The changes of the past year in the Middle East and North Africa revealed how active small states can be. Engagement of Qatar in NATO operations in Libya, actions of the Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani against Syria in the Arab League and the coverage of the Al Jazeera channel during the uprising in the neighboring Kingdom of Bahrain suggest that this small carbon-rich Gulf monarchy has a potential to influence regional politics. In this article I attempt to explain why this small Gulf state is so active in the Middle East and North Africa, and what drives such an active engagement abroad?
Perhaps only network analysis can help us understand the foreign policy of Qatar. The object of social network analysis is the relations or connections that explain why an actor is able to exert influence in and its environment.1 Qatar seeks diversification of its relation to other countries due to its own limitations, since influence can be achieved not only through possessing resources, but also by forging as many connections within the network as possible.
The modern state of Qatar was formed in the mid-19th century as a result of a concentration of power in the Al Thani family’s hands. However, until its independence in 1971 Qatar was a British protectorate. Since then due to the discovery of its massive oil and later gas fields, Qatar has become one of the richest monarchies in the region with the highest GDP per capita in the world. The present ruler of Qatar, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, seized power after a bloodless coup d’état in 1995. Beginning in the early 1990s, Qatari foreign policy was formed into what we see now: multidimensional engagement and activity on major issues in the region.
Qatar’s relations with its neighbours weren’t always good. The small monarchy has faced territorial problems with Bahrain and its much bigger neighbour, Saudi-Arabia. Long lasting tensions with Bahrain over the Hawar Islands were resolved in 2001 by the decision of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, saying that these disputed islands belong to Bahrain. A border conflict with Saudi-Arabia in 1992-1994 resulted in the signing of a border demarcation agreement in 2001.
Taking into account the fact that all its neighbours have oil or gas fields, Qatar has found itself in a situation where it could not create much leverage in regional politics on the basis of resource richness alone. Furthermore, sometimes Qatar’s economic activity was restricted due to the absence of cooperation with other Gulf monarchies, as for example the instance when a number of energy pipeline projects were curtailed as a result of the reluctance of Saudi Arabia to provide territory for Qatar’s oil and gas supply.
Aiming to be more independent of the state of affairs in the region and of Saudi Arabia in particular, Qatar decided to seek relations outside the Gulf. As an oil and gas-rich exporter Qatar was an interesting candidate for partnership in the eyes of many western countries, especially in Europe, who in turn were looking for more carbon suppliers.
The Defence Cooperation Agreement signed in 1991 between Qatar and the United States symbolized the developing military collaboration between the Gulf state and the West. After the withdrawal of its military base from Saudi Arabia, the US chose Qatar as a home for its Central Command and built the largest military base in the region, the Al Udeid As Sayyliyah US Air Force base. Since then Qatar’s security has been guaranteed by the presence of the US troops on its turf.2
But Qatar went further in alliance with western countries. During the civil war in Libya, Qatar supported the efforts of NATO to establish a no-fly zone and provide the rebels with military assistance. Qatar sent its six Mirage jet fighters and supplied the insurgents with modern anti-tank missiles and rifles. Later on the Qatari government acknowledged that its military officers had trained the Libyan rebels and had sent its troops to Northern Africa.3
Beside military cooperation with the west, the announcement of democratic reforms in the country suggests that Qatar wants a normative approach with its allies outside the region. Though reform initiatives are mostly of a proactive character, i.e. they are not a reaction to outside pressure, and deal with a wide range of issues - from the elections to municipal councils to a referendum on a permanent constitution - Qatar continues to be a typical Gulf monarchy with limited freedoms.4
Although Qatari foreign policy to some extent can be described as a pro-western one, you will hear few critical sentiments about its relationship with the west in the region. The reason for this lies in the skilful manipulation of multiple “identities” by the Qatari Emir. Qatar enjoys good relations with almost all Islamic countries; its popularity will rise even more given the fact that Qatar supports the revolutions in Libya and Egypt where Islamists have won power in parliament.
Qatar is busy fulfilling its intention to become an interlocutor between the west and Islamic world. The Al Jazeera network channel, established in 1996, has become a unique and effective tool of the Qatari Emir in his activity as a cultural bridge.5 Funded by the government, Al Jazeera serves as “a voice of the voiceless”. The channel pretends to represent the whole Islamic “Ummah” (community), promoting a vision of an Islamic Qatar that is in complete contrast to its pro-western credentials.
Aside from financing the satellite channel, Qatar in its aspirations to gain weight in religious affairs in the Middle East has long been hosting prominent clerics from other countries. For example, Yusuf Qaradawi, who was forced to leave Egypt in the wave of oppression against the Muslim Brotherhood, has been living in Qatar since the 1960s, issuing fatwas (religious decrees) and writing philosophical works, some of which contain rather extremist notions of western powers waging war against Muslims.
Seeing that Qatar is capable of maintaining relations with several sometimes opposing stakeholders, it may not be surprising that the Qatari Emir also has ties to some terrorist organizations like Hizbullah and Hamas and rogue states like Syria and Iran. Although these regional players are mainly at odds with the western countries, such an exclusive access to them and relatively good relations makes Qatar a valuable mediator during negotiations, whether it is over the Palestinian interim government or the preventing of civil war in Lebanon.
A balancing act
Taking everything into account it is hard to imagine a regional conflict without the direct or indirect involvement of Qatar. In 2007-2008 Qatar mediated between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels; in 2010 Djibouti and Eritrea asked Qatar for mediation in their border dispute; Qatar proposed the agreement to Sudan and the Darfur rebels in 2010, though it was rejected. Qatar is making clear that it wants to play the role of mediator and even active participator in future conflicts.
The roots of such a proactive foreign policy of such a small state can be found in domestic affairs. In 1995, after the coup d’état, the new Emir was trying to establish a positive and liberal image of a new ruler with a single goal – to consolidate his regime in a hostile environment where supporters of the old regime inside the ruling family and outside the monarchy (Saudi Arabia) cherished hopes for restoration. The biggest threat to the regime in Qatar even now comes from inside the Al Thani family.6
Events in the first Gulf war and earlier during the so called 'Tanker War' (the Iraqi-Iranian conflict 1980-1988) clearly demonstrated to Qatar that cooperation within the Gulf Cooperation Council could not fully provide security to its supply facilities.7 Qatar chose to call on the west for protection and security in case of any emergencies in the region. Another cause for resorting to western assistance was the intention to get rid of the Iranian influence (due to large Shia community in Qatar) as well as the Saudi Arabian influence in the country.
However, with the rise of fundamentalism in the region it has become too risky to bind itself too heavily to the west and to portray itself as its ally in the Middle East. Qatar’s foreign policy was directed towards maintaining relatively good relations with forces who were seen as main supporters of radical Islam – from armed militias in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon to Iran and Syria. Having great financial resources Qatar has been able to provide help to these actors in the region, especially after the armed conflicts that have occurred.
Looking at an overview of Qatari activity in the region we might conclude that such a dynamic foreign policy, participating in major issues in the Middle East and cultivating broad relations with all the main stake-holders, is actually the only way out for Qatar from the dangers it faces. Keeping all sides close simultaneously and counter-balancing all central players gives Qatar a chance to be an influential hub within the network of relations. Qatar tries to lessen the influence from its neighbours by investing in regional affairs. But the question is: how long will Qatar be able to maintain such a skilful foreign policy and preserve the equilibrium between the various sides?
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