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Qatar’s future a quieter one?

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Perhaps being a little less interesting from now on in would help ensure the country a more stable and prosperous future. 

Michael Stephens
25 June 2013

Qatar is buzzing with political activity, Taliban, Syrians, and rumours over transition have taken over the Emirate in the last week. The town feels invigorated again after a 2013 in which Doha has struggled to maintain its central position in regional affairs.

Last year visiting delegations attended numerous conferences and high levels meetings making weekly trips to the Sheraton Hotel almost mandatory for those wishing to stay in the loop. The most important event, the COP 18 climate change conference literally brought areas of the city to standstill so great was the logistical challenge involved in running it. This year although the total number of conferences in Doha has actually gone up, their importance has been of less interest to people in the foreign policy profession.

So the recent flurry of activity is a well needed shot in the arm for Qatar, who once again seems to be placed at the top table of regional affairs. Although it could be argued that the political problems surrounding the opening the Taliban office have not necessarily been good for Qatar, and the Friends of Syria conference has been a predictable set of promises without much substance to back them.

Once again Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim led from the front dealing with the media and the legions of diplomats that descended on Doha’s Four Seasons Hotel. It will be hard to imagine a Qatar in which he will not be a central figure of its political activity, so great is his influence and so important his role in asserting Qatari interests on the global stage.

Given that Qatar has just experienced a seminal moment in its history following the abdication of the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani who has handed power to his Tamim bin Hamad, it is important to ask what will become of Doha in the coming years. Doha 2013 is already a quieter town than the Doha 2012: could we see a further change in times to come with a newer less experienced team leading from the front?

The question centres on Qatar’s strategic vision and whether it is premised on a view of its place in the world that is set in stone for the next twenty years, or whether it is dependent on the personalities of the ruling family to define the nation’s course in world affairs. Clearly a small elite at the top of policy allows for a highly flexible domestic and foreign policy, which can be changed “by whim”, but Qatar is committed to long term international projects, such as its financial commitments to Egypt, and its commitment to the Free Syrian Army in its struggle against Bashar. It should not be expected that Qatar will back out of these commitments at any time in the near future.

Nevertheless, with the transfer of power from the Emir to his son Tamim, it is likely that the drive of these two men who pushed Qatar to dizzying heights will be gone, ensuring that fewer such commitments will be made. Qataris now talk of an elite retreating to a more inward domestic focus on developing the capital city and committing to constitutional and legal reforms. This will be somewhat necessary in order to ensure that the preparations for World Cup 2022 are completed on schedule and the nation is ready for the influx of one million visitors, swelling its population by 50%.

Understanding the extent of this tiny country’s influence in the world was always a conundrum. If money alone determined power, then Kuwait and Brunei would have pushed their weight around. If personality determined power Libya under Muammar Gaddafi might well have done the same. In Qatar it is a unique combination of those two factors which brought the nation to sit with the world’s top players and play a leading role in changing regional affairs, although not always for the better.

It is difficult to see Qatar rising any higher in a region which is no longer universally accepting of its influence, especially without its diplomatic prize fighter Hamad bin Jassim to meet the challenges that lie ahead for it. This is no bad thing. It may well be better in the long run for the tiny Emirate to return to doing what it does best, wowing people with mega purchases of European brands, hosting cultural initiatives and social development programmes, and leaving the entrenched problems of the Levant to the region’s historical players to solve. It does Qatar no good to be sucked into the vortex of an unstable region, especially at a time when there is uncertainty surrounding the future of the country’s leadership.

Doha’s moment in the sun has brought it both supporters and detractors, and the journey into the light has been nothing if not interesting. But perhaps being a little less interesting from now on in would help ensure for the country a more stable and prosperous future. 

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