Argument

Making Qatar an Offer It Can't Refuse

Saudi Arabia is setting new terms in the Gulf’s relationship with its wayward neighbor. But will Doha bridle at the deal?

The Arab states of the Gulf have launched a new plan to resolve their most serious diplomatic crisis in four decades. Last week, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar agreed on a framework meant to patch up the other Gulf states' disagreements with Qatar on a range of regional political issues. The deal was designed to reverse the collapse in relations early last month, when Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Manama recalled their ambassadors from Doha in protest of Qatari policies that they deemed threatening to regional security. The public move was a sign of how serious the crisis had become in the Gulf states, where differences are customarily resolved behind closed doors.

Qatar agreed to a list of demands made by its three neighbors that, if Doha fully complies, will deal a heavy blow to the Muslim Brotherhood across the region. But Gulf capitals are skeptical whether Doha will make good on its promises: After all, if Doha fulfills the terms of the agreement, it will mean the reversal of a decade's worth of strenuous and expensive efforts to create a web of influence across the Middle East and North Africa.

The public statement that accompanied the agreement only referred vaguely to an understanding that no member state's foreign policy should undermine the other members' "interests, security and stability." Leaks about the agreement suggested that Doha had agreed to expel Muslim Brotherhood members from the country and stop Al Jazeera from referring to the removal of former President Mohamed Morsi from power in July as a coup. But according to the document itself, the deal's terms are far more wide-ranging and complex than what has been revealed so far.

One of the three countries' demands is for Qatar to rein in media outlets that criticize and attack the Gulf states. This applies to media outlets "inside and outside Doha" and which are supported by Qatar "directly or indirectly." The document makes no mention of stopping Al Jazeera from referring to the Morsi ouster as a "coup" -- which the station does regularly -- although it might have been discussed during officials' meetings. Qatar is said to have funded a plethora of media outlets run by Islamists throughout the region, including Rabaa TV, a channel run from Turkey by Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members.

The document also stipulates that Qatar will expel Brotherhood members currently living in Doha. The document does not specify Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood -- rather, the focus has been on the expulsion of 15 members from the Arabian Peninsula -- five Emiratis, two Saudis, six Bahrainis, and two Yemenis. A previous version of the draft stated that Doha would "abstain" or "no longer support" the Muslim Brotherhood or the Houthis in Yemen, but Doha insisted that the wording implied that it had supported these two groups in the past. The wording was then changed to "Doha will not support" the Muslim Brotherhood or the Houthis, a formulation to which Doha agreed.

The three countries accused Doha of supporting the Houthis, a Shiite insurgent group that is reportedly supported by Iran, to sabotage the Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered deal for a political transition in Yemen, according to one Gulf official. Qatar pulled out of the negotiations to reach the deal, which eventually resulted in longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh relinquishing power in February 2012. The Houthis have long proven to be a thorn in the Saudis' side: They have endured several military campaigns by Riyadh, including a major Saudi offensive in 2009 led by former Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Sultan.

Another key part of the deal would bring about an end to Doha's naturalization of Gulf citizens, mostly opposition and Islamist figures. Gulf officials believe that Qatar actively supports these figures both financially and politically -- several UAE and Saudi Islamists are allegedly using Qatari passports to travel in Europe and in the region, according to a source. In 2012, Ahmed Mohammed al-Ahmari, a well-known Saudi Islamist, created a firestorm in Saudi Arabia after he announced that he was retracting his Saudi citizenship for a Qatari one. In an interview, he said that he was approached by the Qataris to grant him citizenship because of his status as an intellectual.

Ahmari is also a staunch critic of the Saudi political and religious establishment. He accused Saudi Salafism of "bringing idolatry to Islam" due to its ideological doctrine counseling obedience to the legitimate ruler. On Twitter last year, he posted a picture of donkeys contentedly drinking water with a quote attributed to the founder of Saudi Arabia reading: "I will make you a great nation that lives in prosperity far greater than that enjoyed by your ancestors."

Qatar has benefited from Islamists such as Ahmari because they have formed a political network across the region that can be called on when needed. For example, according to a source close to Syrian Islamists, Doha has asked an influential Libyan cleric based in Qatar to help form a large rebel coalition in Syria. Instead of being directly involved, Doha often designates such figures to bring together individuals or groups to form alliances in the region.

Coinciding with the push against Qatar to halt support for Islamists, Saudi Arabia is moving actively against the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. According to a Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander in northern Syria, FSA groups backed by Saudi Arabia and the United States are being asked to assimilate more factions into their ranks -- but to steer clear of those close to the Brotherhood. According to another Syrian source, a Gulf-backed plan also aims to boot the Muslim Brotherhood from the opposition's political and military councils.

While some articles have reported that the Gulf states are demanding Qatar shutter Al Jazeera and local branches of international research centers in Doha, the reconciliation document makes no mention of these demands -- nor would Qatar likely agree to them.

The demands to which Doha has agreed were the same demands it had rejected before the Gulf ambassadors' withdrawal last month. Amid Qatar's refusal to sign the document, the three countries threatened to escalate, reportedly considering trade sanctions and closing their airspace and land borders with the emirate. Influential Gulf writers even suggested that military action was not off the table. After Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiya signed the deal on Thursday, the Gulf countries will now give Doha a two-month "probation period" for compliance before sending back their envoys.

For Saudi Arabia, many of these sticking points in its relationship with Qatar are not new. But this time, Riyadh is adamant that it will continue to escalate the conflict with its much smaller neighbor if Doha does not come around to its point of view. For Qatar, however, any major compromise will be costly for its regional standing. It remains to be seen how these divergent interests will be reconciled.

YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Venezuela's Middle Ground

Critics charge that Venezuela's anti-government protesters almost exclusively represent the middle class. The reality is more complicated -- and revealing.

One of the most commonly heard criticisms of the cycle of student protests that erupted in Venezuela in February 2014 is that they draw too lopsidedly from the "middle class." In the words of the president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, protesters have received "no support in poor and working-class neighborhoods."

The claim that the protesters are "too middle class" implies a double criticism. The first is about values: The protesters are imputed to be embracing values that are somewhat elitist, or at least, unpopular among the bulk of Venezuelans, the so-called popular classes. The second is about politics: The protesters have failed to expand their political coalition. They remain circumscribed to a mere quarter of the population.

These criticisms deserve closer scrutiny. Venezuela has been classified as an "upper middle-income" country for decades. Furthermore, the government claims that the country has seen an expansion in the size of the middle class since 2004. In that case, observing that the protests are too middle class seems unworthy of note: What else would one expect from such a country? If there were going to be discontent, especially about governance issues, it would come from the middle classes.

Data based on official figures certainly shows that the middle classes have expanded since the early 2000s, though less dramatically than the government typically claims. Chart 1, below, shows the distribution of classes in Venezuela, broken down into five categories: poor, low middle classes, middle classes, upper middle classes, and rich, following World Bank definitions. As it shows, the distribution of classes today is very different than it was prior to 2006. The most vulnerable income classes -- the poor and the low middle classes (yellow and green cells) -- now comprise a much smaller sector of the population. (For more information on how this chart was created, please see the appendix.)


The distribution of classes today is distinct from that of previous years in which Venezuela experienced explosions of social unrest. In 1990, for instance, the year after the start of violent anti-government protests that took the lives of dozens, approximately 40 percent of Venezuelans fell in the vulnerable categories (mostly poor). As would be expected, in 1989, the majority of protesters came from low-income groups -- that was a sizeable segment of the population back then. In 2001-2002, the period of heaviest unrest under President Hugo Chávez, the vulnerable population still represented between 40 and 50 percent of Venezuelan society.

But by 2012, the proportion of poor was smaller: only one decile.  Two formerly poor deciles, on average, had entered the lower middle class. One could argue that the size of the middle might have shrunk since 2012 due to the severe deterioration of the economy since 2012. But even assuming the worst economic conditions for 2013-2014, the distribution of classes in Venezuela today would not look as dismal as in the pre-2007 period.

Not everyone, of course, agrees that the middle classes have thrived in Venezuela. In fact, the expansion of the middle classes occurred during only the 2004-2006 period. Despite the continuation of the oil boom, progress in poverty reduction and middle class expansion stagnated in 2007-2012, ironically during the heyday of chavismo. And despite its mostly middle-income status, the quality of life in Venezuela is dismal due to governance failures: inflation, scarcity, crime, infrastructure dilapidation, and overall poor public sector services. A new index of "social progress," which ranks countries according to development outcomes across social, health, and environmental factors, shows that Venezuela falls well below what you would expect given its GDP per capita.

Yet even those who contend that the official rhetoric on poverty reduction is hyperbolic and official figures opaque must still recognize that, by world standards, Venezuela is a nation of mostly middle-class people.

And in displaying middle-class-led protests, Venezuela is actually not alone. Middle classes have expanded in most middle-income countries of the developing world since 2003. That is one reason that the major protests of the last five years -- in Brazil, Chile, Egypt, Iran, Russia, Thailand, Turkey, and Ukraine -- have been led by middle classes. When governments falter on questions of governance and political representation, as the Venezuelan government has, the middle classes are prone to take note and take to the streets.

Furthermore, there are important factors in Venezuela depressing the incidence of protests in poor sectors. Under the ruling party's populist model, the state has a comparative advantage in establishing links of economic dependence with individuals in vulnerable income categories. The state provides most economic goods in those neighborhoods, while simultaneously undermining the private sector's ability to provide jobs (through anti-business regulations) and affordable retail products (by creating inflation). More, perhaps, than in other countries, Venezuela's vulnerable segments cannot afford dissent.

And Venezuela isn't just a populist state -- it's also a "Big Brother" state. Organized groups with direct links to the ruling party -- either in the form of communal councils or paramilitary colectivos -- permeate low-income neighborhoods. One of the jobs of these quasi-statist groups is to watch and punish politically incorrect behavior. During recent elections, for example, these government-sponsored groups knew which citizens had not voted and drove around to bring them to voting stations. Overall, the effects of state-dependence and state-led authoritarianism (defined in terms of the degree to which citizens depend on, and are watched by, the ruling party) are more palpable in low-income neighborhoods. This is yet another reason that low-income groups, even disaffected ones, should not be expected to be out protesting in large numbers.

For now, the student protesters have achieved a very high approval rating of 71.4 percent, according to a recent poll. Yet, one could still criticize the Venezuelan protesters for failing to establish strong ties with low-income groups. That's a fair point. But politically, this isn't as serious a problem as it was for protesters in 2002. Back then, the poor comprised a larger proportion of the population, and the failure of protesters to connect with the poor left them far more isolated than they are today. That is one of the reasons why those protests failed.

One could go farther and argue that it is the government, more so than the middle-class protesters, that should worry more about the political behavior of the poor this time around. Low-income groups might not be protesting, but they aren't in the streets defending the government, either. In previous incidents like this, when the government needed political help (during the protests of 2002 and to a lesser extent 2007), it succeeded in mobilizing low-income groups to organize counter-protests. In those years, there was a larger pool of low-income Venezuelans ready to take the streets to defend the government.

Today, this pool has shrunken in size, but also perhaps in intensity of preferences. According to a recent poll, only 19.5 percent of the poorest Venezuelans would take the streets to defend the government if asked by Maduro to do so (see Chart 2). After the rich, the lowest quintile is the least likely group to go out into the streets to defend the government, far below the average for pro-government Venezuelans. It seems, therefore, that the size of passionate ordinary chavistas in low-income groups seems to be in decline. The middle class protesters might have weak ties with the poor, but the government's ties are weak, too.


This withering relationship is one reason that colectivos have taken center stage during the current cycle of protests. In the past, Chávez could have relied on volunteers to go out into the streets to defend the government. Maduro, on the other hand, does not enjoy that loyalty. His government has to resort to paid mercenaries, rather than enthusiast supporters, to carry out counteroffensives. These colectivos, incidentally, have been documented repressing not just the protesters, but also individuals in low-income neighborhoods. No wonder disaffection in poor neighborhoods is increasing.

In conclusion, the middle-class nature of Venezuela's protests should not be surprising. That's the largest share of the population. In fact, when you see the economic winners protesting, you can be sure that something is going deeply wrong. This government -- which claims to derive its key support from poor sectors -- might want to reconsider its accusations and worry a bit more about its own fate. Reconnecting with the poor won't be enough. Delivering better economic conditions for the middle classes won't be enough either. To successfully pacify the country without force, the government will need to end sectarianism and address issues of governance and representation. These are the issues that middle classes, and thus the majority of Venezuelans, care about.

JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images