Gulf states at odds over Syria war

By James Longman
BBC News

image captionKuwait has so far maintained a position of neutrality in the Syrian conflict, focusing its efforts on donating aid

As sectarian loyalties and foreign powers push Syria deeper into its bloody conflict, it has also exposed the competing interests of Gulf States, some of which have large stakes in the war.

The sectarian nature of Syria's conflict is not just played out on the battlefield, but in the calculations of wealthy Gulf powers: the Sunni monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula are acutely aware of the opportunity in Syria to remove a Shia leader in Bashar al-Assad.

But while they share this mutual interest in removing Mr Assad, their usually co-ordinated response is being severely tested, as respective Gulf leaders pursue different paths.

Qatar openly supports the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and is thought to provide money and arms to many different groups inside Syria - including al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra.

Saudi Arabia meanwhile has been chiefly concerned about Iran's role, and has been much more cautious, choosing instead to back its own carefully selected groups so as not to help Islamists that may pose a threat to its own security.

Bahrain, conscious of its own majority Shia population that has rattled the leadership with months of clashes, has taken a more conciliatory tone, calling on Iran to withdraw its support for Assad, but hoping that a "new page" could be opened with the country following its recent presidential election.

image captionQatar is thought to provide money and arms to many different groups inside Syria

Kuwait's position has until now been one of neutrality, but the ancient tribal networks that link it with Syria, and concerns about extremists in the country, means it too has had to tread more carefully, focusing instead on aid efforts.

These different approaches to the crisis reflect the different priorities and concerns inside each country.

It is the same Sunni-Shia divide leaving scores dead in Syria that colours Gulf responses to Syria's war.

The most active of all the Gulf states has been Qatar because it is not concerned about the consequences of its foreign policy on its domestic stability.

Its internal dynamics are not being rocked by sectarian divides, and the dangers of political Islam and religious extremism are much more acute elsewhere in the Gulf.

Qatar also need not worry about placating or managing an angry Shia population as the Saudis or Bahrainis do.

Aid shortfall

But the active role some of these Gulf States have taken in trying to remove President Assad and their financial and political commitments to the opposition, seem at odds with their commitment to UN aid efforts.

An international aid conference in January, hosted by Kuwait, saw the US, European countries and a number of Gulf states pledge a total of $1.5bn (£985m) to help the millions of Syrians forced from their homes.

But while most Western pledges have been made - and were added to at the G8 summit last month - Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE are among the Gulf States who have yet to meet their targets.

According to the UN, Qatar has donated just $2.8m of the $100m it pledged in January, while only $23m of the $78m Saudi Arabia promised has so far materialised.

Kuwait's minister of state for cabinet affairs Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah al Sabah called on his neighbour states to contribute the promised funds.

He told the BBC Kuwait was "honoured" to have met its $300m target, and that he was "sure our Gulf brothers will be at the forefront of this call to honour their pledges also."

Sheikh Mohammad insisted his country remained neutral on the issue of arming Syria's rebels. "We are apolitical," he said. "We have been apolitical since the start of this crisis. We are not for or against arming."

He refused to be drawn on Qatar's more aggressive policy, making clear that Qatar is "an integral member of the GCC," adding that Kuwaitis "are very close to our Qatari brothers."

But Sheikh Mohammad warned that violence will continue as long as Syria remained a "theatre" for regional power games.