Qatar punches above its diplomatic weight

The tiny emirate is trying to be "friends with everyone," says INSS researcher.

By OREN KESSLER
March 8, 2012 07:30
3 minute read.
The Doha skyline.

Qatar Doha skyline buildings 311 R. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Qatar is opportunistically exploiting the vacuum created by the Arab revolts, according to an Israeli-authored report released Tuesday, and trying to cultivate ties with both the West and Islamists in a bid to punch above its diplomatic weight.

“Qatar has a very unique foreign policy – it’s friends with everyone,” Yoel Guzansky, the report’s co-author, told The Jerusalem Post. “The Qataris see this as giving them immunity. After all, if I’m your friend, why would you want to hurt me?”

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Guzansky’s monograph, “The Rise of Qatar,” was released by the Institute for National Security Studies, where he and co-author Oded Eran are researchers.

Qatar’s outsized international clout is based above all on its natural resources: The tiny Persian Gulf emirate is the worldwide leading exporter of natural gas. The South Pars gas field – the world’s largest – stretches between Qatar and Iran, though around three-quarters of the field’s area lies within Qatari territorial and maritime control.

This natural wealth has given Qatari citizens the world’s highest per capita gross income – $170,000 – and last year the country’s economy grew a staggering 18 percent.

In 1996, a year after taking power, Qatar’s Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani invested the country’s fuel wealth into Al Jazeera, now the Arab world’s most-watched satellite channel.

The station – which launched an English channel a decade later – has given the emirate extraordinary sway in shaping regional public opinion.

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The INSS report says that since the start of the Arab revolts in late 2010 – uprisings for which Al Jazeera often served as cheerleader – Qatar has been bolder than ever in flexing its diplomatic muscles.

Doha has mediated between Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the country’s opposition, ultimately facilitating Saleh’s resignation in favor of his deputy. In Libya, Qatar was the Arab state most involved in the military effort to oust Muammar Gaddafi, and in Syria it has been at the forefront of diplomatic action against the country’s embattled president Bashar Assad.

On the Palestinian front, the report says, Qatar has taken the place of Egypt as the key Arab mediator between Fatah and Hamas, hosting a summit between the rival Palestinian movements last month. Later it brokered a deal between Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal and Jordan that allowed the Islamist movement to reestablish a presence in the kingdom after a more than decade-long ban.

Hamas maintains an office in Doha, and the city has been named as a potential home base for the Islamist group now that its erstwhile sponsors in Damascus are threatened by a popular revolt almost a year old.

Driving much of Qatar’s foreign policy, Guzansky said, is fear of neighboring Iran.

“Qatar is the Gulf country with perhaps the closest ties to Iran, and before Saddam Hussein’s fall it was the closest to Iraq,” Guzansky said. “The rationale is ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.’” None of this has escaped the attention of Israel, which last year closed its small diplomatic mission in Doha, forbade Qatari passport bearers from visiting the West Bank and stopped cooperation with Qatar’s security industry.

Diplomatic cables released in 2010 by Wikileaks revealed the United States had lodged complaints with Qatar over its support of Islamists.

“The leaks show the Americans complained many times over the Qataris’ links with radical actors like Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and al- Qaida,” said Guzansky, an arms-control and intelligence expert and former member of the National Security Council. “Al Jazeera was the platform for all these radical actors, and it isn’t exactly a democratic channel – it does what the emir says.”

Still, since 2003 US Central Command – responsible for the Middle East and North Africa – has kept its forward-operating headquarters in Qatar. And though Qatari bases served as primary hubs for US operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the country has remained almost entirely immune to retaliatory terrorist attacks.

Guzansky said the American military presence allows Qatar to remain in Washington’s good graces, while Doha’s ties to Islamists keep the region’s radicals at bay.

“In the annals of modern history, it is hard to find a similar instance of so tiny a nation implementing a foreign policy of such high profile,” Guzansky wrote in the report. “Spurred primarily by survival instincts, the emirate can continue to enjoy political and economic stability and furnish political and economic support for the radical forces in the region.”

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