North Africa, West Asia

Qatar in change

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The young Emir presides over a bustling city that grows with each passing day, it must be fed, housed and paid for. Growing pains are everywhere, and the spotlight shines fiercely on Doha and the way of life here as never before.

Michael Stephens
18 November 2013

As 2013 draws to a close it is worth reflecting on what has been a topsy-turvy year for the Qataris. A new Emir has slowly but surely ushered the country into a new era, but it has been a very unspectacular change. Qatar has turned inward; massive road and infrastructure projects dominate daily conversations here, when once it was the hyperactivity of the country’s foreign policy. Qatar is a nation in change; taking stock of lessons learned and pushing forward to a future in which it prepares for challenges at home, while quietly seeking new horizons for expanding its interests abroad.

Qatar has struggled to grapple with a region once again in flux following the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011. The policies which it had orchestrated at a time of great uncertainty and regional change ultimately failed to come to fruition. The brashness with which the Qataris inserted themselves into the region’s most difficult problems has gone. Doha is now a quiet pensive place to be, introspection and caution have taken the place of boldness and risk taking.

Since Qatar is so quiet it might help to explain where the country stands on both the Syria and Egypt issues, as these have defined their foreign policy in recent times. Syria has become a headache for Qatar: Doha never expected that as 2014 approached Bashar al Assad would be sitting safely in Damascus, and that Jihadist groups would be roaming around large areas of north and eastern Syria. Like everybody else, the Qataris know now that there is no quick fix to a war that may ultimately drag on for years. The Qataris know that the Syrian opposition is hugely divided, and that them taking a unified position long enough to negotiate with Bashar al Assad and succeed is fanciful. Despite nearly two years of work to coordinate opposition politicians with armed groups on the ground there is little qualitative improvement in the political-military connection. It is a sorry mess.

The Qataris understand one thing: the opposition fighters must not be overwhelmed, either by the regime or by the growing forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS). Supporting brigades on the ground is not an optional, but necessary tool of policy to prevent Syria from falling into the hands of far worse foes. So the policy continues, Qatar will continue to dig deeper into the Syria conflict because, like every other external actor in Syria, it has gone too far to turn back. Ultimately we haven’t seen much of a change in substance, merely in style.

As for Egypt, there is little hope for Qatar’s interests to be met in a country in which so many people have turned against the Muslim Brotherhood; Qatar’s main ally. It is better to lay low for a while until the Egyptian state finds its feet under new management. It is the symbols of Qatar, such as Al Jazeera, more than Qatar itself which has become the enemy, and in time Qatar will find itself a welcome guest at the Egyptian Junta’s table.

Even Qatar’s close ally Hamas seems to be looking for new pastures; Khaled Meshaal, a long honoured guest of Doha, is rumoured to be courting the Iranians and Hezbollah with an eye to realigning the resistance groups' political axis. How Doha fares in this recalculation is unknown.

In light of Qatar’s creaky Middle East policy, the nation has set its sights on Africa, investing heavily in Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia, and seeking to use its influence and connections to facilitate political agreements and try to bring together disparate tribes and political parties. In sub-Saharan Africa, Qatari companies are exploring for food, minerals and hydrocarbon resources, buying up land and looking towards long term investment. Countries from Uganda to Mozambique have all begun to welcome increased Qatari activity within their borders. The new frontier for the tiny Emirate is not the broken and divided Middle East, but the African continent, and greater diplomatic effort and activity will be directed there than ever before. There is no Saudi Arabia to worry about, no sunni-shia problem to be concerned with, the Qataris appear in Africa with a clean slate and no emotional baggage attached.

Putting foreign policy aside for a minute, it is worth mentioning that the most serious crisis Qatar has faced this year is actually a domestic issue. Since the publishing of a report by the Guardian newspaper into the treatment of foreign labourers, the country has come under intense scrutiny for its labour and employment laws and enforcement of standards. Follow up investigations by the Building and Wood Workers' International (BWI) in October, and Amnesty International in November have uncovered appalling conditions in a number of workers camps, and highlighted issues such as non-payment of workers, withholding of passports and denial of basic legal representation.

Given all that Qatar seeks to achieve in coming years by being the first Asian and Muslim nation to host the world’s biggest sporting event, this isn’t just another policy problem. It is the defining of a legacy, and constitutes the core identity of the country itself going forward for decades. It is not a foreign policy decision that can back fire causing embarrassment, but a commentary on the very fabric of the country and the kind of society it wishes to be. So whilst we may talk about Qatar’s foreign policy, its hydrocarbon wealth and mega purchases of global brands, this is just an external face. Qatar will be judged on what it does inside its borders for the next nine years in a way that is viscerally uncomfortable for a society so unused to openly discussing political and social problems.

The young Emir presides over a bustling city that grows with each passing day, it must be fed, housed and paid for. Growing pains are everywhere, and the spotlight shines fiercely on Doha and the way of life here as never before. While the Qataris might wish for a quieter period following the leadership transition, their wishes will not be honoured. For once in the spotlight it is hard to shy away from it, Qatar must understand that the world is now interested in its future, whether it wants it to be or not.

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