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Qatar piggy-backs on MENA uprisings towards regional ascendancy

Published in The Gulf

By Afro-Middle East Centre

The uprisings that spread across the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region from the beginning of 2011 not only caught global and regional powers unaware, but also upturned seemingly entrenched regimes that had maintained a veneer of strategic stability for western powers. In the ensuing tumult of uprisings that saw a re-shuffling of alliances and power blocs, spaces opened for regional players to jostle to assert their agendas and scramble for ascendancy. In the ensuing scuffle, few would have predicted that tiny Qatar would emerge alongside Iran and Turkey as a significant player. Interestingly, because of the physical diminutiveness of the state with a native population of only 225 000, its strategic influence and potential was previously largely overlooked. This has been to Qatar's advantage, allowing it – and its extensive role in the uprisings – to evade the sort of global scrutiny that its positions and actions might otherwise have attracted.


Qatar's brand of realpolitik

Qatar capitalised on this inconspicuousness, taking advantage of the political vacuum presented by the uprisings, and stormed ahead with an aggressive and ambitious foreign policy without being concerned about receiving too much global attention.

From attempting to play a mediating role in Yemen, to sending troops to quell the popular uprisings in Bahrain, to supporting rebel forces in Libya, Qatar's foreign policy reflected a unique Qatari realpolitik that is infused with Sunni sectarian leanings and Islamist sympathies and the attendant contradictions that inevitably define such a position in a region vied for by global powers. The contradictions embedded in its foreign policy and its seeming ability to straddle all worlds (from Israel and the United States to Iran and Hamas) is what has determined its success and has allowed Qatar to achieve the sort of regional pre-eminence it is currently forging.


To understand the success of Qatar's foreign policy it is critical to look at three important characteristics (aside from Qatar's enormous wealth and its relationship with the US, which are discussed later) that have helped to shape and define it:

  1. Qatar's ability to influence and shape popular opinion and the public narrative;
  2. the establishment of spaces in Qatar for mediation between conflicting groups and movements; and
  3. its hosting of a range of dissident voices from the Middle East and North Africa region and its ability to foster informal dialogue.


Qatar's emergence as a key player in the region can be traced back to the ascendancy to power of the current emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, through a bloodless coup against his father in 1995. Thus began the emergence of a deliberate and determined foreign policy in conjunction with the strategic establishment of what became one of the most influential media networks in the world, the AlJazeera network. The network is ostensibly autonomous but was established as a critical tool for, and is an extension of, Qatar's foreign policy. Through the medium of AlJazeera (its more than a dozen television channels – including the extremely influential Arabic news channel; its Arabic and English websites and the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies) Qatar has been able to influence and shape public perceptions throughout the Arab world and in other parts of the world. For example, AlJazeera helped influence the course of the Egyptian uprising by becoming an important shaper of public perception and a key mobilisation tool against the Hosni Mubarak regime. Considering AlJazeera's strategic role in Qatar's foreign policy, it is unsurprising that the violent repression of peaceful Bahraini protesters received little coverage by the network.


Together with tremendous wealth derived from its gas and oil resources (allowing it to now boast the world's highest GDP per capita), Qatar crafted a foreign policy that sought to assert and establish its autonomy in a volatile region and, in particular, to keep at bay potential threats and ambitions of its neighbour, Saudi Arabia.

In a region where no state is served by irrelevance, Qatar's aim was to make the country – and its autonomy – important to the rest of the world. Acknowledging its limitations, Qatar's foreign policy, initially fashioned out of regional survivalism, took on a hyper-pragmatic, if not consistently contradictory, slant. Not only does Qatar host the enormous US Al Udeid Air force base and is viewed by many as acting as a US proxy, but Qatar is also genuinely sympathetic to Islamists – a matter that is concerning to the US. There is talk of Qatar hosting the Hamas political bureau that recently abandoned its base in Damascus in protest at the Syrian regime's violent crackdown. Qatar will also likely open a political office for the Taliban in order to facilitate Taliban-US talks. This pragmatism has allowed Qatar to fashion itself as a fairly unique mediated space for political engagement between contending forces that would otherwise not engage and enter into dialogue or which would prefer to use the Qatari regime as a proxy for such engagement – as in the case of the US and the Taliban.


Similarly, the past decade has seen Qatar play host to a range of political dissidents, and serving as a refuge for exiles from the MENA region, including dissidents from Tunisia, Algeria, Israel, Egypt and Syria. This has allowed Qatar to occupy a unique position where a range of dissident voices – with their own extensive networks that the state has been able to tap into – have found themselves in the same locale as guests of the same host (the Emir). Examples include Egyptian Islamist scholar Yusuf Qaradawi and former Palestinian Knesset member Azmi Bishara. Both found in Qatar not only a refuge but also a home base for their activism and a hub where they are able to interact with other dissidents. In the case of Bishara, Qatar also funds his Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies. Such a situation has allowed Qatar to facilitate, with a fair degree of ease, unofficial dialogue between important dissident individuals – and, by extension, their organisations and movements, and play a type of intermediary and facilitation role between them. The patronage role has also meant a degree of gratitude from dissident organisations – some of which are poised to take power in their countries, providing distinct opportunities for Qatar.


Initially Qatar relied heavily on its position of strategic ambivalence to assert its foreign policy and sought to position itself as a key mediator in the region, which it did with some success. Whilst still in the early stages of shaping its foreign policy, Qatar acknowledged its limitations and engaged in modest diplomatic endeavours. These mainly included playing mediation roles – which it continues to do. Crucially, this allowed it to insert its influence on the global stage and gain some international clout, within its means. Its mediation successes were based on its perceived neutrality (or, at least, a degree of impartiality that most states are unable to claim) – and its extensive wealth.

Qatar has been involved in mediation efforts, with different degrees of success, in Lebanon, Yemen, Eritrea and Djibouti, and Sudan, to name but a few. More recently, Qatar wedged itself more firmly into the Palestinian issue when, early this February, it played an integral role in the Fatah-Hamas agreement on forming an interim unity government, previously the cause of an impasse between the two organisations.

The MENA uprisings marked a noted departure from this policy of playing mainly a mediating role. Qatar saw increased opportunities for itself and escalated its foreign policy approach to a more overt, proactive, hands-on and aggressive approach.


Qatar is the only member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that has been untouched by popular discontent. The Qatari regime, in fact, recently took steps towards democratisation without there being any demands for these changes from its population. There have been suggestions that this was motivated more by how the regime is looking to be perceived by the international community, particularly in light of its role during the uprisings, than by genuine commitment to democratisation. With a stable and docile domestic front, the country found itself in a position where it was able to exert influence in the region without having to be concerned about an outcry from its public or the threat of contending with a popular uprising on home soil.

Qatar's approach to the uprisings has been characterised by contradictory positions. It actively supported and supports, to different degrees and in different manners, uprisings and armed rebellions in some countries (Egypt, Libya and Syria) but has also played a role in the repression of the democratically-inspired uprising in Bahrain.

The Gulf country has deployed a number of approaches and strategies in its responses to the uprisings: from mediation in Yemen and using AlJazeera to shape popular opinion and mobilise people onto the streets in Egypt, to using its significant influence in the Arab League to ensure that the League backed the controversial United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 (calling for a no-fly zone) in Libya and acted against the Syrian regime (a former Qatari ally turned nemesis). Ever pragmatic, however, Qatar recognises its limitations in acting unilaterally. It has craftily piggy-backed on other countries' agendas and actions in the uprisings in order to assert its own agenda. This is no more evident than in Libya.


With a modest army of 12 000, Qatar cannot militarily act in a unilateral manner against any country in the region. The NATO intervention in Libya opened up a critical opportunity for Qatar to exercise its strategic might – even at a military level. Libya represented Qatar's most involved and controversial role in the regional uprisings. Qatar not only pushed the Arab League to support the NATO-led no-fly zone, but was actively involved in contravening the resolution's exclusion of 'a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory'. Qatar also acted in contravention of the UN arms embargo against Libya. Aside from funding the rebels, Qatar's role included training, supplying of arms (about 20 000 tons of weapons went to Libya from Qatar) and placing Qatari special forces on Libyan soil. Although post-war Libyan oil and gas supplies were a factor, Qatar did not simply become involved to line its already well-lined pockets; its involvement was part of a patient and deliberate strategy of incrementally asserting its dominance in the region.

Qatar contributed virtually its entire air force to take part in NATO-led sorties. Considering that this totalled six planes, the contribution was more symbolic and a display of tokenism than an imperative to the success of the operation. Qatar's role ingratiated it to the West, a position that serves its foreign policy objectives and presents it as a trusted partner in the region. While winning over the West, it was also courting and supporting Islamists coming to power in Tunisia and Egypt.


In the conventional sense, Qatar's role in Syria has been less aggressive than in Libya but it has certainly not been less strategically aggressive. Qatar and its GCC compatriot Saudi Arabia openly called for military intervention in Syria – and have displayed frustration at the unwillingness of other countries to commit to military intervention. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have unambiguously thrown their weight behind the Syrian opposition – including the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an umbrella body for army defectors and other armed groups.

Through the Arab League, Qatar has sought to exert pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and called on him to step down. It ensured that the Arab League suspended Syria and worked with European countries to incorporate an Arab League plan into a UNSC resolution. The plan called on Asad to devolve power to his deputy (a position rejected outright by Asad). The resolution was subsequently vetoed by Russia and China. When it became clear that Asad would not relinquish his hold on power and that diplomatic options did not have the clout to dislodge Asad, Qatar moved to openly back the opposition forces with military support. Additionally, the vetoing of this resolution by Russia and China at the UNSC saw the GCC, no doubt propelled by Qatari, Saudi and US interests, move to recognise the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as the sole and legitimate representative of the Syrian people. This was a step to legitimise funding and providing arms and other logistics to the FSA. Despite the buy-in of Syria's allies – Russia, China and Iran – of the plan brokered by UN and Arab League special envoy to Syria Kofi Annan, the most recent diplomatic initiative on Syria, it seems like it is unravelling even before it has been implemented. With Asad still wielding an unquestionable hold on power, another failed diplomatic initiative will undoubtedly lead to more aggressive Qatari support for the armed opposition forces.

The reasons for Qatar's involvement in Syria are complex, but are consistent with its brand of realpolitik. Despite Syria's being a former ally and Qatar having significant oil investments in Syria, Qatar believes that Asad's government will eventually collapse (despite his having weathered the uprising for just over a year) and is looking to protect its strategic interests with a post-Asad regime.

Qatar also has sympathy for the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood which is a significant component of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) that is looking to end Asad's rule. As in the case of Bahrain, there are also sectarian considerations that need to be considered. Sunni Qatar supports what has ostensibly been presented as a Sunni-dominated uprising in Syria. However, this is an aspect that Qatar would be careful to underplay. Qatar is aware that this could create tension with its Shi'a neighbour Iran (another former ally), which jointly controls the massive gas reserves of the South Pars Gas Field with Qatar. However, deposing Asad would potentially weaken Iran's position in the region and this would, in turn, allow Qatar further to assert its dominance.

Regional proxy of the USA?

To understand how Qatar – with its tiny population and army – has managed to realise its ambitions and assert its might on the region without the threat of a military invasion of its own, one should look at its relationship with the USA. Qatar's non-threatening military position has allowed it to present itself as a mediator, but has also opened it up to the possibility of invasion. With the US need for allies in the region, Qatar's need for military protection and the fact that maintaining a US military presence in Saudi Arabia was becoming costly, the relationship between Qatar and the USA was inevitable. Aside from the US Al Udeid Air force base, Qatar more generally plays the role of a US proxy in the region.

Further, the USA recognises its unpopularity in the region and its image as an imperial force and has deliberately taken a back-seat in the uprisings – realising how its involvement could colour sentiment around external involvement. This does not mean the USA has been uninvolved. Rather, its relationship with Qatar and other allies and proxies has enabled it to use these to assert its influence and agenda. Qatar's position on Libya and Syria undoubtedly reflects that of the US.


Although some have suggested that Qatar may have over-asserted itself and its influence, it appears that it has positioned itself strategically to further exert its dominance. It has ensured its involvement in the uprisings without being on the front-line, managing to camouflage its involvement through multi-lateral engagement. In Libya, Qatar saw the writing on the wall and supported the victorious side and is also supporting Islamist movements coming to power.

Qatar has moved beyond its policy of survivalism to one of regional dominance, challenging its regional rival, Saudi Arabia. Undoubtedly Qatar's courting – and winning over – of the USA and other western powers has also resulted in and undermining of western reliance on Saudi Arabia as one the only trusted ally in the region (apart, of course, from Israel). This has heightened tensions between the two countries, despite their facade of cooperation and improved economic relations.

Qatar's ambition could also see it collide with Iran, with Qatar's unambiguous position on Syria and its involvement in Bahrain. However, it appears that despite these concerns, the tiny state of Qatar, with its ingenious ability to create a sense of impartiality and ride on the efforts of other countries, will continue to exert influence and dominance across the region and the Muslim world.

It is not only at the geo-strategic level, however, that Qatar has great ambitions. Its strategy is to position the small state as a hub and centre for the development of new Islamic scholarship and the origin of a new Muslim intellectual tradition. That is why it has made great effort to attract all kinds of Muslim intellectuals – including some who might not agree with its political policies – from around the world to locate themselves at universities and research institutes in Doha.

Last modified on Thursday, 19 February 2015 14:43