The wave of popular uprisings that have swept across the Middle East for the past two years have fundamentally changed the status quo in the region. The sclerotic regimes of Libya, Yemen, Tunisia and Egypt have been removed and Bashar al-Assad is fighting to remain in power in Syria. The leaders of Jordan, Kuwait and Bahrain have found themselves frantically bolstering their hold on power with a desperate combination of financial incentives and brute force.
As the winds of change blow through the Arab world there is one state that has yet to feel the chill of social unrest. Qatar is a tiny Gulf emirate with a population of around 225,000 and a landmass about the same as the state of Connecticut. Its diminutive size, however, belies its economic might Qatar has the third largest natural gas reserves in the world and a per capita income for its citizens estimated at somewhere over $400,000. This accumulation of wealth has gone someway in explaining why the Qatari ruling elite has found itself relatively immune to criticism from its domestically satisfied populace. At first glance then it would seem that Qatar appears the same as the other oil and gas rich Gulf emirates, conservative in ideology and content to let the social upheaval of the Levant and North Africa burn itself out against a backdrop of government repression and the festering sore of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But this is not the path that the Qatari regime has sought to take. Under the stewardship of King Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Qatar has built a reputation for itself as a specialist in ‘niche diplomacy’ and conflict mediation in the region. In the last five years Qatar has been prominent in conflict mediation in Lebanon, Sudan and Yemen, with a lower key involvement in Palestine. More recently, Qatar has moved to outright support of revolutionary factions within the Arab uprisings. It provided Special Forces training for the Libyan rebels as well as economic support and access to global oil markets. It has been instrumental in organising the Syrian National Coalition as a credible opposition force by encouraging the formation of a broad coalition in the Qatari capital Doha and recognising it as the sole representative of the Syrian opposition. A broad pattern is emerging of Qatari support for Islamist opposition movements against nominally secular authoritarian dictators in the region. What is the motivation for a conservative rentier monarchy that is focussed on building its infrastructure up for the World Cup in 2020 to engage in regional conflict so prodigiously?
As Qatar has built up its wealth and secured the domestic position of the regime it has widened its gaze to the instability of the wider region in which it resides. Its military security is provided by the location of the American al-Udeid airbase acting as a pre-emptive check to any expansionist tendencies of Qatar’s overbearing neighbours like Saudi Arabia or Iran. This reliance on US security has provided the al-Thani family with a much greater degree of foreign policy autonomy than they were allowed prior to the first Gulf War when Qatar instinctively looked to the Saudis for protection. The Kingdom’s pusillanimous reaction to the Iraqi threat convinced Qatar that it required the guardianship of a more steadfast power.
It engaged in a successful mediation effort to avert civil war in Lebanon in 2008, but the process of mediation as opposed to resolution has exposed Qatar to the shortcomings that are incumbent given its small size and lack of traditional hard power. Absence of diplomatic resolution, addressing the underlying causes of conflict, inevitably leads to future unrest, as we are currently witnessing in the ongoing Gaza conflict. In a bid to bring long term change to the region Qatar has abandoned neutrality in favour of proactive intervention.
There has been some western criticism that this involvement is manifesting itself in Qatari bias towards overtly Islamic resistance movements. This is invariably the pattern that Qatari policy would prefer to follow as it should represent their interest most fruitfully. Qatar considers itself a socially developing Wahabi state but the regime does not push this austere form of Islam on the resistance movements that it sponsors. It has cultivated excellent relationships with Islamic resistance movements through the offer of asylum to many exiled leaders including Ali al Sabihi, a prominent imam in post-Gaddafi Libya, the Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal and his son, the head of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front, Abaasi Medani and several others. The Muslim Brotherhood dissolved its Qatar branch in 1999 after it was determined that the government was suitably pious. By cultivating these relationships the Qatari policy has ensured two things. The inevitable success of indigenous Islamic parties will be intrinsically linked to appreciation of Qatari support, manifesting itself in acquiescence to Qatari reconstruction projects. The success of the Libyan rebels opened up reconstruction projects estimated at 700 billion dollars, with the opportunity of taking over 30 billion dollars of abandoned Russian and Chinese developments. Success in Syria would open up pipelines for Qatari gas that are currently blocked by Assad and the Saudi royal family. For the post- revolution regimes, such economic investment and a sense of personal appreciation to Qatar would invariably be favourable to Qatari foreign policy and its vision for security in the region based on a pluralistic inter-dependency. It will also provide Qatar with an increased diplomatic say on the policies of these grateful regimes.
The real goals of Qatari foreign policy will only be known to a select few within the al- Thani regime. What is clear is that the immediate security of the regime is secure, and that its mediation and proactive support of rebels against secular authoritarian regimes will continue as long as Qatar deems it profitable in terms of its global image and long-term development goals.