The Resilience of Qatar

Historically, nationalism has been very helpful for many countries, such as when civil or international wars broke out, and many people supported the efforts by either joining or volunteering as a soldier or donating what they could to the cause. Extreme nationalism can lead to either unwavering support of one’s country or its destruction. Although nationalism may have a connotation that is derogatory, the term can actually be used in a positive light to describe patriotic actions or situations. In Qatar, the country’s nationalism has helped it through a tough time.

Every year on December 18, Qatar celebrates its independence from its fellow Arab countries. Up until 2008 Qatar had marked its National Day celebration by commemorating the day the British relinquished control and left the country in the hands of the Al Thani, the ruling family of Qatar, to rule fully independently on September 3, 1971. The change to December 18 is interesting, as it marks the battle fought between Jassim Al Thani and the OttomanTurks in 1871, in which the tribes of Qatar united to defeat the last Ottoman presence on the Peninsula. Moving the date of this national day was certainly an act of nationalism. Qataris commemorate the occasion with many choosing to affix elaborate displays to their cars, fly flags or even dye their white robes maroon so as to mimic the flag itself.

On June 5, 2017, Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE cut off Qatar by land, air, and sea, and severed diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar to try to get the small country to stop being quite so friendly toward Iran. Consequently, the slogan for 2017’s independence day celebration was “Promises of Prosperity and Glory.” Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed Abdulrahman al-Thani made it clear that it was a message aimed at Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the nations involved in the blockade. In the face of the quartet’s boycotts, Qatar’s expatriates and locals alike joined on the corniche in Doha in a display of patriotism and defiance.

Despite Doha’s refusal to capitulate, the Saudi/Emirati-led bloc was determined to pressure Qatar into changing its foreign policy and may resort to more action aimed at further restricting the country. By making Qataris pay an economic and political price for their government’s foreign policy, the Saudi/Emirati-led bloc wanted to cause Qatar’s citizens to begin blaming their ruling monarchy for their country’s relative isolation. Yet one month after the severance of diplomatic relations between three GCC members and Doha, the Emirate remained stable with no major opposition to the Al Thani royals coming from any Qataris. On the contrary, Qataris rallied around Emir Tamim who is riding a wave of Qatari nationalism and enjoying growing support from his fellow Qataris. The art of Sheikh Tamim has been printed on T-shirts, flags, and cars, to show the citizens’ love and support for their leader.

On January 5, 2021, gulf Arab leaders signed an agreement to ease a rift with Qatar following Saudi Arabia’s decision to end the embargo and restore diplomatic relations. It is the ruler of Qatar who comes away from all this with the greatest gains. In essence, the embargo ended on Qatar’s terms, with Doha retaining as much control of its policies, at home and abroad, as it had before the isolation began. Sheikh Tamim, the Emir of Qatar, can claim with some justification that his tiny nation has become stronger over the last few years. On the foreign-policy front, Qatar was able to deepen its relations with Turkey and Iran during the embargo — as both countries provided vital supplies and transport links — without weakening its ties to the U.S. or the major world powers. Doha used its vast wealth to build up its armed forces, acquiring an array of weapons systems from the U.S. and Europe. Qatar also developed its own food security by encouraging local companies in agri-businesses. Some of these companies will now have the opportunity to compete in the GCC and Egyptian markets against Saudi and Emirati firms.The Qataris are proud of what their country has achieved on the international stage over the past several decades, rising from an impoverished Arabian backwater to the world’s top liquefied natural gas exporter/producer, a key military partner of the United States, and owner of Al Jazeera that leverages tremendous economic and political influence across multiple regions of the world. Although in the past nationalism has been an intimidating force in the form of extremists and the divide between the Sunni and Shia groups, Qataris are now more focused on their own country and its well being.

In Egypt, Nationalism and Autocracy Don’t Much Care for Cultural History

Egypt, the world’s largest Arab country, is also its most unique. Unlike post-colonial constructs like Iraq and Syria, or modern kingdoms like Saudi Arabia, the people of Egypt descend from one of the world’s great ancient civilizations of antiquity, whose wonders have long captured the imagination of foreign monarchs and traders. For millennia, Egypt’s Mediterranean culture and economy has been tied to Europe unlike other Arab nations’: Egypt’s lush Nile River Valley led its people to develop a civilization rooted in sedentary agriculture rather than nomadism. But today, the autocratic Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is hardly distinguishable from his Arab neighbors – like Mohammed bin Salman, whose oil-rich family were Bedouin nomads little more than a century ago. Sisi, like his autocratic contemporaries around the globe, has used the restoration of Egyptian patriotism to cloak his regime’s brutal ascension. 

Sisi came to power in a 2013 coup d’état that ended two years of unrest and sporadic violence in Egypt that had seen the government control change hands from the nation’s longtime dictator, Hosni Mubarak, to the Islamist leader Mohammed Morsi. Morsi came from the Muslim Brotherhood, a political faction that aiming to spread Islamic law and values in Egypt. Upon receiving the office of president, Morsi’s attempts to derail his country’s new constitution and pursue the full extent of his party’s Islamist agenda proved immediately unpopular, especially with the military establishment, led by General Sisi. Sisi’s coup months later heralded a return to domestic stability and preached a doctrine of Egyptian nationalism to oppose the Muslim Brotherhood’s radical Islamism. The military is often any nation’s strongest point of national pride, and in Egypt, where disrespecting the long-standing military has been unthinkable for decades, this was certainly the case. For many Egyptians, Sisi was (and remains) a true patriot: a former general who restored order to a country plagued by civil unrest. With billions spent on showy military and infrastructure projects, many suggest that Sisi now aims to depict himself as the ideological descendant of President Nasser, the Egyptian nationalist who overthrew Egypt’s monarchy in 1952.

While other nationalists around the world and throughout history have praised their nations’ cultures and histories, Sisi’s nationalism has little to do with cultural pride and everything to do with political solidarity. He has no genuine interest in Egypt’s ethnic or cultural history, only in wrapping his corrupt regime in the cloak of nationalism. Take Pharaonism, a nationalist movement in post-colonial 20th century Egypt. Pharaonists were anti-colonials who believed that post-war Egypt should be founded as a secular ethnic nation of Egyptians, not Arabs, reviving the region’s ancient history, language, and culture to distinguish Egypt from the rest of the Arab world. But in contrast, Sisi has met international rebuke for his careless treatment of Egyptian antiquities and monuments. Pharaonism or anything like it is entirely absent from Sisi’s regime. During his seven years in office, Sisi has cozied himself up to other regional autocrats and stolen from their playbooks, turning his people against foreign “subversives” and domestic “insurgents.” His regime has persecuted domestic opposition groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and foreign journalists and aid workers. Human Rights Watch says that, “Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government, Egypt has been experiencing its worst human rights crisis” in decades. From 2011-2013, el-Sisi’s soldiers massacred anti-military protestors and carried out attacks on Egypt’s most prominent minority group, Coptic Christians. As recently as 2020, el-Sisi was thrust prominently into the global spotlight after his regime detained humanitarian workers, and the Italian government officially accused Sisi’s security forces of involvement in the 2015 murder of an Italian researcher in Cairo.

To hear it from Sisi, these flagrant exploits in self-preservation are acts of patriotism that will ensure the stability and security of the Egyptian nation. To question that truth is unthinkable. This brand of nationalism is weak; it carries little ideological weight. Even if Egyptians reject Pharaonism’s romantic musings, the Muslim Brotherhood once offered a model for Egyptian nationalism with a practical, yet still ideological, approach, before the organization was forced underground. Instead of seizing on ancient Egyptian culture, the people of Egypt could acknowledge the current reality, that Egypt is an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, and build a just, Muslim nation from the ground-up in complete defiance of the corrupt gulf monarchies. Of course, we’ll never know if this ideology would have panned out without 2013’s coup d’état: Would Morsi have proven a just leader? Perhaps a benevolent dictator? What’s certain is that Sisi has rejected both the Pharaonistic and Islamic approach to Egyptian nationalism and hopes that if he continues to present himself as the Egyptian saviour, no one will question his rule. Lest they be unpatriotic. 

Beyond his military power, perhaps the reason Sisi could so easily grab power was that in 2013 there was no shared picture of what post-Mubarak Egypt would, should, or could look like. Pro-democracy reformers were at odds with the Muslim Brotherhood who were at odds with the military. There wasn’t a clear national image, and the man with the biggest stick – in this case, the man with the most American-made missiles and assault rifles – assumed power. Today, Sisi champions nationalism from Cairo. In his words, he defends Egypt against nefarious insurgents and subversives. But he fails to foster a state of true national pride, something no doubt felt by those under the bootheel of his brutal regime.

The Age of Media: Hyper-Nationalistic Saudi Arabia on the Rise

Nationalism has been, and is, on the rise, in Saudi Arabia. A new nationalism in the country has been transforming domestic politics and foreign policy. The main reason for turning over this new leaf is to expedite the rise of Prince Mohammed bin Salman and back his reform agenda. Bin Salman took to the throne in 2015, and since then, nationalism changed along with the shift in royalty. Author for the European Council on Foreign Relations, Eman Alhussein, states that for decades, “nationalism as an ideology was incompatible with the Kingdom’s dominant religious identity. This identity cemented a sense of unity for the country while legitimising the government through a narrative in which clerics emphasised adherence to the ruler.” Preceding rulers were hesitant in promoting nationalism as they thought it would raise questions about the government’s responsibility and counter Saudia Arabia’s absolute monarchy structure in turn.

Today, Saudi Arabia has developed a new nationalism revolving around and aiming for the rise of younger leadership and to reinforce a radical reform program to return Saudi Arabia back to “moderate Islam” as the Prince likes to phrase it. The influence of Mohammed bin Salman has helped young Saudis, making up almost 51% of the population, who “do not relate to the long-dominant religious atmosphere.” So far, the new nationalism has proven successful, although, loyalty of the citizens has been put to the test. The new approach to nationalism revolves a great deal around balance: balance of the state, religion, the citizens, and nationalism itself. Saudi Arabia has a very diverse population regarding ethnicity and has always been a hindrance in the formation of a unified “sense of national belonging”.

As humans, we tend to want to feel as though we belong to a group, and a strong presence of nationalism aids in that. Mohammed bin Salman has attempted to instill Saudi pride in its citizens by such acts as making it a “point of visiting remote and picturesque sites in the Kingdom, and of making direct links to the core constituencies he is cultivating. The undertakings not only generated funds but also directed the population to examine their potential and capabilities, all with the aim of promoting a sense of pride.” Loyal citizens to the state and country came out of the woodworks because of this.

Aggressive Saudis have taken to the media, which has helped nationalism spread on a wider platform. While this can be viewed as a positive way for Saudis to make their voices heard, writers England and Omran from the Financial Times stated its faults, insinuating that “in an environment where even the hint of dissent can lead to jail, some fear that being called out on social media for the mere appearance of not displaying sufficient loyalty to Prince Mohammed can cost them their reputation and their jobs — even their freedom.” People have been marked as “traitors” for even just assuming to be against the government, and with social media involved, the backlash can be and has been detrimental to some. Anything posted on the internet can eventually be found, and information can be dug up just to create a target towards someone if they are suspected of disrespecting and not supporting the Saudi government. Going hand in hand with nationalism, the new narrative for Saudi Arabia is one that is populist.

The media is directly linked to the rise in nationalism for Saudi Arabia. With the newer rise to power, the plan to inspire unity was sure to change slightly. Time has only proven that with Mohammed bin Salman in authority, his power has led to and resulted in hyper-nationalism. Combined with the internet and passionate citizens, nationalism has been destructive in some ways, and has villainized those who do not support the Saudi government fully. By extension, the new plan to instill nationalism in Saudis has led to hyper-nationalism today.