by James Spencer
Qatar is seeking an outsized role in regional politics, and may be succeeding despite some setbacks
For fifty years during the second half of the twentieth century, the Soviet Union and the West were locked in a Cold War, a period of mostly static adversity marked by ideological and military posturing mainly in Europe, but including financial and military support for proxies around the globe. Indeed, NATO was but one of several alliances designed to contain the Communist threat; others included CENTO in the Middle East and SEATO in Southeast Asia. The latter two were of limited impact in blocking the spread of Communism, due partly to internal disputes, but despite this—or perhaps because of it—millions still died in faraway places, often ignorant of the reasons why.
Such behavior might be thought anachronistic today, yet it is alive and well in much of Eurasia, with Russian president Vladimir Putin’s attempts to claw back the former Soviet Union’s area of influence, and with an increasing number of parties indulging in this type of exercise in the Middle East—the oldest example probably being the Saudi policy of seeking direct influence in Yemen, dating back to the Yemeni civil war (more accurately described as a proxy struggle between Nasserism and pro-status-quo powers) in the 1960s. Most other asymmetric relationships date from the late 1970s and early 1980s, including the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its early efforts to export its revolution, epitomized by its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Yet there is a relatively new kid on the block in the form of Qatar, which has also begun to expand its influence in the region. Given its small citizenry and vast reserves of natural gas, together with leaders who have regional ambitions, Qatar has the appetite and wherewithal to influence its geo-political environment. With a religiously and ethnically homogenous population and a major US military base at Al-Udaid, Qatar faces no real external existential threats. However, at the same time, its small population provides only limited military capability, and thus the lines of operation are predominately non-kinetic or require proxies.
Beginning with the ground-breaking Al Jazeera satellite TV channel, and through the passage of various legal milestones, such as female suffrage and a written constitution, Qatar has challenged its more conservative neighbors. Its support for the arts and education, championed by members of the distaff side of the ruling Al Thani dynasty, may be less controversial, but are likely to have a similarly unsettling effect across the Peninsula.
Qatar has also supported kinetic operations: directly, during Operation Desert Storm, and more recently via proxy, in Libya and Syria. In the case of the former it was aligned with forces the Western leaders and journalists regarded as the “good guys.” The latter case—together with allegations of Qatari involvement in northern Mali during the Islamist occupation—has caused great upset and unease in Western capitals, although it is all part of the same policy thrust by Qatar: to reshape the Middle East in a Da’wi, Sunni Islamist direction, away from secular, nominal pan-Arabism.
Most notable has been Qatar’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood, especially in Egypt, whose Islamist government it bankrolled extensively. This has caused great concern among fellow Gulf monarchies—leading to a schism within the Gulf Cooperation Council, with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates withdrawing their ambassadors from Qatar in protest at its “internal interference.” Recent reports say the dispute is on its way to being resolved, but the details of any settlement have yet to emerge. Less high-profile, but no less contentious, has been Qatar’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen (which forms one of the factions within the Al-Islah Party). Indeed, so troubling has this become to Saudi Arabia—which regards Yemen as its backyard—that the Kingdom has required its Yemeni allies to renounce any contact with Qatar.
Some have recently cast Qatar’s foreign policy as having failed and predicted that Qatar will now fall in line with Saudi Arabia’s policy, although this is not borne out by the facts. While the Qataris—like many—were caught out by the military coup in Egypt, they continue to plough their own furrow. Indeed, Qatar stepped in with funds and an official visit to Sudan in March in an attempt to build bridges with another isolated state. Similarly, in Tunis, where the largest party is the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Ennahda, Qatar has stepped up support for the government, although in this case Qatar is joined in its support by the US, EU and many international financial organizations.
Qatar seems to have a policy of attempting to gain influence by daring to work in unpalatable environments others have forsaken, or with organizations to which all others are opposed. Often, this role appears to be as a mediator, such as with the Houthis in Yemen, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and in Eritrea, or as seen in the Qataris’ National Unity and Social Coexistence conference in April, in which the Syrian opposition figured extensively.
In the long run, this policy is likely to give Qatar significant influence as a regional mediator and interlocutor. Such a unique position will mark it out against regional hegemons competing with others for the same ground.
James Spencer is a London-based independent consultant specializing in the political and security issues of the Middle East.
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