Turbulent times across the MENA [Middle East & Near Aligned] region have focused the world’s attention to a handful of highly dynamic actors. It is hard not to be aware of the increasingly desperate situation in Syria, the rocky road to recovery in Tunisia, or the Gulf’s own issues in Bahrain. However, the Arab Spring has also proven an opportunity for a series of additional actors to seize and cement their role in the regional arena. One such actor is Qatar, the small, gas-rich emirate determined to be at the forefront of regional diplomacy.
Qatar’s rise to regional importance has not happened overnight. Its success in winning the 2022 World Cup bid in 2010 highlights how far it has come from being a small, thumb-like peninsula on a region often thought of as uniform in its politics and wealth. In the last century, it has grown from being a small backwater of pearl-divers to an international conference hub, a world sporting venue, a key diplomatic player, the home of al-Jazeera and a top tourist destination. Most importantly, it has become a key political mediator and player both within the MENA region, and on an increasingly global footing. Common consensus is that it was during the 1990s that these changes began, and with both a clear goal and an ability to react to dramatic regional events, have since developed.
The key turning point in Qatar’s development came when Emir Hamad al-Thani overthrew his father in a bloodless coup in 1995, although as David Roberts (academic and author of ‘Qatar and the Changing Conception of Security’) points out, some of his ideas were in motion before the coup.i While Qatar’s political history has been dominated by family dispute and dynamic succession, this one was marked by the fact that Emir Hamad refused to pay his father the usual portion of Qatar’s extensive gas and oil wealth for the trouble. Following this, came a series of reforms introducing uncensored media, enfranchising women and introducing elections for a ‘consultative’ council – a big step for a region marked by authoritarian monarchy.
One of the key parts of Qatar’s policy was the creation of the news network al-Jazeera in 1996, under decree from Emir Hamad al-Thani. In a region that is often defined by state-controlled media, al-Jazeera has often come under fire from many quarters for its reporting; criticising governments and often taking sympathetic viewpoints, in particular regarding Hamas. Whatever its occasional leanings, al-Jazeera is widely regarded as a revolutionary step towards press freedom and credibility, operating with ‘less constraint’ than many other news sources in the region. It has played an important role in the Tunisian uprising and has provided coverage of many of the key events in the Arab Spring.ii In this fashion, it has established itself not only as an important and trusted news source for the region, but also as an effective marketing tool for the aims of the Qatari state.
While an important facet of Qatari policy, al-Jazeera’s role is secondary to Qatari aims of being regional diplomat and mediator. In 2011, Qatar became the first Arab state to accept Libya’s transitional government, further cementing its role on an international stage. The run-up to this involved diplomatic contributions in Yemen, Darfur and Lebanon to name a few. At points, this policy has been at best contradictory, at worst controversial. Emir Hamad al-Thani’s visit to the blockaded Gaza in October 2012 was one such occasion, raising hackles despite calling for peace.iii However, despite this, Qatar’s role in regional diplomatic negotiations have, for the most part, remained relatively unbiased, setting itself up as what Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, LSE academic, calls ‘a (relatively) honest broker’.iv These policies of diplomacy over economic gain are not new for the state. Prior to its movements in the international stage, Qatar also began a policy pushing forward with increased Gulf integration. Justin Dargin, energy expert, argues that the creation of the Dolphin pipeline (connecting the UAE and Oman to Qatari gas supplies) was based more on political desires for stronger neighbourly relations than commercial interests.v These policies point to a state intent on creating both a role and security in a notoriously dynamic region.
The reasons behind this seemingly speedy growth are both theoretical and practical. Qatar, like many if its neighbours, is geographically small with a majority expatriate population. In addition to this it has substantial oil and natural gas reserves, giving it the highest estimated GDP per capita globally in 2012.vi It is ruled by the al-Thani family who have held power, despite many internal manoeuvrings, since the end of the nineteenth century. This small size, great wealth and dynastic monarchical set-up have made it possible to streamline policy decision-making, making it possible to react and respond quickly to regional events and global trends. In addition to this, the wealth from its large gas reserves has made it possible for the emirate to invest in both causes and property on a worldwide scale. The Qatar Investment Authority owns many high profile properties across the world including the London Stock Exchange and Harrods. However, not all of this has been easily obtained as the recent issues with Chelsea Barracks has shown. While when asked on al-Jazeera how much money it had contributed towards Libya’s rebel movement, al-Thani answered ‘a lot’. Cumulatively, these initiatives have helped them raise their standing within the region and redefine their own security in relation to the more powerful neighbours.vii
On a theoretical level, all of these movements can be seen as examples of state-branding. J.E. Peterson, historian and political analyst, sees Qatar as a prime example of ‘micro-state’; ideally adapted to niche economic strategies.viii This has been realised in Qatar’s determination to be heralded as a front-runner on the political scene is a clear example of brand-management in a region where its neighbours have already established brands based on luxury and travel. By setting itself up as an Arab state willing to bridge regional chasms, Qatar is also setting itself up as a bridge between the West and the Middle East and earning itself a reputation for neutrality.
Despite all of these achievements, and despite all the wealth behind it, Qatar is still a small country with a history of border disputes with its larger more powerful neighbours. Blake Hounshell, Managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, warns that its penchant for antagonising Saudi Arabia and ‘meddling’ in regional issues could seriously backfire.ix Middle Eastern commentator, Zamila Bunglawala demonstrates a more diplomatic approach to Qatar’s future, pointing out the need for more willing mediators in a world no longer as rigid about a need for democracy.x Ulrichsen notes a number of potential weaknesses including the recent involvement in Libya, its funding of Islamist groups, the long term future of their gas exports and the question as to whether they have tried to achieve too much, too quickly.xi What is clear is that while Qatar continues to manoeuvre within the region, both financially and politically, it is currently an important player to watch.
i David Roberts, ‘Qatar and the Changing Conception of Security’, 2009, http://www.academia.edu/336594/Qatar_Changing_conceptions_of_security (accessed 2nd March 2013)
ii R. Worth and D. Kirkpatrick, ‘Seizing a Moment; Al-Jazeera galvanizes Arab Frustration’, The New York Times, 27th January 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/28/world/middleeast/28jazeera.html?_r=0 (accessed on 1st March 2013)
iii Richard Spencer, ‘Emir of Qatar Becomes First Arab Leader to Visit Gaza since Hamas Takeover’ The Telegraph, 23rd October 2012 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/palestinianauthority/9628815/Emir-of-Qatar-becomes-first-Arab-leader-to-visit-Gaza-since-Hamas-takeover.html (accessed on 3rd March 2013)
iv Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, ‘Qatar: Emergence of a Regional Power with International Reach’, e-International Relations, 23rd January 2012, http://www.e-ir.info/2012/01/23/qatar-emergence-of-a-regional-power-with-international-reach/ (accessed on 2nd March 2012)
v J. Dargin, ‘Qatar’s Natural Gas: The Foreign-Policy Driver’, Middle East Policy, XIV:3 (Fall 2007) p. 140.
vi https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/qa.html (accessed on 3rd March 2013)
vii David Roberts, ‘Qatar and the Changing Conception of Security’, 2009
viii J.E. Peterson, ‘Qatar and the World: Branding for a Micro-State’, Middle East Journal, 60:4 (Autumn 2006), pp. 732-748.
ix Blake Hounshell, ‘The Qatar Bubble’, Foreign Policy, May/June 2012 http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/04/23/the_qatar_bubble?page=0,0&wp_login_redirect=0 (accessed 2nd March 2012)
x Zamila Bunglawala, ‘Is Anyone Paying Attention to the Rise and Rise of Qatar?’ New Statesman, 5th September 2011, http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-staggers/2011/09/qatar-arab-international (accessed on 1st March 2013)
xi Ulrichsen, ‘Qatar: Emergence of a Regional Power with International Reach’.