Qatar punches above its weight

By DAVID ROSENBERG / THE MEDIA LINE
January 18, 2012 15:08

Tiny Gulf emirate calls to send troops to Syria in its latest brash maneuver.




Qatar's Ahmed Bin Abdulla Al Mahmoud (R).

Ibrahim Gambari and Qatars Ahmed Mahmoud 311 R. (photo credit: Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / Reuters)

Qatar, a Gulf emirate as rich as it is tiny, brought more than its fair share of diplomatic attention upon itself this week when its leader, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, called for the Arab League to send troops to Syria to stop the government’s deadly crackdown on anti-regime resistance.

It was the first time an Arab leader had publicly backed the idea of deploying troops inside Syria and it provoked an angry reaction from Damascus. But more than anything else it was another display of Qatar’s outsized foreign policy that has carried it as far afield as Libya and Afghanistan as a fighting force, a mediator of disputes and a pacesetter for regime change in the Middle East.

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The emirate has delved deeply into international affairs for several years now. But the Arab Spring has brought it more opportunities than before to play a role and help reshape the Middle East as despots come tumbling down.

“We were all surprised by the comment [about Syria] but it does make sense,” Theodore Karasik, director for research and development at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, told the Media Line. “Qatar has become a foreign policy powerhouse.”

Qatar seems an unlikely candidate for such a role. Its indigenous population numbers less than 300,000 occupying a tiny wedge of land jutting into the Gulf surrounded by much more powerful neighbors, Saudi Arabia and Iran. But Qatar is also wealthy, thanks to vast natural gas reserves that have vaulted it to the world’s richest country on a per capita GDP basis.

Sheik Hamad has spent the money not only showering his people with vast social benefits but raising his country’s profile with Al Jazeera television and by winning the contest to host the 2022 World Cup.

Before he took a leading role on Syria, Sheik Hamad helped bring down Libya strongman Muamar Gaddafi. It was the emir's support that made it possible for the NATO coalition to mount an air campaign that provided critical support to rebels. More than that, Qatar deployed six war planes, gave the rebels millions of dollars of weapons and helped them export oil.

Last month, Afghanistan’s Taliban movement agreed to open an office in Doha as it pursues peace talks with the government of President Hamid Karzai under Qatari auspices. For many years, the emirate has supported peace negotiations in Darfur. In 2007 Qatar sought to find an accommodation between the Houthis and the Yemeni government. 

That implies two big questions: What is Qatar doing it? And why is it doing it?

David Roberts, deputy director of the British-based Royal United Services Institute’s Qatar office, told The Media Line that Sheik Hamad’s diplomatic thrust has political and security logic to it.

”It’s very important for Qatar, sharing a huge gas field with Iran, to make sure the world knows that Qatar is an important country, a  peace-loving country and a country that is known for everything – bringing freedom of speech with Al Jazeera, educating women, brokering a ceasefire in Lebanon and opposing the butchering the Libyan and Syrian people,” he said.

“These things are important in terms of basic security and building a brand for the country,” he said, noting that the Qatar is competing with two other wealthy and ambitious mini-emirates – Abu Dhabi and Dubai – for human talent, capital and influence.

Roberts said ordinary Qataris are proud of the high profile their leader has taken and to some extent bask in the glory of their country being a peacemaker that punches above its weight.

Some analysts say they detect little strategic logic in Sheik Hamad’s strategy, which has backed revolutions bringing down autocrats like himself and offending Saudi Arabia with Al Jazeera’s outspoken coverage and accommodation with Riyadh’s bitter enemy, Iran. But Karasik said the sheikh is indeed moved by a vision of a new Middle East that the Arab Spring is bringing to fruition.

On the Palestinian front, they are also deeply involved in the reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah.

“The Qataris appear to want to reshape the Middle East to a new Arab order,” Karasik said. “Instead of the traditional capitals of Saudi Arabia or Egypt dictating to Arab governments about what the future holds for the region … Qatar sees that in the future power should emanate from the Gulf. It is taking some of the responsibility for some of this.”

That is the logic behind pushing first Gaddafi and now Assad out of office. “From the Qatari point of view, they are seeing the old order melt away and they want to shape the new order. Therefore they are throwing their lot behind regime change in Syria,” Karasik said.

Far from looking at himself as a traditional Arab autocrat, Sheikh Hamad regards himself as the avant garde of the Arab Spring. “We started our ’Qatari Spring’ a long time ago,” he told CBS News Bob Simon in a recently aired interview, referring to his 1995 coup d’etat against his more traditionalist father in 1995.

Qatar has made enemies along the way, most notably with Saudi Arabia, which pulled its ambassador from Doha for many years and have looked askance at Qatar’s support of regime change. Damascus issued a stern warning on the Qatari proposal to send Arab League troops.

“The Syrian people reject any foreign intervention in its affairs, under any title, and would confront any attempt to infringe upon Syria's sovereignty and the integrity of its territories," the Syrian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.

Analysts say that Qatar is only brash where it can afford to be. It has had little to say, for instance, about the rising tensions in the Gulf between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Most of its diplomatic efforts, they say, are serving as a neutral party that doesn’t take sides in disputes.

But if Qatar does get into trouble, it can also count on the US and other Western powers, which value its strategic location. The US Central Operations Command (Centcom) is based in the emirate and its importance has grown since the last US troops withdrew from Iraq.

“Qatar has a number of security guarantees from countries that would be more than happy to protect it,” Karasik said


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