Qatar and the Arab Spring

Why has Qatar experienced such a different trajectory to much of the rest of the Arab world in recent months? What explains its recent actions, and how might it emerge from the Arab Spring?

In recent weeks, the Gulf state of Qatar has emerged as a leading advocate of international intervention on the side of the anti-Gaddafi rebels in Libya. It organised the politically-crucial Arab support for the No-Fly Zone, was one of the first countries to recognise the Interim Transitional National Council (ITNC) in Benghazi, and offered to market oil on behalf of the ITNC. Simultaneously, Qatar-based Al Jazeera played an instrumental role in shaping popular perceptions through its blanket television coverage of the conflict. Similarly high-profile statements of support for the opposition to dictatorial tyranny in Yemen have reinforced Qatar’s burgeoning regional and international profile. Yet a brutal and ongoing crackdown on pro-democracy activists is taking place just 25 miles off its western shore, in neighbouring Bahrain. There, the Gulf Cooperation Council (of which Qatar is a member) has intervened to protect the Al-Khalifa family against an escalating social movement threatening its authoritarian rule.

Why has Qatar experienced such a different trajectory to much of the rest of the Arab world in recent months? What explains its recent actions, and how might it emerge from the Arab Spring?

 

A rising power

On 2 December 2010, the stunning decision to award the 2022 FIFA World Cup to Qatar set the capstone on its rapid rise as a small state with global ambition. In little more than a decade, this country of 1.7 million people (once described by the Lonely Planet travel guide as ‘possibly the most boring place on Earth’) has been transformed into a sophisticated urban metropolis. Futuristic architecture and a skyline worthy of Manhattan coexist alongside world-class museums and hubs of cutting-edge research and development. Education City hosts branch campuses from six leading US universities and the top French HEC Paris business school, with University College London (UCL) joining them in autumn 2011. Meanwhile, the Doha Debates have gained a worldwide reputation for critical discussion of controversial regional issues.

Together with high-profile announcements such as the sponsorship tie-up between the Qatar Foundation and Barcelona football club and the hosting of major international sporting events such as the Women’s Tennis Association season-ending championships, these initiatives have put Qatar well and truly in the international limelight. They represent a potent form of country branding encapsulated in the World Cup bidding slogan: ‘Expect Amazing.’ In a region where competition – particularly with Abu Dhabi and Dubai – for the biggest and the best is intense and often megalomaniacal, the successful bid surpassed any previous achievement and catapulted Qatar to world attention.

Another element of Qatar’s growing reach was its growing reputation for diplomatic mediation in conflict-afflicted areas. Officials scored a big success in 2008 with the Doha agreement that reached a political solution that averted the threat of civil strife in Lebanon. Since then, Qatari diplomacy has been at work in Yemen (where they negotiated a short-lived ceasefire between Houthi rebels and government forces in 2007-8), Djibouti and Eritrea (mediating the border dispute between them), and has hosted intermittent peace talks between the Sudanese government and rebel groups in Darfur. Although never quite repeating their 2008 breakthrough in Lebanon (which has since fallen apart), Qatar has steadily built a reputation for mediation and gained a perception as a (relatively) honest broker.

Underpinning Qatar’s rise is the production and export of oil and – more significantly – liquefied natural gas (LNG). Qatar shares with Iran the largest non-associated gas field in the world and began to exploit its share of the North Field (the Iranian portion is named South Pars) in the 1990s. Exports of LNG began in 1997, and by 2006 the country was the largest exporter of natural gas in the world. Much of the gas is locked into long-term agreements with leading industrialised and emerging economies around the world, ranging from the US and the UK to South Korea, Japan and China. These agreements form a web of interdependencies giving powerful international partners a direct stake in a stable Qatar. So, too, does the hosting of the forward headquarters of US Central Command (CENTCOM) and the generously-funded bases that serve as logistics hubs, command and basing centres, and pre-positioning facilities for US operations in Afghanistan and (formerly) Iraq. According to leaked US diplomatic cables, Qatar contributes 60% of the upkeep costs of the main Al-Udaid airbase, seen by some as the price (worth paying) of maintaining US troops as the ultimate guarantor of Qatari security.  

 

Freedom of manoeuvre  

The fortuitous combination of immense natural resources and a tiny citizen population gives the Qatari leadership great leeway in formulating domestic and foreign policy. Only about 220,000 people hold Qatari citizenship and in 2008 the Economist Intelligence Unit estimated the GDP per capita per citizen to be an astonishing $448,246. This level of extreme wealth provides insulation from the social and economic discontent that has built up elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa. For Qatari nationals, the state is a distributor of wealth, whether through public sector employment, grants of land or the provision of subsidised goods and services. This is not atypical for citizens in other Gulf States, but in the Qatari case the revenues are, seemingly, limitless, in stark contrast to the tensions that have built up in Bahrain, Oman and parts of Saudi Arabia where models of wealth distribution are fraying under the strain of rapid population growth.

Extreme wealth has led to political apathy and a stifling of aspirations for democratic participation. After seizing power from his father in a bloodless coup in 1995, the Emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, instigated a process of cautious top-down reforms. These included the introduction of elections to a Central Municipal Council (1999) and a new constitution (2003), but announced elections to a unicameral parliament (initially scheduled for 2004) have been indefinitely delayed. Interestingly, these reforms did not come in response to any significant internal pressures or calls for change. This contrasted with an otherwise-similar trajectory in Bahrain, where another new ruler also sought to impose his stamp on domestic affairs by introducing constitutional and legislative changes in the late-1990s.

Last month, Asda’a Burson-Marsteller, a Dubai-based public relations company, published the results of its third annual Arab Youth Survey. It found that the proportion of respondents in Qatar who ranked democracy as important had fallen from 68% in 2008 to just 33% in 2010. Two-thirds of respondents placed greater importance on stability and living in a safe neighbourhood. This remarkable drop demonstrated the premium placed on a strong economy intermixed with feelings of national pride following the success of the World Cup bid. Qatari citizens simply have too much to lose by rocking the boat and disrupting the status quo while the 1.5 million expatriate labourers remain disempowered and unable to mobilise without sanction. The winds of change blasting so forcefully through the region (including oil-rich Abu Dhabi which saw an increase from 58% to 75% of respondents ranking democracy as important) have instead passed Qatar by.

Qatari officials can thus react to the Arab Spring with expressions of declaratory and material support for opposition movements that are unlikely to rebound domestically. Moreover, such support plays into Qatari efforts to be taken credibly as a responsible international actor and boost still further its reputation for diplomacy and mediation. The same may be said of Al Jazeera English, whose no-holds barred coverage of the civil uprisings in Egypt and Libya amounted to a CNN-style ‘Gulf War’ breakthrough in western markets. Its Arabic-language coverage, by contrast, has veered from the comprehensive (in Egypt, Libya and Yemen) to the mild (Syria, Bahrain). This has prompted accusations of unevenness and inconsistency, providing succour to sceptics who suspect a guiding hand lies behind editorial decisions; certainly, Bahrain hits uncomfortably close to home, both in terms of physical proximity and its involvement of a fellow Gulf ruling family.

Instead, it is in Libya and Yemen that Qatari officials have greatest freedom of action, as opposing Gaddafi and Saleh does not raise awkward questions of regime type. Moreover, the bloodshed unleashed by both flailing regimes represents a safe target on which to make a high-visibility stand against tyranny, enabling Qatar to align its support for the protection of human rights and democratic expression in a manner that resonates powerfully with the (western-led) international community. Thus, the Qatari Prime Minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani, was instrumental in rallying GCC and Arab League around the idea of a No-Fly Zone in Libya and recognition of the ITNC, stating that “Qatar will participate in military action because we believe there must be Arab states undertaking this action, because the situation is intolerable.” The dispatch of four Mirage-2000 fighters to Crete gave the military operations the crucial Arab support needed to overcome nagging western doubts about the campaign.

In Yemen, Sheikh Hamad similarly spearheaded GCC efforts to reach a political solution to the escalating internal conflict. Attention at the GCC-level focused on reaching an agreement for a peaceful transition of power to an interim council, but the Qatari PM went further and called on Saleh to resign. In response, Saleh denounced Qatar’s ‘blatant interference in Yemeni affairs’ at a rally of supporters in Sana’a, adding that ‘the Qatari initiative is rejected, rejected, rejected. We reject what comes from Qatar or Al Jazeera.’ While ahead of the curve in openly acknowledging the need to remove an authoritarian leader who has outstayed his welcome, Qatari actions in this instance have made it more, not less, difficult for the GCC to find a solution to the Yemeni impasse.

 

Potential challenges ahead

Saleh’s conflation of Qatar and Al Jazeera highlights the Achilles heel in Qatar’s recent moves. There persists a widely-held, albeit unproven, perception that an editorial connection exists between the Qatari leadership and Al Jazeera. A leaked US diplomatic cable from 2009 that speculated that Qatar might use the station as a ‘bargaining tool’ in its relations with other countries will only have reinforced such feelings. In this context, both the Qatari government’s support for, and Al Jazeera’s coverage of, uprisings elsewhere could deplete reservoirs of regional goodwill toward the country. It is not difficult to imagine the schadenfreude with which regimes that have been on the receiving end of criticism might react were problems ever to develop in Qatar itself. Having lent its support to pro-democracy movements in Libya and Yemen the Qatari leadership (and Al Jazeera) could find itself a hostage to fortune should local pro-democracy voices emerge and be detained (as happened over the weekend in the UAE).

Although (as explained above) significant unrest is extremely unlikely in the foreseeable future, Qatar is susceptible to reputational damage, either directly or by association. The GCC intervention in Bahrain is one such example, as it underlines how concepts of intervention can mean very different things in different contexts. Indeed, the Qatari Prime Minister justified the move in terms of providing ‘assistance and support’ within the framework of existing agreements. This leaves Qatar in the sensitive position of explaining support for intervention on behalf of opposition groups in Libya with support for intervention on behalf of the authoritarian status quo in Bahrain. Furthermore, the GCC decision effectively to save the Al-Khalifa from its own population reinforces critics’ arguments that it reveals the bloc’s true colours as a club of authoritarian rulers banding together for inter-familial solidarity and mutual support.

With so much of Qatar’s global reach dependent on a sophisticated national marketing strategy, recent developments in the UAE offer a troubling portent of challenges still to come. In Abu Dhabi, more than 130 artists from around the world last week announced a plan to boycott the new Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim museum unless conditions for foreign labourers at the construction site are improved. This was followed by the arrest of three human rights and democracy activists, including Nasser bin Ghaith, a professor of economics at the Abu Dhabi campus of the Sorbonne University. Both developments are acutely embarrassing for the prestigious western institutions that bought into the Abu Dhabi dream, and leave them facing questions about the nature of their continuing involvement with authoritarian regimes. With Qatar’s booming economy so dependent on foreign labourers, a great many of whom live below the poverty line in a land of such ostentatious wealth, any spotlight might reveal unpalatable results, particularly with world attention focusing so closely on Qatar following the World Cup bid and its support for the Arab Spring elsewhere. 

About the author

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a Research Fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston and an Associate Fellow at Chatham House in London. His work includes The Logistics and Politics of the British Campaigns in the Middle East (Palgrave, 2010), Insecure Gulf: The End of Certainty and the Transition to the Post-Oil Era (Hurst & Co, 2011) and he was co-editor with David Held of The Transformation of the Gulf: Politics, Economics and the Global Order (2011). His forthcoming book, Qatar and the Arab Spring, will be published by Hurst & Co in summer 2014.