With immense wealth, a novel brand, and a distinctive foreign policy agenda, Qatar has emerged as a rising power in the Persian Gulf. Abetted by 13 percent of the world’s total natural gas reserves and the preeminence of its national news outlet, Al-Jazeera, Qatar has demonstrated a unique capacity for promulgating its own soft power. Indeed, with traditionally dominant states such as Egypt and Syria engrossed in internal conflicts and political turmoil, Qatar is taking advantage of a shifting geopolitical landscape. Because Qatar’s agenda and strategic objectives remain ambiguous, one must wonder whether its current prominence is merely a transitory phenomenon or if it signals the arrival of a new dominant force in the Middle East.
Activism in the Arab Spring
A catalyst for the Arab League’s support for intervention in Libya, Qatar was also the first Arab country to recognize the Transitional National Council established by rebel forces. During Gaddafi’s overthrow, Qatar not only supplied financial and logistical support to insurgents, but also put several hundred special-forces personnel on the ground. These instances of intervention mark a substantial departure from a Qatari foreign policy that traditionally exhibited a neutral disposition. However, according to Dr. Ibrahim Sharqieh, Deputy Director of the Brookings Doha Center, this agenda emerged from an ideological shift among neighboring Middle Eastern states whereby most governments are increasingly less averse to interventionism.
Elsewhere, Qatar, both independently and through the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has undertaken an activist role. Within the GCC, sustained rapprochement and close collaboration between Qatar and Saudi Arabia have allowed Qataris to act with unprecedented strength. Although they are traditional rivals, the two nations have been bound by mutual interests. Justin Dargin, currently a Research Associate with The Dubai Initiative and a Fulbright Scholar studying the Persian Gulf, characterized these states as, “less willing to allow intra-Gulf issues” to impede cooperation. The GCC-brokered deal that eased Ali Abdullah Saleh out of power in Yemen and pro-monarchy intervention in Bahrain exemplify this. More recently, a meeting with the Friends of Syria opposition movement in Istanbul resulted in a joint pledge by Qatar and Saudi Arabia to provide financial aid and weaponry to rebels.
Reconciling the Irreconcilable
Through its newly acquired position in international politics, Qatar has been able to develop strategic partnerships with many actors, balancing relationships between seemingly irreconcilable groups. Indeed, Qatar has long enjoyed U.S. protection and friendship, even hosting several American military bases. Simultaneously, Qatar maintains amicable relationships with groups conventionally opposed to U.S. interests. Qatar’s support of Islamist movements including the Muslim Brotherhood has been viewed with suspicion by U.S. administrations. Qatar also has close and relatively congenial relations with Iran and, partially stemming from its connections with Taliban leadership, it facilitated the proposed Taliban office in Doha, encouraging now stalled negotiations to end the Afghanistan conflict. In Egypt, Qatar has close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and is a substantial, yet opaque source of funds to affiliated political parties.
Qatar has long used economic tools to establish and maintain alliances outside of traditional political or diplomatic frameworks. Previously, due to rivalry with Saudi Arabia, Qatar sought to form independent relations with its neighbors in what Dargin described as an “alternative power bloc.” In the Dolphin Gas Project, initiated in 1999, Qatar spearheaded the construction of a natural gas pipeline to establish closer ties with the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Qatar has also improved friendships with its Gulf neighbors by selling natural gas below market price. Paralleling this, with goodwill accumulated from its economic and military aid during the Libyan Revolution, Qatar has moved toward establishing strong partnerships with Libya’s energy sector.
Strategy or Sentiment?
In general, Qatar’s objectives are framed as a combination of security concerns and symbolic considerations. Dr. Michael Herb, author of All in the Family: Absolutism, Revolution, and Democracy in the Middle Eastern Monarchies, tells the HPR that Qatar’s primary security interest is defending its petroleum wealth. In addition, he notes that the vast natural gas field shared with Iran, “adds another dimension to the necessity to cooperate,” facilitating the maintenance of generally amicable relations.
However, Qatar’s policies have gone beyond what is necessary for ensuring these interests. Herb believes that, “the degree of activity in international politics has something to do with the desires of the leadership to make an impact.” As Dr. Gregory Gause, an expert on the Persian Gulf with the Brookings Institute, asserted to the HPR, it is, “hard to characterize Qatari foreign policy” because it tends to be “very much driven by the Emir and the Prime Minister…[and] not based on anything you would argue is national interest.” From his perspective, “personality-driven” policies and ambition have driven these leaders to seek status and power for Qatar. For instance, Qatar mounted an aggressive campaign, under the leadership of the Emir himself, to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup and will be the first Arab state to do so. In preparation, massive infrastructure projects, such as an expanded metro system and a Qatar-Bahrain causeway, are being planned. Through domestic infrastructural investment, Qatar is seeking symbolic recognition along with geopolitical dominance.
Yet, simultaneously, Qatar has ample reason to seek alliances. As a small nation in an ever-perilous region, Qatar faces fundamental challenges to its security. In particular, the escalating confrontation surrounding Iran’s nuclear program puts Qatar at risk. As Gause points out, while the U.S. base in Qatar does provide protection, this could also drag Qatar, however unwilling, into a future confrontation or make it a target for retaliation. He characterizes the presence of air bases as a “double-edged sword” as it has the potential to make Qatar collateral damage in a massive geopolitical conflict. For instance, a potential U.S. air strike on Iran could best be launched from these bases, yet recent statements by Qatar have expressed strong opposition to such an attack. Dargin describes Qatar as, “attempting to serve as a moderating voice in the conflict” by seeking, “to balance various forces in the region.” Yet ultimately, as Sharqieh warns, “When great powers fight… small players would be likely to pay the price.” Thus, Qatar’s use of financial and soft power to build influence and goodwill are likely fundamentally motivated by concerns for its security.
The Honest Broker?
Although Qatar has only recently garnered a central role in Middle Eastern power politics, the nation has long played the part of intermediary and problem-solver. Past successes include brokering a solution to political gridlock in Lebanon and facilitating the entente between Fatah and Hamas. Through maintaining and further developing relationships with emerging power centers, Qatar could fulfill the increasingly essential role of an honest broker in the Middle East, even if these initiatives are driven by personal ambition and self-protection. Ultimately, although Qatar’s privileged geopolitical position may not be sustainable, its liminal position and critical role will make it integral to the future stability of the region.