international analysis and commentary

Qatar: a tale of overreaching growth?

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Given the hands-off policy of the US and the dead-end situation of the Arab political transitions, the Mideast is stalling – again. Accordingly, the region’s key players have started to reconfigure their interests and strategies, but this is unlikely to lead to profound change and social transformation on a large scale. Qatar’s recent developments – in particular the unexpected abdication of Emir Hamad al-Thani in favor of his 33-year old son, Tamim – are among the aspects epitomizing this new, yet unclear phase.

The tiny, yet over-dynamic, emirate of Qatar, which is slightly bigger than Kosovo or Lebanon and has only two million residents, is a paradigmatic case of economic accomplishment, political stability and international influence. In less than two decades, it has converted from a minor neighbor of Saudi Arabia to a key exporter of oil and, above all, the leading supplier of liquefied natural gas worldwide. Given the gigantic flow of revenues it has accumulated, Qatar has become a primary global investor and has developed a pragmatic foreign policy that has transformed it into a major regional actor.

A former British colony, Qatar gained full independence in 1971, falling inevitably under Riyadh’s sphere of influence. Qatar took part in the anti-Western oil shocks and, when the Iran-Iraq war broke out, it entered the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – the Saudi-led pact of political cooperation and self-defense between the Gulf states of the Arabic peninsula. Because of the 1991 Gulf War, the US established military bases in Saudi Arabia and other fellow Gulf states, including Qatar.

In the last decade, however, Qatari and Saudi foreign policies started to diverge and, as a result, Qatar’s international stance has become increasingly autonomous. This new course was based on a vast array of bold “soft power” initiatives aimed at quickly and substantially raising the small state’s international weight as a new broker in the Middle Eastern scenario. It has proceeded along two different, almost incompatible, paths: a Western-friendly approach, and an Islamic-oriented strategy.

On the one hand, a major tool is the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), the emirate’s sovereign wealth fund launched in 2005, the twelfth most affluent worldwide. In recent years Doha has become famous to the general public for some big and attention-grabbing acquisitions operated through the QIA such as the renowned department stores Harrods in London and Printemps in Paris, the US film corporation Miramax, the Paris Saint-Germain football club, and the Italian luxury fashion group Valentino.

At the same time, Qatar has invested heavily on the liberal arts sector by establishing, for instance, the Qatar Museums Authority (considered the world’s biggest purchaser of contemporary art) and the Doha Film Institute, now a partner of the prominent Tribeca Film Festival of New York. Also, Qatar has become a strong pole of attraction for several US academic institutions that have recently opened campuses in Doha. But it is probably the hosting of international sporting events (athletics, golf, motorcycle racing, tennis, and the controversial 2022 FIFA world cup) that has more largely contributed to selling the country’s triumphant image abroad.

On the other side, the Doha-based (and government-controlled) news channel Al-Jazeera represented the crucial catalyst of Qatar’s Islamist activism. Founded in 1996, it was the first TV network to report on Arab societies from a non-Western perspective and, equally important, provide a unified media coverage throughout the Middle East. Along with internet social networks, Al-Jazeera played a huge role in stirring up the initial phase of the 2011 Arab uprisings and generating a globalized spillover effect. In addition, Qatari engagement revealed to be particularly active in bankrolling Islamist movements, with more than $15 billion funneled to Egypt’s Muslim Brothers, Hamas, and rebel groups in Libya and Syria. In Libya, Qatar also sent six Mirage jet fighters to join the NATO-led operation as well as hundreds of special forces on the battleground to equip and train the anti-Gheddafi front.

But in the post-September 11 era, the extraordinary impact of Al-Jazeera on the Arab/Muslim world also raised a set of contentious issues that have started to hinder Doha’s bid for greater regional influence. The first is Qatar’s controversial relationship with international terrorism and, in particular, Al-Qaeda. It was in fact through Al-Jazeera that Osama bin Laden used to broadcast his terrorist messages from Afghanistan. In April 2003, also to alleviate Saudi domestic concerns, the US military headquarters for the Middle East moved to Qatar’s Al-Udeid air base, while in 2004 Qatar joined NATO’s Istanbul Cooperation Initiative program. Despite tangible proof of a steady Qatar-US alliance, many speculate about the existence of some secret deal between parts of the Qatari elite and Al-Qaeda, perhaps financial contributions in exchange for not targeting terrorists.

A second line of strain between Qatar and other Arab countries derives from Doha’s ever more pragmatic, if not reckless, foreign behavior. Qatar is not only a solid US ally, but also the first Gulf state that officially recognized (and began trading with) Israel, back in 1995. In 2009, as retaliation for Israel’s temporary occupation of the Gaza Strip, Qatar decided to break off its relations with Jerusalem. But once Israeli forces left Gaza, Qatar attempted to restore diplomatic contacts and remain an active negotiator in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, for example through an explicit concession to Israel by recognizing that it will be impossible to return to the 1967 borders and that  some form of land swaps will be necessary.

Equally important, in October 2008 Qatar entered into a tripartite cartel with Russia and Iran (the so-called “gas troika”). Qatar and Iran, in fact, share one of the largest natural gas fields in the world – the South Pars/North Dome that cuts through the Persian Gulf. But Saudi Arabia, Qatar’s former patron, is a major opponent of Iran, and this further step taken by Doha toward a greater space for maneuver in the Middle Eastern balance of power is considered by Riyadh as another provocative move, one that is quite hard to digest for the Al-Saud family and its regional allies.

In addition, a deep inter-Islamic divide has manifested itself by rendering the situation even more complicated. During the Arab revolts, Saudi Arabia stood out as the champion of Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative interpretation of Sunni Islam that goes up against both Shiite Islam (i.e. Iran) and the less radical Islamist parties, most notably the Qatari-backed Muslim Brothers in Egypt. On the contrary, fearing potential future uprisings at home, the Saudis have supported the Salafis, a more orthodox movement and a declared rival of the Brotherhood.

But the military coup in Egypt that overthrew Mohamed Morsi in July and the chaotic situation of Libya and Syria have probably changed the situation and, more importantly, altered the long-lasting equilibrium between the different factions of the Qatari royal family. It appears that Emir Hamad al-Thani’s energetic push for the country’s greater international role has turned into an “overstretch dilemma”: Qatar has dedicated a huge amount of resources to foreign policy, but it looks as if it has achieved much less than what the Emir envisioned and extensively financed. This course did not only generate rising hostility by Saudi Arabia, Qatar’s traditional major ally and unavoidable big neighbor, but has taken attention away from a rising problem afflicting Qatari society: a booming population made up of non-Arab immigrants accounting for over 80% of Qatari residents. They are above all workers in the construction sector coming from countries like Bangladesh, India, the Philippines, and above all Nepal. Nepalese alone are said to have surpassed the number of Qataris living in the emirate. Most of these workers live in very poor conditions, with no health assistance, in quasi-slavery conditions. The Saudi fear of a domestic revolt has probably turned into a real concern also for the Qataris.

It appears, therefore, that the newly-appointed, young Emir Tamim al-Thani must cope with a double political imperative in order to maintain the country’s profile of stability and success, with both domestic and foreign policy dimensions. Domestically, he needs to negotiate a new inter-dynastic pact by sharing more power (i.e. giving more space to clans and factions), while taming the insurgent potential of social injustice within the Qatari/foreign residents divide. In the foreign policy dimension, it is crucial to take a less confrontational stance toward the Saudis if the regional environment is to remain relatively stable.