Qatar’s Emir Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani this week called for the
deployment of Arab troops in Syria. The intention of this deployment, the emir
said, would be to “stop the killing” by the Assad regime of its
The proposal grabbed headlines throughout the regional media.
It has, however, little hope of practical application. Syria immediately and
unambiguously rejected it.
An Arab intervention would need the approval
of the Syrian authorities or the backing of the UN Security Council. Neither are
likely to be forthcoming.
There is also a large question mark over the
likely effectiveness of such a deployment. The Arab observer force currently in
Syria has utterly failed to make an impact. Arab troops have no experience in
the kind of peace-keeping role that engagement in Syria would require and would
be likely to fare little better. Qatar itself, meanwhile, has an army of only
11,800 men and so would be unlikely to substantially contribute to such a
Yet for all that, the emir’s statement does cast light on a less
noted but nevertheless vital aspect of the Arab upheavals of the last year.
Namely – the crucial, agenda-setting, not always visible, not always predictable
role played by Qatar in a number of key arenas.
In the face-off between
Iran and its allies, and the US-led regional bloc over the last half-decade,
Qatar has sought to play an independent role.
Refusing to conform to the
overtly anti-Iranian stance of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and
others, Doha sought to position itself equidistantly between the blocs and to
mediate between them.
The main fruit of this effort was the brokering by
Qatar of the 2008 deal between Hezbollah and the rival March 14 movement in
Substantively, that agreement represented the surrender of the
pro-Western forces in Lebanon to the pro-Iranian ones. But it was also an
indication of the vaulting ambition of Qatar. By brokering the agreement, Qatar
announced its arrival as a major player in intra-Arab diplomacy.
events of the Arab Spring were tailor-made to further increase the influence of
Qatar. In addition to its financial muscle – based on one of the world’s largest
reserves of natural gas – the main asset possessed by Doha is the Al Jazeera
Al Jazeera is the oldest and most popular of
region-wide Arabic satellite channel.
As uprisings broke out in Tunis,
Cairo, Libya and the cities and towns of Syria, A l Jazeera positioned itself as
the voice of Arab revolt, offering early and uncompromising support for the
downfall of the leaders in all three countries.
But Qatar’s role has gone
far beyond setting the media tone. In Libya, the Qataris provided more than
20,000 tons of weapons, military training and reputedly millions of dollars of
aid to Islamist rebels fighting to bring down the Gaddafi regime.
spearheaded Arab League efforts to push the UN toward establishing a no-fly
They have since maintained close links with the Islamist circles to
whom their aid was directed.
Among their most prominent beneficiaries is
Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a former leader of the al-Qaida linked Libyan Islamic
In Egypt, Qatar is reported by a number of reliable
sources to have heavily backed the Muslim Brotherhood movement in the recent
parliamentary elections. In addition to this unseen leverage, Doha offers a home
and a media platform to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Doha-based Egyptian Muslim
Brotherhood preacher. Qaradawi is seen by many as the single most influential
Sunni Islamist voice in the region.
In Syria, the regime has furiously
accused Qatar of backing and financing the Free Syrian Army, a military
organization composed largely of Syrian army deserters. It is impossible to
verify or refute this claim, but it would be in line with Qatari activity in
Libya last year. What is certain is that Doha has been among the most vociferous
of Assad’s opponents since the outbreak of the uprising against him.
has earned the emirate the undying enmity of the Syrian dictator and his
supporters. Al Jazeera has long been banished from the country, and has become a
particular target for the vitriol of the pro-Assad element in the Syrian
What does all this add up to? Qatar, which has only 300,000
citizens and a total population of around 1.5 million, is never going to be the
leader of a regional bloc. As the host of one of the largest US air bases in the
region, and simultaneously the joint developer, with Iran, of the massive South
Pars natural gas field, neither is it ever going to clearly opt for one or other
of the existing blocs currently competing for dominance in the Middle
Rather, Qatar, like Saudi Arabia, is rich enough and strategically
well-placed enough not to need to resolve its contradictions. It is set to
preserve good relations with the West while simultaneously acting as midwife and
backer for the Sunni Islamist regimes being born out of the Arab Spring. For
good measure, the emir is also striving to maintain cordial relations with Iran
– he last visited Tehran in August of last year.
Qatar’s vast wealth and
large non-citizen population render it probably immune from the kind of tensions
that led elsewhere to the revolts of 2011. It can thus happily maintain
authoritarian rule at home, while demanding free elections and political rights
for everyone else.
Without the Arab Spring, Qatari pretensions to
diplomatic importance might have remained as something of a curiosity, a
distraction from the serious business of the US vs Iran cold war. The eclipse of
the military-nationalist dictators in the Arab world has changed all
Doha is backing Sunni Islamists in Libya, Egypt and Syria to
replace them. The tiny emirate is thus playing a center-stage role in birthing a
new age in the politics of the Arab world.