Janice Stein is the founding director of the Munk School of Global Affairs.
When some of the Arab world's most powerful countries broke diplomatic relations with Qatar, they also shattered the twin myths of Gulf solidarity and the Sunni-Shia divide. Both these myths are convenient and easy for outsiders to use when they look at the Gulf. Unfortunately, neither is fully accurate. On the contrary, they mask the complexities of the Gulf and the broader Arab world.
This is not the first time that Qatar has been at the epicentre of a split within the Gulf. Qatar is home to Al Jazeera, the Arab broadcasting network that has shaken up Arab politics with its perspective and thoroughly annoyed leaders in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Three years ago, Gulf leaders demanded that the Emir rein in the network and withdrew their ambassadors in protest. After an eight-month struggle, Qatar promised modest concessions but the network is still supported personally today by the young Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, the current ruler of Qatar, as it was by his father.
The struggle over Al Jazeera has little to do with the Sunni-Shia divide, or even Gulf solidarity, and everything to do with autocratic rulers who continue to be deeply uncomfortable with independent voices. The Gulf has its own version of "fake news," as do autocrats everywhere.
Layer onto this a deep divide over the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic organization founded in Cairo almost 90 years ago. The Brotherhood is a Sunni-led organization, so conflict over its role also doesn't have to do with the Sunni-Shia divide. Over time, the Brotherhood has renounced violence and won the presidency in Egypt after Hosni Mubarak was ousted. That government was ousted by the Egyptian military which today considers the Brotherhood a mortal threat. So too do the rulers of Saudi Arabia who have long regarded the Brotherhood as a competitor for legitimacy.
Both governments allege that Qatar supports the Brotherhood, both overtly and covertly. This issue has long been an irritant within the Gulf and beyond. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt sputters with rage when the Brotherhood is mentioned and alleges that the Brotherhood receives support not only from Qatar but from Iran. Why the leading Shia power would support a Sunni Islamist movement is not obvious, but that is of no great consequence in the heated rhetoric that comes out of Cairo and Riyadh. Wherever they are, autocratic governments thrive on enemies.
The straw that broke the camel's back in the last few weeks was an inflammatory statement, allegedly made by the Emir on his website. The statement praised Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah. The Emir claimed, however, that his website had been hacked and that these statements were false, deliberately designed to divide the Gulf and shatter Arab unity. His protest that he was a cybervictim went unheard. This time, a cyberattack, if indeed it was one, led to a serious rupture of relations in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt broke diplomatic relations, and they were quickly followed by the internationally recognized government of Libya, the internationally recognized government of Yemen and the Maldives. They ordered all Qatari diplomats out within 48 hours.
The Sunni-Shia divide did play a role in this latest incident, as Gulf leaders accused Qatar of being a pawn of Iran in a deadly game of regional politics. Even this allegation merits a second look. Hamas, the government that rules Gaza, is a Sunni movement with long-standing ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The latest breakdown of relations does not fit well with the overarching theme of the division of the Muslim world into Shia and Sunni branches. The picture is much messier and suggests that all politics is local. The Gulf is no exception where long-standing ruling families harbour deep resentments and local grievances, and wrap these grievances in rhetoric that plays well to outsiders.
No outsider is more receptive to the rhetoric of a Sunni-Shia split than U.S. President Donald Trump, who travelled to Riyadh to cement the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia and unite the Sunni world against Iran. That this strategy fits poorly with the facts is of no great moment to this President. He will now have to struggle with the reality of local politics in the Gulf. Qatar hosts the largest base for U.S. forces in the region but is now the black sheep of the Gulf family. Welcome, President Trump, to international politics gone local.