Arab states

Pandemic shines a light on the Gulf's three-way split

With Ramadan over and coronavirus hopefully on the wane, Bader Al-Saif takes a look at how divisions dating back to the June 2017 blockade of Qatar shaped the region's contrasting approaches to political messaging and public health in a time of both crisis and observance

As the coronavirus pandemic raged, Ramadan and other religious events around the world were transformed. While upending daily life across the Middle East, the pandemic’s impact during the Muslim holy month also amplified policy divergences among the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, exacerbating a three-way split that dates back to the summer of 2017.

Religious policy has apparently become the latest arena for GCC states to reaffirm their affinities. Ramadan and the pandemic could have offered opportunities for reconciliation, yet neither brought the clashing parties closer together in a conflict now entering its fourth year.

Ramadan proved an opportune moment for Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to continue using Islam to advance their soft power. Of the three states, only the UAE kept its mosques closed during the holy month. However, its two-year-old Emirates Fatwa Council flexed its muscles by issuing five fatwas, ranging from exempting medical workers from the fast to calling for prayers at home.

You may also like: Qatar diplomatic crisis – Playing the waiting game

Capitalising on the pontiff's visit

The UAE also tied its Ramadan pandemic policy to its recent focus on tolerance and interfaith dialogue. Capitalising on the historic first visit of a pope to Abu Dhabi and the region in February 2019, the Higher Committee on Human Fraternity tasked with following up on the visit declared that May 14 would be a global day of prayer.

The event was endorsed and attended by Pope Francis and representatives of several international organisations, scoring yet another win for the UAE by reinforcing its global religious outreach.

Other combined Ramadan-pandemic events connected to the country’s humanitarian and happiness policies. Sheikha Fatima, the “Mother of the Nation”, launched an online Ramadan “optimism campaign” to support those stressed by the pandemic. The UAE’s vice president announced a campaign that aims to deliver 10 million meals to the needy, bringing home the UAE’s global humanitarian diplomacy.

The UAE also dropped contentious Ramadan programming such as that of the late Syrian scholar Mohammed Shahrour. Yet Saudi Arabia improved on this strategy by holding up a less controversial religious figure, Mohammed al-Issa, who in 2016 was appointed to the Muslim World League, alongside his reappointment to the Council of Senior Scholars.

A most proper custodian

Issa’s daily programme, Billati Hiya Ahsan (“Righteous Deeds”), airs on Saudi broadcaster MBC and promulgates Saudi Arabia’s revamped religious message. He has spoken on the show about the brotherhood of Sunnis and Shias and the need to open up to other religions – messages that reflect the resolve of Saudi leadership to carry this message forward, despite the challenges posed by the pandemic and economic recession.

Saudi Arabia also increased its budget to fund the annual breaking of the fast for 1 million Muslims in eighteen countries. Saudi Arabia initially mandated closures of mosques, as had the UAE. But a few days later King Salman reversed course, announcing that Mecca and Medina’s mosques would officially remain open for the seasonal Ramadan taraweeh prayer, though with severely limited access. This change in policy indicated the kingdom’s overriding concern about its leadership of the two holy mosques and its image as their most proper custodian.

The mark of Sunni

Bahrain distinguished itself by being the first Arab state to declare the opening of its Al-Fateh Grand Mosque during Ramadan for evening, taraweeh, and Friday prayers, while maintaining social distancing and limiting worship to five people at a time. Continuing services in the state’s official mosque – a Sunni institution in a Shia-majority country – allowed the kingdom to reinforce its official Sunni stamp.

This was a safe strategy to follow because Shias do not conduct taraweeh prayers, thereby muting the potential criticism of opening a Sunni mosque but not Shia equivalents, which went virtual for Ramadan events.

Among the region’s countries taking the hardest economic hit from the pandemic, Bahrain eased its restrictions on retail and industry during Ramadan and into Eid ul-Fitr, with the hope of speeding its economic recovery. Similarly, Saudi and Emirati authorities relaxed curfew hours and allowed select stores to re-open during Ramadan, even as infections were on the rise.

Oman and Kuwait, neutral states during the Gulf rift, took a more cautious approach to the pandemic throughout Ramadan than Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. They kept mosques closed and declined to loosen curfews to accommodate the holy month. Rather, restrictions increased.

Kuwait’s Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs Ministry innovated by creating a free mobile app, Ramadan in Your Home, to ensure that people remain engaged under the curfew. Oman also continued religious programming across its traditional media outlets.

You may also like: Ramadan during coronavirus – with a virtual community

A celebration of resilience

At the heart of the Gulf rift is Qatar, whose tensions with its neighbours in many ways boil down to their similarities. Qatar has its own strategy for putting itself on the global map, however, just as it had for Ramadan during the pandemic – one that combined elements of Kuwait and Oman’s approach with those of the other GCC states.

Like Bahrain, Qatar kept its state mosque open for select prayers. Like similar programmes in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Qatar Charity launched a nearly $3 million Ramadan campaign that targeted over 2 million people, both within Qatar and abroad.

 

 
 
But Qatar’s religious soft power was not able to compete with that of its neighbours during Ramadan, especially with the retirement of Sunni reformist theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi due to old age and the receding popularity of Qatar-sponsored Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan amid several rape allegations.
 
Like Kuwait and Oman, Qatar did not use Ramadan as an opportunity to re-open its economy. But it has used the moment to mark the third anniversary of the GCC rift and to celebrate its resilience. Countries on both sides have kept up their war of words, with the Qataris fomenting anti-Saudi sentiment on Al-Jazeera after the death in Saudi custody of imprisoned academic Abdullah al-Hamid while Saudi Arabia organised a disinformation campaign about a coup in Qatar.
 
Crises and spiritual events have long been a platform for the GCC states to advance their interests and public relations campaigns. For some, therefore, the combination of the two during the coronavirus pandemic and Ramadan was a blessing.
 
Bader Al-Saif
 
 
Bader Mousa Al-Saif is a non-resident fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, where his research focuses on the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula.
More on this topic