Recently I was quoted in the Daily Beast making a rather inflammatory comment about how Qataris view the situation in Egypt, in which I reflected the opinion as I have managed to glean it from speaking to as many of my Qatari friends here as will talk about it, “Public opinion here is simply to cut the bastards loose and watch them free-fall. This won’t change the policy much, but it’s going to hurt the [government].”
Not very scholarly perhaps, but toned down within the context of what I was hearing. In short those Qataris that pay attention to foreign affairs and the Egypt issue in particular are angry, really angry. Qataris have begun to realise that many Egyptians don’t like them very much.
Egyptians who resent external interference in their affairs and the biased supporting of Al Jazeera for the Muslim Brotherhood have just cause to suspect Qatari activities.
But that’s not how public opinion works. The average Qatari has little time for Egyptian moaning about bias. From this side of the political divide the Egyptians appear ungrateful, rude and disrespectful. Much of this I’m afraid to say stems from the actions of a small minority of Egyptians in Tahrir Square who set fire to Qatari flags two months ago. But the development of this issue has taken on its own life. Qataris tend to react strongly to abuse directed against their country and their sheikh, and now are fed up with the criticism labelled at them for what they perceive as simply trying to help.
In a Facebook post Emirati commentator Sultan al Qassemi wrongly interpreted my comment about “the bastards” to mean the Muslim Brotherhood, actually the comment was referring to all of Egypt, Brotherhood, Secularist, Liberal, Christian and Salafist. In the minds of many here, Egypt should be left to go its own way.
Let me add however that there is a genuine concern among the population here for the people of Egypt and the problems they are going through. It may appear paternalistic at times but the vast majority of Qataris don’t rejoice at seeing Egypt still mired in political and social problems.
Last week Qatar announced the investment of another $3bn into Egypt with the purchasing of government bonds that supposedly promise a 15% yield on the initial purchase - a comically large figure that the Egyptians cannot possibly hope to honour. Nevertheless Qatar is buying up billions of dollars of Egyptian government debt, presumably knowing that it shouldn’t expect much in return.
Given that Qatar’s finance Minister Yusuf Kamal announced only a few weeks previously that Qatar would be suspending its investment in Egypt after a previous injection of $5bn, the additional $3bn investment has raised a few eyebrows, from both Egyptians and Qataris. Why keep putting money into Egypt, when a) the Egyptians themselves don’t want it and b) the cash flows are only enough to prop up Egypt for a few weeks at the very most?
The truth is that Qatar is locked into a difficult spiral that it can’t get out of. Egypt’s economy, largely due to the incompetence of the Muslim Brotherhood and the country’s inability to politically stabilise, is an economic disaster requiring countless of billions every month to simply stop it accruing more debt as its currency devalues alarmingly. Qatar made a commitment when Field Marshall Tantawi and the SCAF ruled the country to help stabilise Egypt’s political future, since then at least $10bn has come from Doha to help prevent Egypt from hitting the economic wall.
But the commitment with Egypt in its current state seems never-ending, requiring countless more billions in the coming months and years. Qatar is in a bind, if it keeps the commitment going public opinion in Egypt will continue to turn against it, and be met with a rising tide of Qatari anger. But if Qatar were to pull out from Egypt now it would risk looking like a fair-weather ally. Given that Qatar’s best diplomatic tool is its money, it would be catastrophically damaging to the country’s regional standing if the impression took hold that Qatari money could be offered and withdrawn at a moment’s notice when the going got tough. No one would ever accept Qatari money again.
So Qatar is stuck with its recalcitrant ally for the considerable future, this despite the growing antipathy of both populations toward each other. Given this it’s time to move toward making the alliance a little more palatable for both sides.
If the Egyptian people don’t like where Qatar’s money is going it’s time to start telling the Qataris where they do want it to go.
Childishly burning flags isn’t going to get this relationship anywhere. Newspapers, radio stations, and broadcasters can all call on a plethora of well-educated Egyptians to make their case and push forward for directing funds in a way which will help the Egyptian people.
From the Qatari side, setting up a forum for dialogue with Egyptians about where they might better want to see funds directed, and also using soft power initiatives to assist in Egypt’s poorest regions, particularly with the provision of staple resources would prove a lot more useful than simply buying government bonds or dumping billions into the central bank.
The Qatari-Egyptian relationship risks becoming highly toxic for both sides and could breed long term antipathy between its peoples. The time has come to turn the ship around and move it forward into a more mutually beneficial dynamic for both sides.