzburg - Institute of Fan Culture/Institute of Sport Science

Date Written: July 3, 2013


As Saudi Arabia seeks to impregnate itself against the push for greater freedom, transparency and accountability sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, a major challenge to the kingdom’s puritan interpretation of Islam sits on its doorstep: Qatar, the only other country whose native population is Wahhabi and that adheres to the Wahhabi creed. It is a challenge that is rooted in historical tensions that go back to Qatari efforts in the 19th century to carve out an identity of its own; long-standing differences in religious interpretations that are traceable to Qatar’s geography, patterns of trade and history; a partially deliberate failure to groom a class of popular Muslim legal scholars of its own; and more recently the development of an activist foreign policy promoting Islamist-led political change in the Middle East and North Africa as well as a soft power strategy designed to reduce its dependence on a Saudi defense umbrella it no longer sees as reliable. Although long existent, the challenge has never been as stark as now at a time of massive change in the region and is being fought out in Syria and Arab nations who have in recent years toppled their autocratic leaders.

While the differences in social, foreign and security policies cannot be hidden, Qatar, which hosts the largest US military base in the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia have nevertheless moved in recent years from a cold war to a modicum of good neighborly relations and cooperation with clearly defined albeit unspoken red lines to outright proxy confrontation. In the process, Qatar has emerged as living proof that Wahhabism, the puritan version of Islam developed by the 18th century preacher Mohammed Abdul Wahhab that dictates life in Saudi Arabia since its creation, can be somewhat forward and outward looking rather than repressive and restrictive. It is a testimony that is by definition subversive and is likely to serve much more than for example freewheeling Dubai as an inspiration for conservative Saudi society that acknowledges its roots but in which various social groups are increasingly voicing their desire for change. The subversive nature of Qatar’s approach is symbolized by its long-standing, deep-seated ties to the Muslim Brotherhood that faces one of its most serious litmus tests at a time of the ascension of a new emir and a successful a Saudi counter-revolutionary campaign that helped topple the government of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 and that same month curtailed Qatari influence within the rebel movement opposed to embattled Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

Keywords: Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Muslim Brotherhood, Political Islam, Wahhabism

Suggested Citation

Dorsey, James M., Wahhabism vs. Wahhabism: Qatar Challenges Saudi Arabia* (July 3, 2013). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2305485 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2305485

James M. Dorsey (Contact Author)

Nanyang Technological University - S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies ( email )

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Singapore, 639798
91689117 (Phone)

University of Wuerzburg - Institute of Fan Culture/Institute of Sport Science ( email )

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Würzburg, D-97070

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