Arab World: Qatar, Midwife of the new Arab world

The tiny, wealthy emirate is a key force in the emerging new Middle East.

Qatar Doha skyline buildings 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS)
Qatar Doha skyline buildings 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 opponents.
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 force.
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 Lebanon.
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.
The 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 television network.
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.
They spearheaded Arab League efforts to push the UN toward establishing a no-fly zone.
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 Fighting Group.
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.
This 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 public.
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 East.
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 that.
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.