The Genesis of Qatar’s Foreign Policy 19, June 2013Posted by thegulfblog.com in Al-Jazeera, Egypt, Foreign Policies, Qatar.
Tags: Emir Tamim, Qatar, Qatar Egypt Investments, Qatar Egypt relations, Qatar foreign policy, Qatar Leadership changes, Qatar LNG, Qatar Suez Canal, Qatar's LNG politics
add a comment
The following article appeared in Sada, Carnegie Middle East’s super online journal under the title ‘Qatar’s Global Bargaining Chips’.
The fundamental thrust of Qatar’s foreign policy stems from two interrelated factors: the limitations of its location and the elite’s appreciation of how best to overcome these constraints. Historically, Qatar has always been a small power among larger ones and this mismatch has forced the ruling elites to seek a range of protective agreements, while maintaining as much autonomy as possible.
The latest incarnation of an external guarantor for Qatar is America, whose protection was sought in the aftermath of the invasion of Kuwait. While Qatar gratefully accepts the US security blanket, its leadership nevertheless assiduously seeks to diversify its dependency on America. Not only does this potentially offer Qatar more freedom of action, lowering its ability to be pressured by the United States, but given that history clearly dictates that each and every suzerain will eventually leave, it is prudent for Qatar to prepare for this eventual possibility.
Qatar’s Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) export strategy is a good example of this; it’s a savvy economic policy, a good use of Qatar’s prodigious gas supplies, and it ties Qatar into the economic-energy nexus of a range of important states around the world. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), in 2011 Qatar delivered over 2000 million cubic metres of LNG to Belgium, China, France, India, Italy, Japan, Korea, Spain, Taiwan, the US and the UK, while it delivered smaller quantities of LNG to Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Greece, Kuwait, and Mexico. This list includes four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and two temporary members. This is a useful set of countries with whom to have an energy relationship.
Countries like the UK, Japan, and China—who receive a significant percentage of their energy needs from Qatar—would be compelled to support the state if its energy security were threatened. In a volatile region where Iran frequently rattles the sabre, often threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, tying such important countries into Qatar’s continued prosperity is important. Similarly, whether Qatar wants support in international forums or with international investments, relations based on deep energy-interdependence can be a stepping stone.
This rationale can also explain to some extent Qatari-Egyptian relations in the aftermath of the January 25 revolution. Before the overthrow of Mubarak, the bilateral relationship was poor with Egypt blocking Qatari initiatives in the Arab League and in peace talks in Darfur, regardless of their merits. Yet now Qatar has restarted its relations using its connections with the Muslim Brotherhood to forge a close relationship with key actors in Egypt’s new elite. Moreover, Qatar has matched its rhetorical support with billions of dollars of aid for Egypt’s economy. By so overtly backing the new government in a time of crisis, for a short time at least the Qatari leadership can expect some combination of support for their diplomatic initiatives and plumb economic investment opportunities. While Qatar will not be buying the Pyramids or the Suez Canal as some scurrilous reports have suggested, it may have the opportunity to invest in the Suez Industrial Zone. Similarly, there are rumors that Qatar may obtain favorable exemptions from investment laws in Egypt in much the same way that it avoided certain property taxes in France.
While it may seem unlikely for a state to operate in such a way and to expect some kind of reciprocity, the Qatari perspective assumes otherwise. Policy is perennially made at the very top of the elite structure and the personal convictions, discussions, and agreements of the Emir can have profound effects on Qatar’s policies.
Indeed, as unfashionable as it is to note the importance of an initial humanitarian impulse, given the personalized nature of Qatari politics, it may have been of key importance when Qatar so assiduously and quickly supported the opposition forces in the Libyan uprising. Yet it is not the only factor in the equation. Aside from potential understandings of reciprocity, Qatar also boosts its image and soft power immensely by being so closely associated with the revolutionary movements, which is a potential boon, both externally and internally. And if Qatar can establish normal or perhaps privileged relationships with the new governments across the region, replacing the previously fraught relationships (i.e. with Mubarak’s Egypt and Gaddafi’s Libya) then this too may bring economic benefits with greater trade and investment.
The highly personalized nature of Qatar’s politics and foreign policy is why the recent rumored changes in Qatar’s elite (allegedly involving the Emir and the Foreign Minister) are so important. While Qatar’s strategic direction has been set by the Emir, with Qatar resolutely focusing on this international arena, always seeking to involve itself where possible, there is still significant room for personal conviction to alter trajectories. For example, the Crown Prince of Qatar, the son of the Emir and his influential wife, Sheikha Moza, will sooner or later guide Qatar’s policies by himself and has been imbued with the Qatari vision. In the areas where he has had control of policy, notably in the sporting arena and Qatar’s food security project, he has pursued innovative and striking policies, striving to place Qatar in the midst of international discussions and events focusing these topics. Initial assumptions, therefore, can only conclude that while a future Emir Tamim may not have the zeal of his father or the current Foreign Minister to controversially propel Qatar into ever more international incidents, he is unlikely to retrench Qatar’s internationalist position.
Qatar and rule by its people 25, April 2013Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
Tags: Democracy in Qatar, Education in Qatar, Qatar, Qatar domestic policy, Qatar elections, Qatar foreign policy, Qatari opinion
add a comment
The following article appeared on Muftah.org.
It is no secret that Qatar is not a democracy. While municipal officials have been elected since 1999, increasingly small popular participation in these elections reflects a widespread belief that the work of these officials is mostly insignificant. Indeed, the reality is that a small handful of people in Qatar make the majority of important decisions with relatively little external input.
The realm of foreign policy clearly exemplifies this kind of modus operandi. The Foreign Minister (who is also the Prime Minister) Hamad Bin Jassim Al Thani is the key decision maker. Although trusted key lieutenants, such as the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr Khalid Al Attiyah, also play an important role, all critical decisions must, as a matter of course, be sanctioned by the Emir or the Crown Prince.
While Qatar’s foreign policy is undertaken in the name of the Qatari people, it is unsurprising that there are no signs Qataris have ever really taken an active role in its formulation. Aside from perennial concerns with the Palestinian issue, the Foreign Minister does not pursue a given policy because of domestic opinion. Indeed, there is no evidence that Qatar’s foreign policy activism in recent decades is reflective of an approach, a whim, or an active desire among Qataris for their country to assume such a posture.
In fact, popular sentiment would appear to point in the opposite direction. Qatar is a small, conservative society and always has been. Until the 1990s, the state’s horizons were perennially limited to the region with brief forays into the greater international arena through involvement in international aid efforts, the non-aligned movement, and relations with non-regional countries as and when oil revenues permitted in the 1970s and 1980s.
Nevertheless, in recent decades, Qataris appear to be broadly content with their state’s foreign policy pursuits. Certainly there has been no active, widespread domestic movement denouncing Qatar’s various initiatives. Instead, there appears to be something of a tacit understanding that foreign policy should be left to the rulers.
Of course, this does not mean Qataris are uninterested in their country’s foreign policy positions. Indeed, as Qatar continues to receive regional criticism for its financial aid and investment activities from across the Arab world, especially Egypt, many Qataris are increasingly angry at what they see as a rude rebuff of their financial support. Equally some Qataris privately question the wisdom of spending so much money on foreign policy activities or, for example, the country’s decision to provocatively unseat Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Yet, still, the majority do not display a discernible desire to affect the country’s foreign policy positions.
While internationally Qatar’s leaders may get something of a free ride, domestically the story is quite different. Even though Qatar is not a democracy, democracies do not hold an exclusive prerogative on reflecting the desires of their people. Indeed, Qatari citizens can and do have a significant impact on domestic politics.
Qatar is a close-knit society with only 250,000 citizens. News, gossip, and anger spreads like wildfire throughQatar’s majlis (the informal, regular, social meetings held in the evenings by many Qataris). The elite – though inevitably moving in privileged circles – are keenly aware of how their policies are received by the people.
Qatar has no history of systematically repressing its citizens, nor would such a move be tolerated. Instead, when issues potentially affect and anger citizens, the government inevitably reacts, often times by slowing the pace of legislation.
A recent article in the New York Times neatly highlighted one example of this strategy. The article profiled the appalling state of migrant worker rights in Qatar. Qatar is but one of several Gulf states that has discussed reforming its draconian kafala system for controlling workers in the country. Since at least 2010 reforms have been under consideration, recognising the need to make the system more equitable and to establish laws and procedures to stop widespread abuses that characterize the kafala system.
These efforts to open up and safeguard the system for workers have been blocked by domestic business entities in Qatar. Just as happened in Kuwait, both the local Chamber of Commerce and Qatari citizens, 95% of whom have a housemaid and over 50% of whom have more than two domestic servants, oppose the reforms.
The Times article quotes research undertaken by Qatar University’s Social and Economic Survey Research Institute finding that 9 out of 10 Qataris do not want the kafala system changed and 30% want it strengthened. With some understatement, Qatar’s Minister of Labor noted that while he recognised the need for change, it “must go slowly.”
There are other examples of direct government responses to public pressure, notably in the social and educational sphere. In 2012, for instance, the government issued a decree changing the language of instruction in several courses at Qatar University from English to Arabic. That this change went against Qatar’s national strategy, which prioritized the development of an English-speaking workforce to compete in the future economy, was ignored. Given the lack of suitable and relevant Arabic-language texts for these subject matters, the legislation also did not take into consideration that challenges to meaningfully implementing Arabic-based courses.
As the number of expats has increased and Qataris have become even more of a minority in their homeland, there has been an inevitable dilution in the traditional aspects of Qatari life. This process has been further exacerbated by Qatar’s headlong pursuit of international trade. As a result, popular desire to ring-fence certain aspects of Qatari culture and education are unsurprising. Indeed, it can be seen in the most curious of places, including a law signed into effect in 2011 to mandate that Arabic be the primary language for advertising on billboards in Qatar.
This leaves Qatar’s Shura Council elections (literally an ‘Advisory’ Council, which technically serves as a legislative body), scheduled for 2013 in a curious place. Assuming that elections go forward (quite the assumption given that they have been pushed back on several occasions) the thirty elected Shura members will join the Council’s fifteen members who are appointed by the Emir. Undoubtedly, their priorities will center on Qatar’s domestic arena. Money spent building the campuses of eight foreign universities as a part of Qatar’s Education City project, as well as on-going costs associated with their upkeep, will doubtless be a focus of discussion. Equally, controversial educationalreforms to Qatar’s primary and secondary education system, led by the RAND corporation, are still a sore topic as are a variety of other matters that reflect attempts to preserve Qatari heritage and culture in an ever changing country.
Given the population’s traditionalist tendencies and the progressive policies supported by the Qatari elite, it will be interesting to see how boisterous Qataris become once their representatives are officially elected to the legislative body. To pursue their vision for Qatar amid popular backlash, the elites will have to carefully marshal support for initiatives to drive Qatar forward and keep the country globally competitive.
It will also be interesting to see if the Qatari elite can continue to dominate foreign affairs without any challenge from the population. While some elected officials are likely to become more vociferous, current trends suggest that overall the international arena will remain almost exclusively under elite control.
Another Qatar football debacle 7, February 2013Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
Tags: 2022 organisation, 2022 Qatar, Football Qatar, Qatar, Qatar 2022, Qatar World Cup, Spain, Sports Qatar, uruguay
When the World and twice-running European football champions are in town and playing the Copa América Champions, it would be rude not to go along and watch teams stuffed with the world’s best players. As much as I was looking forward to last night’s showpiece there was always a certain cynical reticence expecting the organisation around the event to be a mess.
It has been years since I saw England-Brazil in Doha, which was a disaster of planning including giving every fan in the stadium hard glow sticks to wave around in the dark, which soon became a rain of missiles pelting the front rows (who’d have thought?). Still, since Qatar has won the right to host the 2022 World Cup it must surely have learned how to organise one match by now…
There’s not a whole lot the 2022 folks can do about the traffic. But the fact remains that for 5k around the stadium the traffic was a complete disaster with a 15 minute journey to the Aspire complex (stadium area) taking over an hour. I don’t expect a subway system to be installed overnight but how about a park and ride system from key points in Doha? How about traffic police monitoring the road and stopping the hard-shoulder becoming the fast lane? How about advertising a few bus services? How about doing anything whatsoever aside from just ignoring the problem?
Entrance to stadium
‘Take your seats by 20:00′ the ticket said for the 21:00 kick-off. Sound advice but had anyone passed this nugget of information on to anyone working at the stadium? Walking around the stadium more or less each gate had long queues of people trying to get in as early as 19:30 (and doubtless before). My particular queue was a special one at somewhere around 200 metres long. I started queuing before 20:00 and didn’t get into the stadium until around 21:25, 25 minutes after kick-off and after the first goal.
I simply cannot fathom how they messed this up so badly leaving thousands of fans outside in interminably slow queues to miss the kickoff. You have x amounts of tickets sold and x amounts of seats (let’s leave the 2011 Asian Cup final debacle to one side for the moment) and the staff presumably know kick-off time. From there it is surely a fairly straight-forward formula?
I just can’t understand why all the major leagues in the world can manage this process on a weekly basis – checking tickets, checking security, etc – often for much larger crowds and yet Qatari authorities can’t manage this once every year.
Do they not realise they can’t actually organise a football match effectively yet? Surely they have an inkling in which case why not get Man Utd or Bayern Munich to show them how it is done – the teams are here often enough, get the ground staff too.
Adding to the rancour in the long-suffering queues was the usual issue of people pushing in left, right and centre with Qatar staff replete with red glowing batons standing around, having a chat doing – precisely literally – nothing.
By the time we got to the gate they weren’t even checking tickets and were just waving people in: lessons not learnt, it seems.
I arrived looking for a quick bite to eat before getting into the stadium; how foolish of me not to factor in the necessary waiting time (half an hour or more at a guess; I didn’t bother).
The trestle tables setup for the drinks were exactly like I remember from my school sports day complete with paper tickets for ‘water’, ‘drink’ and so on; a system they had abandoned. The people serving had no system (I serve, you do cash, etc) but it was just a free-for-all and - obviously - the person I dealt with couldn’t add up, stuffing the wrong amount of money into a torn cardboard box as the cash register.
Again, I just can’t understand the utter amateurism of this whole affair. Why not get a proper catering company in to do the job? Why not think a bit differently and have shawarma and karak stands dotted around instead of a couple inside the tents? I could have organised that myself in half an hour.
I am sure some things went right. They paid $4m to get Spain; well done. But I was far from alone in being utterly demoralised by this farce. I simply have no comprehension as to why Qatar continually spurns these opportunities to show that it can run a successful and largely trouble-free football match. Doubtless these things will be sorted by 2022 – though I said exactly the same thing two years ago – for at some stage someone will get around to experiencing a match in Qatar as a normal fan and not a VVIP…
Incidentally, I can’t describe the contempt that I have for the Goebbels-esque reporting from an Al Jazeera correspondent gushing at the organisation; what a shamefully bad snippet of journalism.
On Qatar and Mali 3, February 2013Posted by thegulfblog.com in North Africa, Qatar.
Tags: Al Qaeda, AQIM, Gao, Islamists, Mali, MUJAO, Qatar, Qatar Red Crescent, Qatar supporting Islamists
1 comment so far
Claims that Qatar is supporting a range of Al Qaeda-affiliated groups in the Sahel are not new. In June 2012 the French satirical magazine Canard Enchaine quoted French Military intelligence sources asserting that Qatar was financially supporting various groups such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its splinter group the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). The reports are vague but usually refer to financial support from Qatar, while some refer to Qatari planes landing at Gao disgorging arms and even Qatari Special Forces entering the fray.
None of these accusations ring true given the general thrust of Qatari foreign policy. Ironically, however, it is Qatar’s recent actions particularly in Libya that make these accusations seemingly plausible.
The Qatari contradiction
Qatar is one of only two Wahhabi states and it did name its new state mosque the Muhammad Ibn Abdul Al Wahhab mosque late last year. But Qatar is a box full of contradictions. Alcohol is easily available as is pork. Women can drive (nor has this been an issue) and Qatar has the most visible, outspoken and influential female consort in the history of the Arab world. Western education systems are at the heart of the state and there is not even an official mosque in the entire propose-built, multi-billion dollar ‘Education City’ campus housing six American Universities as well as University College London.
Externally Qatar’s policies can appear confused. Support of America by virtue of the two huge US bases in Qatar and significant (usually unwelcome) outreach to Israel in recent years is contrasted with seemingly amicable relations with Iran and support for Hamas and Hezbollah. More recently a record of enormous investment in London and Paris has been contrasted to escalating support of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East and seemingly murky support of groups in the Sahel. Moreover, Qatar has been outspoken in its sub-state support of various groups in Mali’s regional neighbourhood in the last eighteen months.
A loose narrative has built suggesting that an ever increasingly confident Qatar is now beginning to support a range of ever more extreme Islamists across the region.
On the ground realities
Examining exactly what Qatar is doing in Mali is difficult. Qatar never enlightens anyone as to its foreign policy strategies or tactics and nor are there sufficient reliable sources of information in and around Mali.
The best one can say is that in addition to a lengthy history of interaction in the region the Qatar Red Crescent Society increased its capabilities in Mali in 2012 evaluating the state of the plight and the their potential response. This occasionally involved entering Mali from Niger to get to the critical city of Gao. According to an AFP article this in and of itself involved seeking safe passage from the MUJAO, an Al Qaeda offshoot.
The very fact that the two organisations came to this safe passage agreement may well be a root cause of much of the subsequent supposition, with many assuming the transit agreement to be a signal of deeper connections. Yet this is what the Red Cross/Crescent does; it sticks to its central tenet of neutrality in a conflict and deals with the realities on the ground making tactical deals to obtain access when it can.
There is no open source evidence available whatsoever that can back up assertions made by Sciences Po’s Sub-Saharan African expert Roland Marchal who suggests that Qatari Special Forces may have entered Northern Mali to train recruits of Ansar El Dine, which is part the Al Qaeda movement there. Indeed, aside from the Canard Enchaine assertion – which has even been partially retracted – there is nothing on which to base other assertions of Qatar financially supporting Al Qaeda affiliates in Mali other than supposition.
The majority of the hyperbole about Qatar seems to stem from the adage that there’s no smoke without fire. It is unsurprising that the Mayor of Gao accuses the Qataris of supporting terrorism. From his perspective he is making a heartfelt plea for French intervention and he sees the Qatari Red Crescent Society gaining access to territory held by MUJAO. Doubtless he puts one – Qatar, the Wahhabi, rich Libyan-Islamist supporting Gulf State – and one – the Qatari Red Crescent gaining privileged access in MUJAO controlled territory – together and comes to the conclusion that ‘Qatar’ is supporting the terrorists.
Marchal too follows this logic. Qatar was active in Sudan and then in North Africa supporting various Islamists with financial support and Special Forces therefore – QED – Qatar is active in Mali doing the same thing.
While some of this is plain alarmism from those who know little about Qatar, some of it makes sense. The argument that Qatar saw how effective its support of various Islamist groups in Libya proved to be and thus sought to reuse such tactics in Mali is a logical proposition. One could also note that gaining support in an area rich in hydrocarbons and agriculture is also potentially a sensible and explanatory as a motivating factor.
Equally, however, there are many reasons as to why Qatar would be highly unlikely to be meddling with Al Qaeda groups in the Western Sahel. Despite Qatar’s reputation as a Wahhabi and Brotherhood-supporting country Qatar’s most important allies are America, the UK, and France. Qatar has a limited domestic capacity to defend itself and finds itself in a region that has seen three wars in three decades and where it is sandwiched between the two regional behemoths, Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of whom have somewhat antagonistic histories with Qatar. The Qatari leadership is under no illusion as to where its security reliance lies; resolutely in Western hands.
Countering this notion one could argue that its leadership feels it can do what it likes as its importance is so great to these key countries. But an equally key part of the Qatar project is deeply concerned with its global reputation. Through cultural events; educational investment; a variety of sporting events; world-class conference facilities and associated apparatus; and other soft power building initiatives, Qatar places a significant premium on making itself attractive internationally. To boost investment, economic diversification and Qatar’s reputation overall it wants to be known as ‘that place where England played Brazil at football’ and that ‘will host the 2022 World Cup’; it does not want to become ‘that place that supported Al Qaeda in North Africa.’ Supporting the Muslim Brotherhood – the group elected to power in several Arab states – is one thing, supporting Al Qaeda affiliates is another.
One must note that the narrative that has built up castigating Qatar suits the Algerian Government. The increasing break between Doha and Algiers with the latter bitterly resenting Qatar’s involvement funding Islamist groups in Libya and Al Jazeera fanning Islamist flames is no secret. Qatar hosting in exile Abbasi Madani, the co-founder of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the Islamist party whose near election win in 1991 precipitated the cancellation of elections and Algeria’s bloody decade-long Civil War, doubtless irks the elite in Algiers too. Given the almost entire lack of actual evidence of the Qatari state nefariously supporting Al Qaeda associated groups in the Mali theatre and the way this notion fits with the Algerian Government’s desire to hit back at Qatar, it is unsurprising that at least one North African expert has suggested that ‘Algerian propaganda’ may well be playing a part.
Lastly it is worth pointing out that the small group of people who make decisions in Qatar relating to foreign affairs – the Emir, the Crown Prince and the Prime Minister/Foreign Minister – have shown no interest in the past decades of supporting hard line salafi elements such as Al Qaeda. It is entirely plausible that some Qatari money is finding its way to supporting nefarious elements in the Sahel and there may be Qatar-based charities that engage to such ends, but the odds of a member of the Qatari elite ‘ordering’ such a plan stretches credulity.
Overall, there appears to be no evidence for the more outlandish claims that Qatar is training or financing Al Qaeda-splinter groups. Not only would this idea contradict key tenets of Qatar’s foreign policy for decades now, but it is wholly unclear how useful it would be to befriend a group of extreme Sharia-devout Al Qaeda types in northern Mali. Even before they were being routed by the French, they were hardly a cohesive, structured organisation that could offer Qatar meaningful promises or guarantees.
Instead Qatar’s reputation as supporting certain, typically Brotherhood-orientated Islamist groups in North Africa and a melange of clichés about rich, Wahhabi, conflict-fuelling Gulfies seems to have coalesced, perhaps with some judicious prodding by Algeria, with a basic misinterpretation of the role and practice of the Red Crescent. The ‘Qatari policy’ that this theory asserts may chime with base fears and assumptions and fit snugly into existing narratives but in reality bears little resemblance to Qatar’s state foreign policy thus far.
Qatar is not Bahrain or Kuwait 8, November 2012Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar.
Tags: Arab Spring, Bahrain, bahrain arab spring, Kuwait, Kuwait parliament, kuwait problems, Qatar, Qatar arab spring
add a comment
The following article appeared on Dohanews.co last week
While media outlets find it convenient and practical to generalize when it comes to reporting on “The Gulf” or the now 24-month-long “Arab Spring,” these terms can be problematic as they simplify complex issues.
For example, take the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman. On the surface, these countries have many similarities in terms of tribal structure, intermingling of families, cultural traditions, religious beliefs, and economic and political systems.
But the differences between the nations, and even in cities within one country, are stark. Riyadh and Jeddah – let alone in comparison to somewhere like Muscat – are poles apart and – to engage in a different sort of generalization – Kuwaitis are far more politically garrulous than their Qatari cousins.
So, will the similarities mean that the Arab Spring will sweep across all Gulf States, or will some difference impede its passage? Let’s take a case-by-case approach.
Kuwait has relatively a long, mercantile history. One author even dubbed Kuwait “the Marseilles of the Gulf” – such was the port-city-melting-pot nature of the place. This helped give rise to a rich and relatively independent merchant elite that exists alongside the ruling Al Sabah family.
This dynamic in which the ruling family must contend with other powerful players has set the feisty tone of politics in Kuwait. In contrast, Doha was never as cosmopolitan or as prosperous a city and consequently no merchant class could develop independent of Al Thani power. This meant that politics was, as it remains today, dominated by the Al Thani family.
Today the merchant families in Kuwait have mostly “joined sides” with the Al Sabah against those dubbed “the opposition.” Much of the opposition are referred to as tribal and Islamist in nature and were enfranchised later on in the 20th century when the Al Sabah needed more support. Initially they were grateful to the Al Sabah for giving them a passport and supported them in Parliament.
More recently, however, they have realised that they are in the majority in Kuwait and now feel that they deserve more power. In the ( annulled) previous election, they won 34 of the 50 seats, demanded nine Cabinet posts (of sixteen), were offered three and took none.
The battle lines are thus set broadly between the older, established, richer elites and the “younger” interlopers looking to get their share and upset the status quo.
While there has historically been tension of varying degrees between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Bahrain, the key dividing line was largely a socio-economic one. Though there was certainly a correlation between Sunni and Shia in terms of greater opportunities for Sunni Bahrainis, the tension was typically not manifest in an overtly sectarian way.
The Arab Spring changed that entirely. To some degree this was a state-sanctioned ploy to specifically and overtly use the sectarian angle as an effective way of corralling support against the uprisings in Bahrain. Though they may have been successful in halting any significant changes, this came at a terrible cost not only in terms of deaths and arrests but in terms of profoundly polarizing Bahraini society.
Qatar possesses none of these key dynamics. It has neither a highly active public, political debating culture; latent sectarian concerns; nor deep and widespread socio-economic disparities among citizens. Moreover, it has a tiny indigenous population and prodigious riches to shower upon them.
Yet Qatar’s stability is not obtained through this alone, for its leadership has been putting Qatar on the international map in largely positive ways for over a decade now. This has changed the international perception of Qatar from having no reputation whatsoever – or being “known for being unknown” – to now being known for its mediation, Al Jazeera, sporting initiatives and supporting various factions in the Arab Spring. Overall, I believe that most Qataris are – if anything – pleased with this burgeoning reputation.
Just like every other state on Earth, Qatar does have its problems and its population has its grumbles. The pace of change and apparent “Westernisation”concerns some, while others want more transparency and a say in how the country is run.
By virtue of its proximity and its fraternal ties, Qatar will remain deeply concerned and interested in what transpires as its fellow GCC States wrestle with the Arab Spring. But barring a black swan event or a sea-change in attitudes, Qatar will remain as insulated as ever from the Spring.
Qatar’s flowering relationship with Paris 31, October 2012Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
Tags: Qatar, Qatar Banlieue investments, Qatar France, Qatar France investments, Qatar investment stratagy, QIA
1 comment so far
The following article appeared in the Financial Times on the 1st November 2012.
When plans for Qatar to create a €50m euro fund to invest in some of Paris’s poorest suburbs emerged last month, the French political right and left united in disapproval. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, denounced the move as a plot to stoke Islamism in Paris’s Muslim-dominated districts, while the left-leaning Libération railed against the French government allegedly subcontracting its sovereign duties to a Middle Eastern state whose motives were suspect.
Yet the reaction shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the way Qatar operates globally and what it is trying to achieve. The pattern of its international relations shows its investments are geared primarily to three things: profit, security and building a brand that appeals to its western allies despite not being a democracy. The investment in the banlieue – long a scar on France’s social conscience – looks no different.
Part of the suspicion of French commentators stems from the difficulty of evaluating what kind of financial return Qatar could make from such a venture. Simultaneously, Qatar’s well-known support of Islamists in the Arab Spring has spawned far-fetched reports in the French press, quoting military intelligence sources who accuse Doha of supporting pro-Sharia armed militants in Mali.
Yet all this ignores a long record of examples that suggest financial gain is typically foremost in any Doha-backed investment. Such strategy is driven by a desire to bolster the country’s balance sheet and diversify earnings away from oil and gas.
The Qatar Investment Authority, the state’s main international investment vehicle, was established in 2005 to bolster and secure the longer term health of the economy through diversification. Subsequently, it has earned a reputation as a successful, thirsty investor with a particular eye for bargains and blue-chip companies.
Image in the west is also an important element of Qatari ventures overseas, whether backing Libyan rebels or building the Shard, London and Europe’s tallest building.
Since the mid-1990s, Qatar has been trying to present itself as a business-savvy, culturally-sophisticated and forward-thinking country, differentiating itself from other Gulf city-states such as Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Manama. Doha’s heavy investment in international art and education facilities, conferences and big sporting events such as the World Cup are all part of building the brand of Qatar™.
A third strand in Qatar’s financial strategy is linked to its core security concerns. It has seen Kuwait invaded in 1990, a deepening crisis over Iran and often acrimonious relations with Saudi Arabia – all of which mean it needs its western allies.
While Doha already has the US security umbrella and various agreements with France and the UK, it has been steadily building these relationships, particularly with London, over the past few years. Tens of billions of pounds of investment in London, not to mention supplying a vast proportion of the UK’s gas requirement, guarantees Qatar an appointment at Downing Street whenever it wishes. Doha has also made a series of important acquisitions in France and buys up to 80 per cent of its military material from the republic.
Although there is no document setting out Qatar’s strategy, it is apparent from – and only possible because of – the concentration of power in the hands of a tiny number of decision-makers who are related and share a vision of country’s future. While Hamad Bin Khalifah Al Thani, the emir, remains in broad strategic control, Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, the crown prince, is increasingly active and is behind several recent sporting ventures, including the acquisition of Paris St Germain football club. Hamad Bin Jassem Al Thani, prime minister and foreign minister, is the key player in the Qatar Investment Authority, while Sheikha Moza, the emir’s second wife, is the guiding force behind the social and educationally-focused Qatar Foundation. Sheikha Mayassa, the emir and Moza’s daughter, is in charge of museums and art projects.
The Paris banlieue project contains elements of all the imperatives that have driven Qatar’s international investment spree so far. The fund may prove to be a successful micro-lending facility from which Doha will gain financially in the longer term. Its charitable and social focus also help Qatar look good and while the plan has its roots in the Sarkozy presidency, that it continues under President Hollande reinforces the flowering bilateral relationship between Paris and Doha.
Fear of Qatari motives seems unwarranted in this case. Doha’s slowly liberalising rulers prize their key western allies above all else. They would be loathe to see what – for them – is a tiny deal financially jeopardise goals that they have been aiming at for many years now.
On Qatar and Hamas in Gaza 26, October 2012Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Qatar.
Tags: Arab Spring Qatar Iran, Brotherhood banana, Gaza, Hamas, Iran Qatar, Iranian influence, Qatar, Qatar Hamas
1 comment so far
The following article appeared on ForeignPolicy.com
A deeply contrarian streak has taken hold in Qatar these days. Insulated by U.S. security guarantees, eager to use its burgeoning fiscal reserves, and propelled by its elites’ reformist zeal, Doha continues to exert a disproportionate influence on regional politics. Emir Hamad bin Khalifah Al Thani’s latest move was a dramatic visit to the Gaza Strip, becoming the first head of state to visit the Palestinian territory since Hamas wrested control of it in 2007.
Unlike some of its less imaginative Arab rivals, Qatar saw Hamas’s regional isolation as an opportunity rather than a problem. Despite its alliance with the United States, Doha has been nurturing its ties with the Palestinian Islamist group for some time: Its worst kept secret is that Khaled Meshal, Hamas’s leader, has had a house there for many years and has been increasingly seen in Doha since Hamas was forced to leave Syria in early 2012. Doha has also opened its pocketbook to Hamas, pledging $250 million in February — a gift that was increased to $400 million upon the emir’s visit.
The injection of funds, however, is not the most important aspect of Sheikh Hamad’s trip. By breaking Hamas’s regional isolation and explicitly recognizing its rule over Gaza, Doha has strengthened the militant group’s hand against its Palestinian rivals. An official from the Palestinian Authority, which is in charge of the West Bank, begrudgingly welcomed the visit while noting that “no one should deal with Gaza as a separate entity from the Palestinian territories and from the Palestinian Authority.”
Unlike the Palestinian Authority, Israel felt no need to soften its criticism. An Israeli spokesman carped bitterly about the emir’s trip, saying that the emir was “throwing peace under a bus.”
The visit further highlights Israel’s loss of influence with Qatar. Relations between the two countries warmed with the opening of an Israeli trade office in Doha in 1996 (reputedly close to Meshal’s house) as the two sides looked to ship Qatari gas to Israel, with Enron acting as the intermediary. The deal failed, however, and relations ebbed and flowed until December 2008, when Qatar cut ties in protest of Israel’s offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Rumors that Doha was attempting to restart relations were finally put to rest with a leaked memo from Israel’s Foreign Ministry labelling Qatar as a “leading activist” against Israel, decisively cutting whatever informal relations remained.
The Iranian angle
Iran, with whom Qatar maintains cordial official relations, joins Israel and the Palestinian Authority in an unlikely triumvirate watching proceedings in Gaza with glum resignation. Tehran officials are doubtlessly looking back nostalgically to happier times only a few years back, when their proxy Hezbollah all but defeated the Zionist Entity — winning Iran no small degree of Arab support for its material support to the Lebanese militant organization.Back then, Hamas was also still ensconced in Iran’s camp, and Syria was a stable ally that appeared to be gradually increasing its influence in the Middle East.
Indeed, while Israel and the Palestinian Authority may view Qatar’s embrace of Hamas with chagrin, it is Iran that is the central loser in this drama. The emir’s visit is part of a larger Qatari policy to unseat and reorient crucial Iranian allies around the Middle East — and by extension, amputate a long-used, effective limb of Iranian foreign policy. This is a remarkably forthright policy, for Iran will not — and cannot — take it lying down.
This new policy is most evident in Syria, where Qatar is explicitly and unashamedly supporting the 19-month insurgency with money, equipment, and at the very least light weaponry — little less than a declaration of war against President Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s core ally.
But Qatar’s new activism is also apparent in Gaza, where Doha has likely decided to take action precisely because of Hamas’s break from Iran. When Tehran stopped sending money to Hamas after the group failed to publically support Iran’s embattled ally in Syria, Qatar saw an opportunity to split the Palestinian group from its long-time sponsor. While its $400 million donation is earmarked for humanitarian development, not only is such support fungible, but there are doubtless other financial arrangements being made between Qatar and Hamas on this trip — further strengthening the ties between the Palestinian Islamist movement and Doha.
This move will, of course, catalyze another round of speculation that Qatar is supporting the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Arab world. That Qatar’s supports the Brotherhood is not in doubt — indeed, it hardly tries to conceal its efforts at engaging with the Islamist movement in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and now with Hamas, another Brotherhood offshoot. Yet Qatar is not nefariously trying to replace the Shia Crescent with a Brotherhood Banana, curving from Syria through Gaza, Egypt, and on to Libya and Tunisia. Doha is much more pragmatic and less Machiavellian than that: It is leveraging its relations where they exist, and looking to bolster popular, effective, moderate Muslim parties with whom it has relations.
Qatar’s vanguard role in weakening a key plank of Iranian foreign policy indicates that Doha must feel deeply secure with its relationship with Tehran, for it would hardly undertake such aggressive moves if it felt imminently threatened. Indeed, there is an obvious flashpoint between the two regional powers: Qatar and Iran share the world’s largest gas field, which has been responsible forQatar’s recent spike in wealth. Traditionally, this has meant that Qatar treated Iran with a great deal of respect. Relations were carefully improved in the 1990s as the field was being developed, as Doha sought to avoid an escalation after numerous instances of Iran attacking and stealing equipment from unmanned Qatari gas rigs.
Today, Qatar’s relations with Iran are as pleasant as ever on the surface. However, the fact that Qatar is overturning one of the key tenets of its foreign policy by antagonizing Iran is a surprising and forthright move by the Qatari elite, which clearly does not accept conventional limits on what is and what is not possible in the Middle East.
On France and Qatar 24, October 2012Posted by thegulfblog.com in French IR, Qatar.
Tags: Qatar France investments, Qatar investments, Qatar Paris investments
add a comment
I spoke on France 24 last night about Qatar’s Gaza trip but I can’t find that so here are a couple of links to me waffling away about Qatar’s not so perfidious investments in France.
Understanding Qatar’s Foreign Policy Objectives 19, July 2012Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
Tags: Foreign Policy Objectives, Qatar Foreign Policy objectives, Qatar's foreign policy
add a comment
I’ve written a piece for Mediterranean Journal on Qatar’s foreign policy. The opening couple of paragraphs are below and the rest can be found here.
Neither in the bowels of the Foreign Ministry nor in the Emir Diwan in Qatar is there a large-scale strategic plan underscoring and directing Qatar’s foreign policy before, during, or after the Arab Spring. There are no Machiavellian plans afoot to support the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region or to corral support against Saudi-led Salafi groups. Al Jazeera is not a tool of the Foreign Minister, Qatar’s desire to promote democracy does not make it any more hypocritical than any other state, the Qatari Emir is neither a lackey of America nor Tehran, and nor have there been several attempts on his life in recent years, as, for example, Syrian media outlets so adamantly claimed.
Wading through the reams of misinformation, clichés, propaganda, and vitriol masquerading as analysis and reportage of Qatar’s foreign policy and its objectives takes practice, perseverance, and a deep understanding of Qatar itself. Arriving at any firm conclusions is further complicated by the conservative and private nature of Qataris themselves and the lack of any kind of meaningful policy documents, whitepapers, official explanations, and overall transparency throughout Government.
The key to understanding Qatar’s foreign policies is to place them in the context of the State of Qatar itself. A clear and dispassionate grasp of the factors, be they social, economic, or political, that contributed to the milieu in which the policies were made is the first step towards a nuanced and transparent understanding of the emergent foreign policies.
Of KSA and the Gulf Union 13, July 2012Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The Gulf.
Tags: Bahrain Gulf Union, Gulf Union, KSA, Saudi Arabia
I wrote the following article for e-International Relations on KSA and the Gulf Union, but this time with extra subtle literary allusion.
In mid-December 2011 King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called for the Gulf Cooperation Council to move towards “a stage of union in a single entity”. What exactly he meant by this was never officially fleshed out, as is the way in the Gulf where public diplomacy is a rarity. Instead it was left for the editorialists, a few scattered comments by Ministers, and peoples’ fevered imaginations to fill in the blanks particularly in the run up to the following GCC meeting in May 2012.
Stalwart Saudi columnists extolled the virtues of the inevitable fraternal linking of states, their counterparts in the Iranian press castigated this move as divisive and provocative, and Western analysts resolutely pointed out the difficulties inherent in some form of a Union. As the May meeting approached, Riyadh was bedecked with GCC flags for the ceremony, the pro-Union editorials spewed out copy building on a bullish pro-Union speech by Saudi’s Foreign Minister Faisal, and an odd air of expectancy filled the region. Despite the obvious difficulties of such a Union and the myriad problems it would create and cracks it would paper over, it appeared as if through force of will alone Riyadh was going to pull a Unionised rabbit out of the hat.
Yet, to quote Lord Palmerston, states have neither permanent friends nor enemies, only permanent interests, and so it proved. The May meeting proved to be an anticlimactic non-event, with the only outcome being promise of another meeting in December 2012. Clearly the elite in Saudi Arabia colossally misjudged the whole situation.
It seemed to make sense
One can understand the frustration of Saudi’s elite. No country in the Gulf with the possible exception of Qatar at all welcomed the Arab Spring. For Saudi Arabia, a country which has enjoyed spectacular oil receipts for decades yet whose people suffer from profound unemployment, a lack of basic opportunities, badly aging infrastructure not to mention a repressive social atmosphere, the Arab Spring not only forced the Government to crack down in their eastern province but also splurge $130bn on a palliative budget to stem revolutionary-inspired ideas.
Moreover, on the Kingdom’s door step in Bahrain, the Spring had a deleterious effect on the fragile status quo. The Shia majority who have been economically and socially disenfranchised for generations rose up and were crushed with varying degrees of brutality.
This situation, which Saudi Arabia erroneously believed was caused by Iran, opened up a potentially critical wound right next to Saudi’s own Shia population sitting atop the majority of its oil facilities, which, they feared, could be exploited nefariously by Iran. The fact that America had abandoned so quickly – as Riyadh saw it – a long term ally in Hosni Mubarak in Egypt enraged Saudi Arabia who at some level feared that they too could suffer the same fate. Well, it was reasoned, if America was not going to shore up long-term friendly allies, Saudi would. Duly Saudi Arabia sent over a thousand of its troops and armoured vehicles into Bahrain in February 2011 as a show of force to defend Bahrain ‘against Iran’.
This military support bolstered years of economic support in terms of investment, shared oil receipts, and gifts. The Spring sent Western banks scurrying from Manama deepening Bahrain’s reliance on Saudi Arabia for the foreseeable future. Indeed, given the calm and prosperous shores of Doha and Abu Dhabi but a few miles from Manama, there seems little chance that these western banks will return to Manama. Not only is Bahrain’s future, therefore, resolutely tied to Saudi Arabia but the ruling Sunni Al Khalifah family, facing such stiff internal issues, are doubly likely to rely on their fraternal Saudi brethren for support, particularly given the Iranian menace’s lurking stature (in Bahraini and Saudi eyes at least).
Quotes from the Bahraini King’s spokespeople even emerged just before the May meeting talking about the need to meet future challenges with “a more united front”. Yet it was not to be.
As for notions that the shared Iranian menace that all Gulf States face would force the smaller States to join Saudi Arabia in forming a protective Union similarly proved to be wide of the mark. This, despite examples of Iranian perfidy perennially peppering leaders’ speeches, Iranian spy rings being caught in Kuwait on several occasions, Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops attacking Qatari unmanned rigs in the shared gas field and any number of bellicose speeches emerging from the Iranian Parliament and Press.
Rhetoric versus reality
It is rather easy for the Arab Gulf States to agitate in one form or another about Iran’s perfidy. Such a policy is extremely popular domestically plugging into thousands of years of cultural, religious, political, and social animosity. It also neatly fits into modern political and regional dynamics and one can easily find some tangential evidence relating to Iran’s nefarious tentacles when necessary.
While the small Gulf States would like some form of reassurance against the Iranian threat – however they perceive it – there is an opportunity cost to be calculated. Specifically, while Iran poses some kind of threat, so too do the smaller states detect some kind of threat from Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is the regional Arab behemoth. Historically, politically and in terms of the basic building blocks of traditional power reckoning (population, country size, military might, economic sway) Saudi Arabia has long dominated the region. The smaller states, though they pack a post-modern punch themselves in various ways with their soft power ventures and such, nevertheless harbour concerns regarding Saudi’s sheer size and overbearing policies as evidenced in their Gulf Union push.
Additionally, a key but often overlooked facet is the insecurity throughout the newer, smaller Gulf States pertaining to their national identities. These states, it must not be forgotten, derive from essentially the same kind of cultural, familial, tribal, societal, economic, and religious background. There is until recently, therefore, little to necessarily differentiate a Qatari from an Emirati from a Saudi. The differences that have emerged in recent years in terms of the growth of a new identity with which to identify would be challenged and even eroded in the longer term were pan-regional ties to be emphasised at the expense of the sub-regional states.
Also, despite the often dire pronouncements in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Manama about Iran and its actions, it is difficult to escape the utility of these policy ploys. In short, whether the leaders genuinely believe that the Iranian threat is as dire as they maintain or whether they merely believe that by hyping such a threat this offers an easy way to galvanise and distract their domestic constituencies, is open to question. One could see a cost benefit emerging where the ‘threat’ posed by Saudi Arabia outweighs any realistic threat of Iran.
And this is not the first time that the Gulf States have undertaken policy by knee-jerk reaction. After the shattering invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990 the GCC launched the ‘Damascus Declaration’. This was a plan to station Syrian and Egyptian troops in the Gulf to boost the deterrence of the region. In return the GCC States would undertake massive investments in the troop-sending countries. Needless to say, much like the recent notion of expanding the GCC to include Morocco and Jordan, this idea went nowhere and was quietly dropped.
Many would note that the notion of a Gulf Union is not dead, merely that the decision has been moved towards the end of the year. Yet when the UAE, Oman, and Kuwait have shown such intransigence thus far, there is little realistic expectation that they will submit themselves to anything approaching a meaningful Union agreement. There are two clear conclusions to draw from this Unionising motion.
Firstly, that Saudi Arabia appears to believe its own rhetoric too much. The evils of Iran have been doing the Majlis rounds in Saudi Arabia for generations and it seems likely that the distinction between rhetoric and reality has been blurred. And while Saudi Arabia – the Lenny of the Gulf – may think that it is offering altruistic support to its allies, it must not forget that it looms large and is intimidating in its own right.
Secondly, while other Gulf States may over-hype the Iran threat sporadically for domestic purposes, there is nevertheless some sense of threat felt by all of the smaller Gulf States. With the swift refusal to discuss a tighter arrangement the other Gulf States signal the result of their cost benefit calculation falling firmly on the side of the status quo; to wit, that the fact that America is the key guarantor of security. With huge air fields, ports, and other facilities full of thousands of US personnel not to mention the world’s most advanced fighter jets and warships backed up by the most powerful military force ever seen, unsurprisingly, the smaller Gulf States don’t feel the need to run to Saudi Arabia, with its expensive but poorly trained forces. Only when this dependency upon America and its guarantees changes will the Gulf States move in the direction of meaningful closer cooperation.