Qatar, home to only 225,000 natives and 1.7 million foreign workers, has emerged as an influential regional actor in recent years. Emir Shaikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani has ruled Qatar since 1995, when he replaced his father in a bloodless palace coup, and has pursued an ambitious foreign policy for his statelet. Natural resource wealth, ownership of Al Jazeera, and a carefully constructed web of foreign alliances have allowed Doha to project itself throughout the Middle East.

The nature of Qatar’s foreign policy is the subject of some debate. Certain analysts contend that Qatar conducts a foreign policy uninfluenced by any ideology and that its only concerns relate to geopolitical gains. Doha, they say, lacks a regional vision and is not guided by any loyalties or principles. However, others posit that Qatar’s foreign policy is guided by a form of Sunni Islamist ideology and actively seeks to empower its followers throughout the Muslim world.

The truth may lie somewhere in between. But as Qatar continues its delicate balancing act, it is increasingly evident that Doha’s interests will not always align with those of Washington.

Pygmy with the Punch of a Giant

The concentration of power in the Al Thani family led to the creation of the modern state of Qatar during the 1800s. Qatar fell under Ottoman rule from 1872 until 1913 then was a British protectorate from 1916 until achieving independence in 1971. When the British left the Persian Gulf in the early 1970s, Qatar was one of the poorest Gulf countries. In Blake Hounshell’s words, “for most of its short history, Qatar has been an afterthought of an afterthought in global politics, an impoverished backwater that had often fallen prey to the schemes of stronger powers.”

The discovery of vast oil and gas fields changed everything. In February 2010, the Middle East Economic Digest declared that “Qatar is enjoying a period of unparalleled prosperity.” Qatar’s 15.8-percent rate of growth surpassed China’s in 2011, and its GDP per capita ranks second only to Lichtenstein. In 2010, the country ranked 20th in oil production, sixth in natural gas production, and third in natural gas exports. After 2006, Qatar became the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Unquestionably, Qatar’s petrodollars have facilitated its status as a rising power.

However, oil and gas wealth alone do not explain Qatar’s expanding influence. Doha’s multidimensional alliances, its activist foreign policy as a peace-broker throughout the Islamic world, and the soft-power effects of Qatar’s own Al Jazeera news network are important forces behind the country’s rise. Since 2011, Qatar has been quick to seize the opportunity to play its unique hand of cards to spread its influence as political openings have occurred throughout the Arab world.

Multidimensional Alliances

With an economy driven by oil and gas exports, Qatar has a vital national interest in maintaining stability in the Persian Gulf as its exports must travel through the Strait of Hormuz to reach Qatar’s top export partners – Japan, South Korea, India, and Singapore. Given Qatar’s tiny population and small military (the second smallest in the Middle East), Doha has relied to a large extent on foreign cooperation and support to safeguard security interests. With its foreign policy similar to the “zero problems with neighbors” policy of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), Qatar has pursued diplomatic measures to foster positive relations with all regional actors, including opposing stakeholders.

Since the first Gulf War, Qatar has been a close military ally of the United States and currently hosts the headquarters of U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM). But Doha also maintains close ties with Tehran. In March 2010, Qatar and Iran signed a security agreement “to combat terrorism and promote security cooperation,” and Qatar was the only member of the United Nations Security Council to vote against UNSC resolution 1696, which condemned Iran for its nuclear activities in 2006. Sharing the large North Field/South Pars natural gas deposit, Qatar and Iran have deep economic interests in maintaining cooperative relations. Also, given Qatar’s comparatively small Shia population, the specter of a Khomeini-inspired Shia uprising has never created the tension between Qatar and Iran that it has between Iran and most other Gulf States.

Although relations between Qatar and its only bordering neighbor, Saudi Arabia, have been troubled for decades, diplomatic initiatives in 2007 and 2008 led to a rapprochement in Qatari-Saudi relations. And prior to Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown in Syria, Qatar and Syria enjoyed deep political and economic ties. Although Qatar and Israel have never had official diplomatic relations, Israel had a trade center in Doha until Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009. Commercial ties with Israel, moreover, did not prevent Qatar from developing amicable relations with Hamas and various Lebanese factions, including Hezbollah.

Qatar’s delicate balancing act and ample resource wealth have enabled its leaders to portray their country as a legitimate and impartial peace broker with the resources to finance extensive peace negotiations. In 2006, Qatar’s leaders began to mediate talks between warring Palestinian factions in Gaza following the 2006 parliamentary elections. Several years after civil war broke out in Yemen, Doha played a role in negotiating a ceasefire between Sana’a and the country’s Houthi rebels. Qatar’s biggest diplomatic success was its sponsorship of negotiations in Doha that ended the violence between Hezbollah and other Lebanese factions shortly after sectarian violence exploded throughout Lebanon in early 2008. Also in 2008, Qatar’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Ahmad bin Abdullah al-Mahmud, prepared his country to mediate talks between the Sudanese government and rebel groups in Darfur that began in 2009. In 2010, Qatar helped resolve a border dispute between Eritrea and Djibouti.

Qatar’s bids to resolve conflicts thousands of miles away from the Persian Gulf indicate a determination to become a respected peace broker throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds. Where the United States and EU have failed to resolve conflicts in the region’s volatile areas, Qatar sees an opportunity to emerge as a stabilizing force. Although such diplomatic efforts are expensive, Doha views these peace negotiations as an investment in Qatar’s long-term interests.

Still, analysts including Barak Barfi and Blake Houshell suggest that Qatar’s foreign policy may be unsustainable due to inherent limits given Qatar’s size and the political realities of the region where it exists. Doha’s ties with Tehran and others have been a thorn in relations with Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states, as well as with United States – in 2009, for example, Senator John Kerry declared that “Qatar … cannot continue to be an American ally on Monday that sends money to Hamas on Tuesday.” Likewise, Qatar’s support for the Syrian opposition and efforts to isolate and weaken the Assad regime has brought tension to its relationship with Iran. Certain developments, such as a U.S. strike on Iranian nuclear sites or the spillover of violence in Syria into other states, may compel Qatar to pick a side. Whether or not Qatar can continue to maintain cordial ties with opposing stakeholders in this turbulent region is an open question.

Independent News Source or Qatari Weapon?

The heavy hand that Arab governments have traditionally played in censoring the media, as well as the dearth of media independence, has given many on the Arab street much cynicism about available news sources. However, since the Qatari government launched Al Jazeera in 1996, the satellite channel has served as a reliable news source for millions of Arabs.

Although unfavorable coverage of Doha itself is rare, Al Jazeera’s critical coverage abroad has often shaken authoritarian regimes to their core. As University of Iowa Professor Ahmed E. Souaiaia notes, throughout recent years “the Tunisian, Moroccan, Egyptian, Libyan, and Syrian [governments] shut down Al Jazeera offices in reaction to what they deemed ‘libelous,’ ‘slanderous,’ and ‘poisonous’ news stories. The Arab regimes’ hostility toward Al Jazeera only increased its popularity among the Arab masses.”

Throughout the 2000s, in Marc Lynch’s words, “Al Jazeera played a decisive role, linking together disparate national struggles into a coherent narrative of popular Arab protests against both foreign intervention and domestic repression.” Al Jazeera covered the al-Aqsa intifada and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in a manner that brought unity to Arabs and enabled them to openly discuss their governments’ cordial relations with the United States and inaction on the Palestinian question. In early 2011, Lynch adds, when the Arab Spring began and Al Jazeera showed footage of the demonstrations, it became “the unquestioned home of the revolution on the airwaves.”

However, some were quick to accuse Al Jazeera as acting on behalf of Qatar’s interests rather than as a strictly journalistic outlet. Lynch notes, for example, that Egyptian officials railed fervently against the “Qatari vendetta against Mubarak.” More controversially, he adds, “there is some reason to believe that Al Jazeera’s success in Egypt went to the heads of its management, and that the Qatari royal family began to treat it more as a useful weapon in regional politics than as the prestigious independent symbol it had long valued.”

Suspicions were further stoked when on September 20, 2011, David Kirkpatrick of The New York Times reported a WikiLeaks disclosure that the network’s former director general, Wadah Khanfar, had modified Al Jazeera’s coverage of the war in Iraq under pressure from the U.S. government. According to the 2005 cable, Kirkpatrick reports, a U.S. embassy official “handed Mr. Khanfar copies of critical reports by the United States Defense Intelligence Agency on three months of Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Iraq war; Mr. Khanfar said that the Qatari Foreign Ministry had already provided him with two months of the American reports, according to the cable, suggesting a close three-way consultation involving the two governments and the network.”

Throughout the Arab Spring, charges have been levied against Al Jazeera that it has employed a double standard for covering the uprisings in Syria and Libya, compared to those in neighboring Bahrain, an ally of Qatar. Souaiaia concludes that “there is no doubt that Al Jazeera has become a powerful force and many governments wanted to either limit its influence or arrogate it for political purposes. The Qatari regime is very aware of this asset and they have been using it to raise their profile on the international stage.” To a large extent Qatar has relied on Al Jazeera to become a major player in the region and around the world.

Spreading Democracy or Qatari Imperialism?

When the anti-Gaddafi uprisings began in Libya, Qatar was the first Arab state to endorse foreign military intervention and grant the rebels political legitimacy. Qatar’s support provided NATO with political cover as it began its military campaign against Gaddafi in March 2011. Doha also sent six Mirage fighter jets to the fight and trained Libyan rebels in Qatar. Blake Hounshell describes the close relationship between Libyan rebels and Qatar:

For months, Doha had teemed with Libyan exiles, not so secretly funded by Qatar, which put up the rebel leaders at expensive hotels and bankrolled their satellite channel. Qatari cargo jets ferried tens of millions dollars’ worth of humanitarian supplies, weapons, and special-operations troops to rebel headquarters in Benghazi on regular flights; nearly the entire Qatari air force helped enforce NATO’s no-fly zone. In August, when Libyan rebel fighters stormed Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya complex, they raised a Qatari flag in appreciation.

A similar situation seems to be playing out in Syria. When CBS News asked Qatar’s emir if he would support an Arab intervention in Syria, he responded, “I think for such a situation, to stop the killing, some troops should go to stop the killing.” Qatar played a leading role in the Arab League’s decision to suspend Syria in November 2011. Qatar’s support for the Syrian opposition is not solely diplomatic, as Doha has provided the anti-Assad forces with weapons, according to opposition figures.

Doha’s real motives behind its support for military intervention in Libya and Syria are complicated, and observers disagree over Qatar’s actual agenda. Some credit the regime with having a humanitarian agenda, while others perceive a campaign to spread Wahhabism. Indeed, the support that Qatar has given to Sunni Islamists in Libya, Tunisia, and Syria, both during and after their struggles against secular regimes, suggests that Qatar may be seeking to form an ideological alliance with new forces in the new Middle East. But whether Qatar’s support for these factions is driven by a fidelity to Islamist ideology or is merely opportunistic is unclear.

Doha’s Challenges

Several factors will challenge the sustainability of Doha’s foreign policy.

Qatar’s history of impartiality and neutrality in the region’s turmoil has advanced its image as a legitimate peace broker. However, Doha will inevitably create enemies if it continues to take sides in foreign civil wars. In fact, during recent months, reports have surfaced that Syria’s government has waged cyber warfare against Qatar in retaliation for its support for Syrian rebels.

Some Libyan voices have also expressed strong objections to Doha’s interference in Libya’s domestic politics. According to Steven Sotloff, “many Libyans are now complaining that Qatari aid has come at a price. They say Qatar provided a narrow clique of Islamists with arms and money, giving them great leverage over the political process.” General Khalifa Hiftar has stated, “[i]f aid comes through the front door, we like Qatar, but if it comes through the window to certain people [and] bypassing official channels, we don’t want Qatar.” As Qatar provides further aid to Islamist parties in North Africa and Syria, it may well be confronted by secular forces within these countries. With new enemies in the Middle East and North Africa, Qatar’s image as a neutral actor determined to promote regional peace and stability will be undermined.

Additionally, geopolitical tensions in the region may reach a point at which Qatar is forced to align itself with one side or the other. So far, Qatar has successfully balanced the larger states’ interests against each other without making any enemies. However, this delicate balancing act may become nearly impossible under certain circumstances, such as a military confrontation in the Persian Gulf between the United States and Iran. In the meantime, Qatar will likely use its influence to try to prevent such a scenario from unfolding.

Finally, Qatar’s rhetorical commitment to spreading “democracy,” “freedom,” and “dignity” in the Arab world is often met with skepticism, and for good reason. Qatar is governed by an unelected emirate regime. The position belonging to Qatar’s head of state and head of government is hereditary. Authoritative human rights groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Freedom House have documented high levels of censorship, an anemic independent media, and a discriminatory legal system. Moreover, the labor rights of the 1.7 million foreign workers in Qatar are not respected. These workers are not allowed to unionize or strike, and they frequently sign contracts under coercion. Complaints about late or unpaid wages are widespread.

However, many argue that Qatar’s emir is attempting to reshape his country’s image as more democratic and modern. Doha recently announced that elections would be held in 2013 for the legislative Shura Council. Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center has described this action as a bold move to ensure that the wave of protests across the region does not reach Qatar. With Qatar’s high GDP per capita, it is possible that the government can maintain its legitimacy and popularity by continuing to provide a high quality of life for Qatar’s citizens, preventing widespread protests. Whether such developments reflect a genuine commitment to democratic reforms remains to be seen, but the emir is clearly set on ensuring that an uprising like the one occurring in Bahrain does not break out in Qatar.

Implications for U.S. Policy

As USCENTCOM’s host, Qatar has ultimately facilitated U.S. military dominance in the Middle East and West Asia. By hosting an Israeli commercial center before the 2008-2009 war on Gaza, it has proven to be more amenable to relations with the Jewish state than most Arab governments.

However, Qatar’s willingness to develop cordial relations with states and actors that proactively seek to undermine U.S. hegemony, as well as Islamist factions in North Africa, suggests that Qatar’s interests will not always align with those of Washington. Already, many in Washington are nervous about alleged connections between Qatar and anti-American militant groups in the region — one Wikileaks cable from the State Department even labeled Qatar as “the worst in the region” regarding counterterrorism efforts. This cable also stated that Qatar’s security services were “hesitant to act against known terrorists out of concern for appearing to be aligned with the U.S. and provoking reprisals.”

Nonetheless, no two states in the world possess the same interests at all times. And if U.S. hegemony in the region declines further, it is natural for other states, like Qatar, to attempt to fill the void. While doing so, Doha may feel less pressure to align with the agenda of a declining superpower when it does not serve its own national interests.

Giorgio Cafiero is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

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