The Little Emirate That Could

Qatar’s successful foray into international diplomacy still faces severe challenges.

The Emir of Qatar 311 (photo credit: DIMITRI MESSINIS (AP))
The Emir of Qatar 311
(photo credit: DIMITRI MESSINIS (AP))
THE CONSERVATIVE PROAmerican, Egyptian-Saudi axis, which has traditionally chartered regional Middle East policy, is increasingly being supplanted by an emerging one made up of Iran, Syria and Turkey. Aligned with these countries is Qatar.
This tiny Persian Gulf emirate has spared little effort to bolster its international profile. It mediates conflicts across the Middle East and Africa, while pursuing policies that are often anathema to many of its allies. It has largely succeeded in these efforts because the warring parties have welcomed its involvement, believing Qatar to be an impartial nation with large purse strings.
One country which has benefited from Qatari largess is Lebanon. In November 2008, Lebanon was paralyzed by a constitutional crisis when the Hizballah-led opposition refused to allow parliament to convene to elect a new president. Tensions reached a boiling point when the fundamentalist Shi’a organization refused to relinquish control over its private telecom network. The party also tried to block the government from firing Beirut Airport’s security chief who was assisting the group. This sparked days of gun battles throughout the country, culminating in Hizballah’s seizure of West Beirut.
Lebanon’s conflicts have historically been sparked – and resolved – by outside powers. The civil war that plagued the country from 1975-89 was ended by an accord brokered by the Saudis in 1989. This time round, the sparring sides in the Lebanese conflict traveled to Doha, the emirate’s capital, where under Qatari auspices, they agreed to resolve their differences. That paved the way for election of a new president in Lebanon, and the establishment of a new cabinet.
Qatar has extended its mediation efforts to African disputes as well. It has waded into the intractable Darfur conflict, which has bedeviled the international community for the past decade. By assuaging Sudanese fears that the world is biased against it, Qatar achieved success where others, including the United Nations, have failed. In February, Qatar brokered a truce and power-sharing deal between the Sudanese government and the rebel group, the Liberation and Justice Movement. Another African conflict it has sought to resolve is the border dispute between Djibouti and Eritrea. Djibouti had long refused to discuss peace until Eritrean forces withdrew from its territory. But in June, Eritrea finally withdrew. Days later, both sides agreed to Qatar’s offer to mediate talks. The sheikhdom also agreed to deploy 700 soldiers to patrol the border between the two countries.
But the most significant Qatari attempt at mediation may be its efforts to end the six-year sectarian uprising that has paralyzed northern Yemen. A splinter group of the country’s Shi’a, known as Zaydis, has been battling the Yemeni government for more rights for their beleaguered sect. The Huthis, as they are commonly known, have severely drained the regime’s resources. Since 2007, Qatar has sought to end the fighting and in fact, secured a temporary truce three years ago. The fighting resumed, however, reaching a peak when Saudi Arabian forces clashed with Huthi fighters in January. Qatar’s reputation as a regional broker has become so valued in the Middle East that al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden’s son, Umar, asked Doha to petition Iran to release several of his siblings who have been under house arrest in Iran since 2001.
THERE ARE A NUMBER OF factors which explain Qatar’s success in a world of diplomacy that has long been dominated by the Western powers.
Chief among them is the country’s perceived neutrality; Qatar has gone to great lengths to avoid taking sides in disputes. Thus, in dealing with Iran, Doha has sought to distance itself from supporting the sanctions against the Persian state. While a member of the UN Security Council in 2006, Qatar vetoed a resolution against Iranian uranium enrichment.
Another factor, which enables Qatar to present itself as an honest broker, is that as a tiny country with a small population, it clearly presents no threat to the nations it offers to help. The emirate is also able to persuade countries that its efforts are altruistic rather than Machiavellian. It does not seek to exploit the host nations’ natural resources or seek access to their local markets.
When the Qatari leader, Emir Sheikh Hamad bin-Khalifa al-Thani addressed the Lebanese parties in 2007, he reportedly said, “I want to stress that Qatar does not seek to boost its regional role, but rather to promote peace.”
Qatar’s homogenous populace is also a helpful factor in its quest to be a regional player. Unlike its neighbors which have a large Shi’a population, Qatar’s citizenry is almost entirely Sunni, sparing it the sectarian problems that have plagued other Persian Gulf nations. The lack of ethnic tensions has allowed al-Thani to pursue more aggressive and ambitious goals without worrying about a domestic backlash.
Qatar has also distinguished itself by offering embattled countries foreign aid. It gave $100 million to the victims of Hurricane Katrina in the United States and donated millions to alleviate the damage caused by recent floods in Pakistan. In Darfur, Qatar has pledged $2 billion to develop the beleaguered region. In an effort to bring Yemen’s autonomous tribal areas closer to the central government, Qatar is funding almost $60 million in road projects in these rural districts. It donated more than $300 million to rebuild southern Lebanese infrastructure after the July 2006 war between Israel and Hizballah and erected 12,000 new homes there.
Though Qatar’s various forays into resolving regional conflicts have brought it international accolades and attention, most of its influence in the Arab world comes from the electronic waves it beams into space. In 1996, the emir established al- Jazeera, a pan-Arab satellite news channel.
The channel has been particularly effective because it was given editorial creativity and was free from government censorship. As a result, it not only focused on many important topics traditionally avoided in the Arab media, but did not shy away from criticizing Arab rulers. The Qatari emir, however, has gone largely uncriticized. By highlighting corruption in the Arab world as well as the lethargy and paralysis plaguing Arab society, the channel has won the admiration of Arabs from Morocco to Iraq.
“Arab news was traditionally the same dignitary visits being repeated, shot for shot, on each country’s respective channel,” Mehran Kamrava, dean of the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University’s campus in Doha, tells The Report. “Al-Jazeera revolutionized Arab media.”
A recent study by the Neilson Media Research Company not only placed al- as the most visited news website in the Arab world with a 30 percent share, but also named it the top news source in each individual Gulf Cooperation Council country, as well as in Lebanon, Syria and Libya. Additionally, the Doha Debates – a Qatar Foundation effort – on the BBC has been effective in embracing the concerns of Arab students and intellectuals by modernizing discussion and talking openly and honestly about subjects that are taboo in the Arab world. Due to its extraordinary relations with Islamist militant groups and rogue regimes, Qatar’s international role has come to be accepted by the world community. This should remain the case as long as the Qatari leadership favors progressive initiatives over the traditional practices of the region, and avoids the trap of favoring one party over the other.
MUCH TO THE CHAGRIN OF ITS fellow Arab states, Qatar has long maintained relations with Israel. The relationship dates back 19 years, when the emirate participated in the Madrid Conference in 1991. Al-Thani was present at the signing of the Oslo Accords, and sent a delegation to Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral.
Since 1996, Qatar has intermittently hosted an Israeli trade office – which was closed following the IDF’s 2008/9 Cast Lead campaign against the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. The emirate received a large Israeli delegation during the 1997 Middle East North Africa Economic Conference and, in 2008, invited then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni to give the keynote address at the Eighth Doha Conference on Democracy, Development and Free Trade.
Qatar offered to renew relations earlier this year in exchange for Israeli permission to deliver construction materials to Gaza. Israel snubbed the Qataris, despite having allowed Qatari aid to flow into Gaza during Cast Lead.
“Qatar wants to be additive to the traditional role players in the region. Where it thinks it can be useful it will step in,” Chase Untermeyer, former United States ambassador to Qatar, explains to The Report. “Its lack of physical presence, and its self-confidence from its wealth, is a good formula for Third-World efforts in international diplomacy.”
Despite Qatar’s wish to be a progressive force to temper regional tensions, some of its attempts at mediation have drawn the ire of its neighbors and the Western powers. Qatar has particularly incensed the Egyptians who have traditionally viewed themselves as the leaders of the Arab world. By wading into so many regional conflicts – and succeeding in achieving truces and agreements – the emirate has been able to upend the Egyptians who have increasingly withdrawn from the international scene in the wake of a paralyzing succession crisis. The Egyptians have refused to allow Qatari aid to reach Gaza and also view Doha’s efforts in neighboring Sudan with distrust.
Saudi Arabia has tried to frustrate Qatari initiatives at every opportunity. When Qatar pledged $250 million to rebuild Gaza, the Saudis upped the offer by pledging $1 billion. Livid with the Doha-based Al-Jazeera network’s free rein to criticize the kingdom’s ruling family, Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Qatar in 2002 and only renewed them when Doha promised to tone down such criticism. The Saudis have also tried to hamper Qatar’s ties with other states in the region. It is believed that a plan to construct a bridge between Qatar and the island of Bahrain was scrapped after Saudi Arabia expressed its displeasure to the Bahraini government; the island announced the cancellation following the visit of a high-ranking Saudi delegation.
Bahraini sources told The Jerusalem Report that Saudi Arabia seeks to retain its monopoly of influence over the country, and that a bridge connecting the island with Qatar would threaten it. Saudi Arabia has historically sought to control Yemen and fears that Doha’s ties with Sana’a would threaten the kingdom’s grip on the country.
It is widely believed the Saudis torpedoed the 2007 accord that the Qataris brokered between the Yemeni government and the Huthis – simply because the Saudis did not want their Qatari rivals to receive credit for ending the fighting.
Qatar’s mediation efforts with Lebanese factions have similarly irked their larger neighbor. The Saudis, who view Shi’ite Iran and its ally Hizballah with distrust, have backed Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri, who is a Sunni, in an attempt to contain Tehran’s proxy. However, the accord the Qataris brokered enhanced Hizballah’s influence and gave it veto power over government legislation. Qatar has also cozied up to Iran and Syria, stepping up commercial and security ties with these ‘black sheep’ of the region.
Yet despite these relationships, Qatar still maintains excellent links with Washington. It hosts the United States Central Command, which manages the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
AL-THANI’S POPULIST DESIRE to be perceived as a man of the people has endeared him to average Qataris. It is not uncommon to see him stuck in traffic in a beat-up Toyota Land Cruiser without his security convoy, nor is it unheard of for him and his wife to take a stroll in the local souk to smoke a water pipe during the cooler months.
Unlike other Arab countries, where leaders cultivate a cult of personality by placing their pictures everywhere, in Qatar the emir’s face does not beam down from every billboard. In 1998, al-Thani allowed the first municipal elections and introduced universal suffrage. He also held a referendum for a new constitution in 2003, which was approved. Qatar was also the first Arab country to abolish the Ministry of Information, which virtually eliminated censorship, and provided more freedom of speech within the country.
The emir has embarked on a bold and expansive modernization campaign through the Qatar Foundation, which subsidizes regional satellite campuses of American universities in his emirate. These include Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and Cornell’s medical school. The emir’s strategy has brought in thousands of Western professionals who specialize in civil society to help Qataris attain a better future.
Still, the guidance and goodwill al-Thani provides at home and abroad will not, by itself, be enough for Qatar to sustain prominence. This tiny desert emirate still faces several challenges. It will have to remain vigilant of Saudi attempts to obstruct its ascension in the diplomatic realm. And there may be no greater test of Qatar’s statecraft than its ability to navigate the looming confrontation between two of its greatest allies, the United States and Iran.
Here it may find itself not on the sidelines playing a constructive role, but at the very center – trying to survive.