Arab rivals compete for influence in Egypt

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WASHINGTON -- Two of the Persian Gulf's richest monarchies on Tuesday pledged $8 billion in cash and loans to Egypt, a decision that was aimed not only at shoring up a shaky transitional government but also at undermining their Islamist rivals and strengthening their allies across a newly turbulent Middle East.

The robust financial aid package announced by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates came a day after the Egyptian military killed dozens of Muslim Brotherhood members protesting last week's military ouster of Egypt's Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi. The aid package underscored a continuing regional contest for influence between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, one that has accelerated since the Arab uprising upended the status quo and brought Islamists to power.

Qatar, in alliance with Turkey, has given strong financial and diplomatic support to the Muslim Brotherhood but also to other Islamists operating on the battlefields of Syria and, before that, Libya. The Saudis and Emiratis, by comparison, have sought to restore the old, authoritarian order, fearful that Islamist movements and calls for democracy would destabilize their own nations.

The Saudis and Emiratis were nearly buoyant at the military's move to oust Mr. Morsi. Both are hostile to the Brotherhood's Islamist-cum-democratic agenda, which they see as a threat both to their own monarchical legitimacy and to regional stability. Qatar, by contrast, provided about $8 billion in aid to Mr. Morsi's government during his yearlong tenure, and Turkey offered loans of $2 billion.

The tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia are older and broader than the Arab uprisings that began in 2011. Saudi Arabia, which prefers to work its checkbook diplomacy quietly and behind the scenes, sees itself as the regional leader. But the Qataris for years have fashioned an outsized foreign policy, often rebuffing Saudi Arabia's perceived interests, using its wealth and Al Jazeera, the television network it built, to play a decisive role in some of the region's most volatile and important events.

Qatar, host to the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East, has also eagerly funded Islamists in Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Egypt, often siding with the Muslim Brotherhood or its affiliates, such as Hamas. Qatar angered the Saudis (and the Obama administration) by supporting Islamist rebels in Syria and providing some heavier weapons, such as shoulder-fired missiles, against U.S. advice.

Qatari officials declined to comment on the rivalry. But one Qatari official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Qatar's financial aid in the past had been to the Egyptian people, not any individual figure or party.

Some analysts say Qatar has already begun to rein in its aggressive and eclectic foreign policy, which has included a willingness to engage with Iran that infuriated its Saudi neighbors. Last week, Qatar's government joined Saudi Arabia and others in issuing a message of support to the transitional government installed by the Egyptian military, even as its allies in the Brotherhood protested furiously against what they called a military coup.

"It's starting to look as if the Qataris have ceased playing the role of troublemaker and freelancer in the region, and falling in behind the Saudis," said Peter Harling, an adviser with the International Crisis Group. "Events are allowing the Saudis to assume a regional leadership role that no one else can play right now."

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