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Qatari foreign policy: a way out

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It’s been a bad month. Rather than put money into the central bank in Cairo, why not help subsidise staple foods for Egypt’s poorest, or support relief aid in North Africa? 

Michael Stephens
22 July 2013

Qatar has had a bad month, a really bad month. Its foreign policy, so energetically constructed over a period of more than ten years, and infused with billions of dollars and hundreds of hours of late night diplomacy has received a number of serious setbacks.

In Syria, Qatar’s candidate for the chairmanship of the National Coalition, Mustafa Sabbagh, lost out to the Saudi backed candidate Ahmad Jarba. In addition the rebels, so long backed by Doha continue to lose ground and have begun to descend into serious infighting.

In Doha, the opening of an office for the Taliban has gone horribly wrong. After meaningless spats over plaques on the wall and flag poles, the overly delicate egos of Hamid Karzai and some Pakistan Taliban ensured that the office arrived stillborn. Their hosts in Doha, rather than celebrating a diplomatic coup, now host an empty building, and it is unknown if it will ever be in use again.

Finally in Egypt, Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the allies of Qatar and recipients of at least $5bn in financial assistance, have fallen from power following a popular backed military coup and violent repression ensuring they and their supporters were removed swiftly from positions of influence. In addition Al Jazeera’s Mubasher Masr television station was raided, its journalists detained, half of whom swiftly resigned from the channel for its ‘biased’ coverage.

Signs of malaise

In truth the warning signs were all around. Those of us in Doha saw as early as January 2012 that the Qataris were beginning to make enemies, and by the beginning of 2013 the drop in Qatar’s popularity had become alarming. Myself and others urged the Qataris to change course or face dire consequences. It was a message that was heeded, but seemingly not acted upon swiftly enough to prevent the coming collapse.

In addition, Al Jazeera Arabic’s coverage of the region has appeared more slanted and less tolerant of pluralistic viewpoints, losing millions of viewers in the process. The backlash in Egypt against the channel had been brewing for months, yet Al Jazeera blindly ignored the writing on the wall.

If it looks bad for Qatar, that’s because it is. But all is not lost, and should Qatar decide that its engagements with the world are worthy of upkeep there are number of steps to consider that can halt the slide and help to rebuild its regional position:

1) Don't Panic: Qatar has a history of zigzagging when policies appear to be going wrong. Often this makes it nigh on impossible to predict what Qatar will do and breeds suspicion: fickle behaviour in the international arena is a sign of immaturity. Take time to assess and figure out ways to rebuild your regional position - Ramadan could be a good time to rethink quietly.

2) Understand what mistakes were made and why: Looking at where Qatar began to make enemies is critical to understanding where Qatar is where it is today. As early as the beginning of 2012 cracks were appearing as Qatar began to upset players in multilateral forums, and pushed and undermined key regional actors, particularly in the Arab League.

3) Realign Al Jazeera Arabic to a more neutral standpoint: In short Al Jazeera's fall from grace has been Qatar's biggest body blow, its perceived bias in Egypt and Syria and alignment to Muslim Brotherhood voices has caused a catastrophic blow to its credibility. Furthermore the channel’s response to the complaints of Shia, Allawi and Egyptian employees has been an attitude of "if you don't like it leave". The result is that AJA became more internally focused and self-referential. The lack of internal debate and exile of dissenters has led to a channel which can no longer understand why it is perceived as biased and what it has done to lose so much trust.

4) Restructure foreign policy-making apparatuses: Qatari foreign policy is made by a small number of key actors, with a circle of advisors that hover around the edges, sometimes possessing a Rasputin-like influence. The more diversified the foreign policy making apparatus is, the more ideas flow to the top and the more nuanced foreign policy becomes. It slows down decision-making, but more adequately highlights risks and potential sources of conflict that are coming down the line.

5) Realign diplomatic efforts away from militaristic tendencies: Qatar has become too associated with acting like a bull in a china shop, embracing the military option when other players sought more nuanced approaches. It may have short term benefits, but long term it is ruinous, especially with the empowerment of militias in Libya and Syria who have acted in ways contrary to the goals of regional players and the west. Qatar's strength was that it appeared non-biased and never threatened anybody militarily, allowing it influence and the trust of players it worked with. Now Qatar is seen as an interfering aggressor who will turn to the military option to get what it wants. Which leads to point six:

6) Embrace soft power: Qatar has fabulously wealthy arms of soft power, the Qatar Foundation run by the widely popular and respected mother of the Emir Sheikha Moza bint Nasser al Misnad is a crucial arm of this drive. Alongside Silatech and Qatar Charity, Qatar can channel money into populist causes and present itself once more as a force for good in the region. Rather than put money into the central bank in Cairo, why not help subsidise staple foods for Egypt’s poorest, or support relief aid in North Africa? And be bold about it, however much is being currently being spent on international development, double it. Money isn’t in short supply, especially if support to Syrian rebels is curtailed.

7) Support a wider spectrum of regional actors: Although unquestionably an Arab and Islamic country, Qatar does not need to be married to political Islam. It was sensible to assume after decades of repression that it was a rising force, but to exclusively support Islamists in some actors has been a disaster. Political Islam will be a player in the region for many years, but so will other forces. Widening the field of engagement will produce wider gains in the long run, and hedging bets rather than firmly taking sides will ensure Qatar is better able to see its foreign policy goals realised.

8) Explain yourselves: The previous seven points are worthless if Qatar can’t explain to the world what it is doing and seeks to achieve. An interview with the elite once or twice a year on CNN focusing on Qatar's enormous wealth, social reforms and high standards of living isn't enough to satisfy a world that wants to know what Qatar is up to. Employ a spokesman to give on the record briefings about what Qatar's positions are, and be available for comment when journalists ask questions. Though Qatar has tried to open up, it has not been enough, and journalists have felt slighted, and those tasked with reporting Qatari foreign policy are left to guess at intentions. When even neutral actors are writing about you using 50% guesswork it will always backfire and always make you look bad, because it is the nature of the news business to always assume the worst.

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