Qatar’s Strategy in the Middle East

18.04.2017

Qatar is a sovereign country situated at the northeastern coastal Arabian Peninsula, sharing only land border with Saudi Arabia to its south. Despite being a smaller country in geographical terms, Qatar exercises profound political and economic clout in regional and international politics owing to its diversified foreign policy and third largest reserves of oil and gas.

Qatar’s role as a regional economic and political power from a relatively medieval, tribal state began in 1995 when the former emir of Qatar, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al-Thani, was deposed by none other than his own son, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, in a coup d’etat when the father Sheikh was vacationing in Swiss Alps. Sheikh Hamad, the son, left his father a simple telephone message: “Don’t Come Back.” Upon taking the throne, the new Emir of Qatar introduced various reforms to liberalize country’s culture and economy and develop a diverse foreign policy approach towards Middle East and the world and integrating his country more with international finance and political dispensation.

Qatar has adopted a very delicate posture towards its foreign relations in regards with regional and international actors, a balancing act which until now played an important role to raise Qatar’s international profile as a regional power broker and an indispensable nation in regional power dynamics. On one hand Qatar supported monetarily Islamists movements like Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood and on the other hand it enjoys cordial relationships with Europe and U.S.

Kristen C. Ulrichsen, a fellow at Baker Institute and author of Qatar and the Arab Spring, in his book identifies five fundamental elements which are essential for Qatar’s regional and international rapport – establishment and sustaining of Al-Jazeera, developing tourism, placement of Doha as an educational and cultural hub, hosting of international sporting events, and presenting itself as an environmental-friendly country.

Qatar emerged as the regional power broker in 2006 with Israel’s war in Lebanon which resulted in Doha Agreement. Since then Qatar’s regional clout grew considerably. Owing to its enormous economic wealth, political stability and information capabilities and, to some extent an apolitical populace, Qatar played an unparalleled role in 2011 Arab Spring in which Al-Jazeera positioned itself as the voice of the revolutionaries of Syria and Libya. While Saudi Arabia was preoccupied in quashing anti-government movements in Yemen and Bahrain and other Gulf Monarchies were embroiled in internal political crises, Qatar saw an opportunity in this regional crises to emerge as a formidable political actor and expand its political clout from Morocco to Syria.

Qatar-based Al-Jazeera played a significant role in Arab Spring when it airwave political opposition to the regimes in Syria, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere to regional and international communities and channelizing support for the revolutionaries through broadcast media. Qatar by its policy of supporting and sponsoring dissent enraged the embattled regimes including Syria’s Bashar Ul-Assad, who expelled Khalid Meshal, Political Leader of Hamas, from Damascus following which Hamas Political Leadership found sanctuary in Doha.

Subsequently, Qatar, alongside Turkey, increased its investment of political capital in Islamist movements - Hamas in Gaza and Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt - to expand its influence and cement its imprint in the Middle Eastern balance of power and place the geographically tiny Arab country as a formidable power broker and political player. This increasing diplomatic foothold caused unease in several Gulf Monarchies but Western powers, notwithstanding Qatar’s political proclivities towards Islamists movements, chose to overlook its role for their own strategic interests.

As regional Gulf monarchs were engaged in placating and suppressing political dissent, Qatar proactively pursued its interests in multilateral forums like Arab League and United Nations to make a case against Libya’s authoritarian regime even going so far as to actively participating in the military intervention in Libya, an adoption of policy in exchange of which Qatar earn security, political and economic benefits from U.S. and Europe. Reasons behind Western powers overlooking of Qatar’s duplicity may lie in economic and political complexities.

With a sovereign wealth fund of 85 ($bn), Qataris have cash to spend and as Europe emerges from economic crises it sought private investment. Moreover, Qataris also spend opulently in Great Britain’s real estate. For instance they own London’s tallest Skyscraper, the Shard, and the Harrods, London’s exclusive fashionable store. European Union designated Hamas as a terrorist organization but Europeans have a tendency for dialogue and cherish the notions of dialogue with opposing parties thus Qatar’s engagement with Hamas don’t seem to bother them much.

On the other side of the Atlantic, U.S. has a multifaceted strategic relationship with Qatar – which houses U.S. Central Command forward headquarters. U.S. support for Dr. Morsi government in Egypt and its nuclear agreement with Iran infuriated Gulf Sheikhdoms and introduced incendiary sentiments into its relationships with Gulf Monarchies. Thus, under President Obama, Qatar continues to be an Arab-friendly nation to U.S. interests.

But Qatar’s political support to revolutionaries in Syria and western-leaning postures put it at odds with another regional power – Iran.

Qatar’s political investment in Islamists movements came crashing down when Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi, the-then chief of staff of Egyptian Armed Forces, launched a coup d’etat against Muhammad Morsi, Muslim Brotherhood’s elected president of Egypt, in the aftermath of Egypt’s 2011 revolution. Since assuming power, President Sisi ordered the destruction of tunnels in Gaza Strip which borders Egypt and which were used by Hamas for transfer finance and arms. This exacerbated tensions of Egypt, and other Gulf Monarchies who support Sisi, with Qatar. In 2014, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador in Qatar citing Qatar’s interference in internal affairs of KSA. Other Gulf Monarchies followed suit including Egypt and Bahrain. 

However, as of late-2014, Qatar moderated its foreign policy positions and eight months of diplomatic altercation with its Gulf Neighborhood came to end as KSA alongside other Gulf countries send their ambassadors back to Doha. Thus normalizing their relationship with Qatar. In early 2015, Doha also joined the Saudi-led effort to dislodge Houthi rebels from government in Yemen.

Meanwhile, Qatar welcomed the nuclear agreement between Iran and the Western powers and pursue strategic partnership with Iran by signing a security agreement to protect the two countries boundary waters. Qatar seeks to expand its cooperation with Iran, eyeing an economic partnership in natural gas as soon as sanctions lift up according to nuclear agreement.

Qatar is seemingly restarting its balancing act in its foreign relations and setting its goals in accordance with the changing power dynamics in Middle East and world over. Qatar has out smarted the major players of Middle East such as Saudi Arabia and other gulf countries and has proven itself to be a an economic power to be dealt with.