Zaheer Munir |
Qatar’s Strategic Relevance in the Contemporary Middle East
Qatar emerged as the regional power broker in 2006 with Israel’s war in Lebanon which resulted in Doha Agreement. Since then Qatar’s regional clout has grown considerably. Owing to its enormous economic wealth, political stability and information capabilities and, to some extent an apolitical populace, Qatar played an unparalleled role in 2011 Arab Spring; in which Al-Jazeera positioned itself as the voice of the revolutionaries of Syria and Libya. While Saudi Arabia was preoccupied in quashing anti-government movements in Yemen and Bahrain and other Gulf Monarchies were embroiled in internal political crises, Qatar saw an opportunity in this regional crises to emerge as a formidable political actor and expand its political clout from Morocco to Syria.
Qatar is situated at the northeastern coastal Arabian Peninsula, sharing its only land border with Saudi Arabia to its south. Despite being a smaller country in geographical terms, Qatar has started exercising profound political and economic clout in regional and international politics owing to its diversified foreign policy and third largest reserves of oil and gas.
Qatar’s role as a regional economic and political power from a relatively medieval, tribal state began in 1995 when the former emir of Qatar, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al-Thani, was deposed by none other than his own son, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, in a coup d’etat when the father Sheikh was vacationing in Swiss Alps. Sheikh Hamad, the son, left his father a simple telephone message: “Don’t Come Back.”
Upon taking the throne, the new Emir of Qatar introduced various reforms to liberalize country’s culture and economy and develop a diverse foreign policy approach towards the Middle East and the world and integrating his country more with international finance and political dispensation.
It adopted a very delicate posture towards its foreign relations in regards to regional and international actors, a balancing act which until now played an important role in raising Qatar’s international profile as a regional power broker and an indispensable nation in regional power dynamics. On one hand, Qatar supported monetarily Islamists movements like Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood and on the other hand, yet, it enjoys cordial relationships with Europe and U.S.
Kristen C. Ulrichsen, a fellow at Baker Institute and author of Qatar and the Arab Spring, has identified five fundamental elements essential for Qatar’s regional and international rapport – establishment and sustaining of Al-Jazeera, developing tourism, placement of Doha as an educational and cultural hub, hosting of international sporting events, and presenting itself as an environmental-friendly country.
How Qatar become a regional power
Qatar-based Al-Jazeera played a significant role in Arab Spring when its airwaves were full of political opposition to the regimes in Syria, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere to regional and international communities and channelizing support for the revolutionaries. Qatar by its policy of supporting and sponsoring dissent enraged the embattled regimes including Syria’s Bashar Ul-Assad, who expelled Khalid Meshal, Political Leader of Hamas, from Damascus following which Hamas Political Leadership found sanctuary in Doha.
Subsequently, Qatar, alongside Turkey, increased its investment of political capital in Islamist movements – Hamas in Gaza and Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – to expand its influence and cement its imprint in the Middle Eastern balance of power and place the geographically tiny Arab country as a formidable power broker and political player. This increasing diplomatic foothold caused unease in several Gulf Monarchies but Western powers, notwithstanding Qatar’s political proclivities towards Islamists movements, chose to overlook its role for their own strategic interests.
As regional Gulf monarchs were engaged in placating and suppressing political dissent, Qatar proactively pursued its interests in multilateral forums like Arab League and United Nations to make a case against Libya’s authoritarian regime even going so far as to actively participating in the military intervention in Libya, an adoption of policy in exchange of which Qatar earn security, political and economic benefits from U.S. and Europe. Reasons behind Western powers overlooking of Qatar’s duplicity may lie in economic and political complexities.
With a sovereign wealth fund of $85bn, Qataris have cash to spend and as Europe emerges from economic crises it sought private investment. Moreover, Qataris also spend opulently in Great Britain’s real estate. For instance, they own London’s tallest Skyscraper, the Shard, and the Harrods, London’s exclusive fashionable store. The European Union designated Hamas as a terrorist organization but Europeans have a tendency for dialogue and cherish the notions of dialogue with opposing parties thus Qatar’s engagement with Hamas don’t seem to bother them much.
Qatar actions to reduce tensions in its own backyard
On the other side of the Atlantic, U.S. has a multifaceted strategic relationship with Qatar – which houses U.S. Central Command forward headquarters. U.S. support for Dr. Morsi government in Egypt and its nuclear agreement with Iran infuriated Gulf Sheikhdoms and introduced incendiary sentiments into its relationships with Gulf Monarchies. Thus, under President Obama, Qatar continues to be an Arab-friendly nation to U.S. interests.
But Qatar’s political support to revolutionaries in Syria and western-leaning postures put it at odds with another regional power – Iran.
Qatar’s political investment in Islamists movements came crashing down when Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi, the-then chief of staff of Egyptian Armed Forces, launched a coup d’etat against Muhammad Morsi, Muslim Brotherhood’s elected president of Egypt, in the aftermath of Egypt’s 2011 revolution. Since assuming power, President Sisi ordered the destruction of tunnels in Gaza Strip which borders Egypt and which were used by Hamas for transfer finance and arms. This exacerbated tensions of Egypt, and other Gulf Monarchies who support Sisi, with Qatar. In 2014, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador in Qatar citing Qatar’s interference in internal affairs of KSA. Other Gulf Monarchies followed suit including Egypt and Bahrain.
However, as of late-2014, Qatar moderated it’s foreign policy positions and eight months of diplomatic altercation with its Gulf neighborhood came to end as KSA alongside other Gulf countries sent their ambassadors back to Doha. Thus, normalizing their relationship with Qatar. In early 2015, Doha also joined the Saudi-led effort to dislodge Houthi rebels from the government in Yemen.
Meanwhile, Qatar welcomed the nuclear agreement between Iran and the Western powers and continues to pursue a strategic partnership with Iran by signing a security agreement to protect the two countries boundary waters amongst other things. Qatar seeks to expand its cooperation with Iran, and is eyeing an economic partnership in natural gas as soon as sanctions are lifted. Qatar has outsmarted the major players of the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia and other gulf countries and has proven itself to be an economic and political power to be dealt with.
Zeeshan Munir is a senior research associate at Center for Strategic and Contemporary Research, Islamabad. He has a deep interest in global affairs and international humanitarian law.