Qatar’s public diplomacy woes


When the rumours get so large that answers are demanded they are met with walls of silence, not because Qatar has anything to hide, but because that is the culture of governance here.

Michael Stephens
4 February 2013

2013 seems to be the year of open season on Qatar. In my recent travels and conversations I have found myself listening to lists of endless grievances and accusations about the country, one person even went so far as to claim that he and many others like him hated Qatar. Having grown deeply fond of Qataris and their culture, some of this criticism levelled from the outside can at times cause me to go on the defensive. But personal feelings must be put aside, and it is time to ask why this is happening, and what has caused Qatar’s popularity to plummet so dramatically in recent months?

A caveat; I’m not going to talk about al Jazeera, or the Muslim Brotherhood, or Jihadists in Mali and Syria. Many have already explored these issues in depth: there is no need to offer a rehash of what Sultan al Qassemi and others have so eloquently explored. Living in Qatar offers a chance to analyse from the inside looking out, rather than the outside looking in.

Qatar is a young underdeveloped state. Its Ministries are small and lack research teams of adequate depth, and it does not possess a foreign intelligence service, it relies instead on the good will of others to share information with it. Its style of governance is top heavy and not complimented by adequate balances against policy decisions.

Think tanks are here, Brookings, RUSI, and the Al Jazeera Studies Centre; but whilst diplomats from many nations use the resources we provide to deepen their understanding of world affairs and fact-check their missives to their respective Foreign Ministries, the Qataris have shown little interest in engaging any of us other than to attend conferences; hardly where the real foreign policy work gets done.

Contrast this to Saudi Arabia or Bahrain where local thinkers connected to government sit in well-funded think tanks, and where discussions behind closed doors are open and frank, and you begin to see why Qatar is running into trouble. The Qatari policy elite sit distanced from the events they are controlling, unaware often of the turbulent waters that swirl beneath. Rumours begin, without the elite’s knowledge and very quickly spread into larger rumours; before you know it elites in the UAE fear that Qatar is funding Muslim Brotherhood terror cells in Ras al Khaimah and half the world is convinced Qatar is spreading Jihadist ideology in Mali.

When the rumours get so large that answers are demanded they are met with walls of silence, not because Qatar has anything to hide, but because that is the culture of governance here.

The most worrying aspect of all is that people in positions of power across the world now believe these stories and shape their policies accordingly, likewise editors in major news outlets and newspapers are also convinced of Qatar’s guilt. 99% of these stories are untrue, but at this point there is little Qatar can do to stop itself being viewed so negatively. There is always someone somewhere using the limited facts they possess to write invective at Qatar’s expense, four or five of us living here can try to offer the dispassionate facts but the boring reality is never as interesting as gossip, assumption and conspiracy.

Furthermore it is not the job of the analysts here to do Qatar’s PR work for it.

Currently the Qatari foreign policy track is to engage wherever and whenever it can, leveraging finances, diplomatic skill and occasionally Al Jazeera to assist in its global ambitions to deepen ties and secure its long term prosperity in the post-hydrocarbon age.

All well and good, but regional leadership needs more than a TV station and five people at the top of the government making all the decisions. It is impossible with the number of world problems in which Qatar is involving itself for five people to possess the information necessary to deal with them adequately. Here Qatar’s small size is a true hindrance to the size of its aspirations, to remedy this factor would require human resources of a state 100 times more populous.

But, in the 21st century a state wishing to aspire to regional leadership, and delving into the muddy waters of Syria, Libya, Mali, Palestine and other areas needs to have a developed and open discussion of policy in order for the vultures swirling above not to take their pound of flesh.

Decision-making that affects the lives of millions of people is taken in Qatar every day, but if not openly discussed then suspicions inevitably arise. In a region undergoing change and riven by conspiracy theory and suspicion of outside interference, a tiny rich state popping up all over the globe and not adequately explaining itself begins to raise a few eyebrows.

In short, Qatar’s culture of silence is beginning to backfire badly. The Prime Minister’s recent denials of nefarious dealings in Mali and Syria have gone largely unheard by both the Arab, and the western world. The thinking being ‘well if you have nothing to hide then why didn’t you say something sooner?’

Again it is important to stress that most of the time Qatar’s actions are genuinely more benign than people assume. In Mali for example the only evidence of Qatari involvement there are four individuals for the Qatari Red Crescent working at a hospital in Gao, hardly a developed operation to sponsor Jihadists across the region. This assertion has been backed up by the French DGSE who found no evidence of hostile Qatari operations in Mali. Yet so deep is the suspicion of Qatar it appears this evidence matters little.

What is to be done? Well much of this could be avoided by simply employing a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to provide a weekly briefing to journalists, and once in a while giving people in the foreign policy professions a call to ask their advice: we don’t bite. Lastly, employ more Qataris with international experience and draft them into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to research these problems and produce policy recommendations as Bahrain and Saudi have done.

Qatar’s dizzy rise onto the global stage was always going to be bumpy, but now the country needs to develop its infrastructure to deal with the challenges it wishes to take on. The risks of not doing so are already in evidence: a Qatari flag was burned in Cairo last week, and if Qatar’s unpopularity continues to rise burnt flags will be the least of its problems.

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