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The Consequences of Qatar’s Foreign Policy 28, June 2013

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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The following article was published by Muftah.org on 26th June 2013

A few years ago, Qatar’s foreign policy could be described as maintaining an air of neutrality. Though it was no Switzerland, Qatar consistently sought to talk to all relevant parties involved in a given issue. From the 2008 peace talks on Lebanon to ongoing discussions about the Darfur conflict, Qatar’s relative neutrality was consistently on display.

Today, however, any sense of neutrality has evaporated from Qatari foreign policy. From the beginning of the Arab Spring, the Qatari government has consistently chosen sides in various conflicts.

It all began with extensive – if not obsessive – coverage by the state-owned Al Jazeera television network of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, goading and supporting the waves of change. Qatar also led international efforts against Libya’s former dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, financially, militarily, and politically. Today, Qatar supports the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Initially, Qatar’s support of the rebellions was applauded. As the country began channelling its financial and political support to certain political groups across the region, positive sentiments began to sour.

Over the last two and a half years, Qatar has redoubled efforts to involve itself in regional politics mostly through its existing relationship with Muslim Brotherhood groups particularly in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. This has pleased the Brotherhood leadership and its supporters who found themselves in the political majority in many newly emancipated states.

For others, Qatar’s money was seen as helping the Brotherhood in its bitter struggle for control in various post-revolutionary countries. In the eyes of these critics, Qatar was aiding and abetting the enemy.

It mattered little that this new tactic on the part of the Qatari government stemmed not from a shared ideological conviction or world-view, but from the fact that the Brotherhood was the most organized group, was most likely to win elections, and was one of the few new political parties with which Qatar had existing contacts.

Yet, the Qatari government consistently failed to clearly articulate these arguments. As a result, a mix of conspiracy theories and antipathy began to develop about Qatar’s perceived political intervention in various regional states.

Qatar’s attempt to vaguely explain its new positions as supporting popular emancipation and the dismantling of authoritarianism was mostly met with suspicion. As a result, Qatar’s image hit a new low. A steep drop off in Al Jazeera viewers around the region is one clear example of Qatar’s plummeting soft power.

The Qatari government’s public image is also suffering outside the Arab world, as demonstrated by a vicious spateof Qatar-bashing in the last 18 months.

In France, at present, it seems that Qatar can do no right. Recently, the French press reacted with contempt to anattempt by Qatar to invest €50m in Paris’ dilapidated Muslim-denominated suburbs. French media described the move as reflecting France’s failure to care for the welfare of its own citizens. Waving the banner of Islamophobia, some press outlets accused the French government of giving an untrustworthy Muslim nation the opportunity to radicalize France’s Muslim youth.

The Qatari government was dumbfounded by these reactions. From its perspective, the investment was intended to boost relations with France’s new President. Qatar saw no need to buy the loyalty of disaffected Muslim youth, who neither owned property on the Champs Elysees nor the shares in France’s key companies. These tangible assets and the importance of the wider bilateral relationship with Paris more generally were all that the Qatari Government was interested in.

Once again, Qatar’s image suffered because of how it conducted its political business. By failing to explain its behavior, Qatar helped to facilitate growing suspicion about its intentions.

This recent crisis has exacerbated already uncertain relations between Qatar and France’s new government. While Qatar enjoyed warm and intimate relations with President Nicolas Sarkozy, with its piquant hatred of the former president, the new French government has tarred the Qatari government by association.

In Egypt, events may be taking a similar turn. In early May, a long-expected deal between a Qatari government-backed investment bank – Qinvest – and an Egyptian partner, EFG Hermes dissolved. While other Qatari investments have recently succeeded, amid the fragility of Egypt’s political sphere and the public burning of the Qatari flag, it is difficult to discount the role of anti-Qatari sentiment in future relations between the two countries.

Qatar’s foreign policy remains dominated by the elite with the now former Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and current Emir and then-Crown Prince, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, setting the tone and strategic agenda and the Foreign Minister and the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, undertaking the tactical business of conducting the foreign policy. This is both a blessing and a curse.

Qatari foreign policy can react quickly and nimbly to events without a great bureaucratic lag in processing and analyzing decisions. While foreign policy positions are plainly guided by a desire to maximize opportunities for the benefit of the Qatari state, they are also influenced by the decision-makers’ personal convictions to support subjugated Arab populations. At the same time, because Qatar’s foreign policy is made by a small cabal of men, it is unpredictable, largely uncodified, and receives little internal criticism.

It was one thing for Qatar to operate this way while it was scarcely a power in the Gulf region. Now that it is gaining international influence, the Qatari government cannot continue to pursue such a personalized and ad hoc foreign policy. Indeed, Qatar’s leadership needs to engage in a more nuanced, modern, and rounded approach.

In the case of Egypt, Qatar’s leadership must discern the stability of its footing and engage in constant re-evaluation of its tactics. If the government decides to support the Muslim Brotherhood, then it should also consider backing grassroots organizations to stave off resentment at the billions it has ploughed into the Egyptian Central Bank with little positive impact on daily life in the country. Equally, Qatar should consider investing in projects for the public good, initiatives to boost democratic accountability, or micro-financing funds aimed at small business start-ups, anything to divest itself of its reputation for solely supporting the Muslim Brotherhood elite. If it were to engage in these projects, it would also need to take necessary steps to inform the public of its work.

As maligned as Qatar’s reputation is becoming in certain quarters, the government’s ability to nimbly change direction means there is hope it can recalibrate its foreign policy approach in the future.

Qatar’s Foreign Policy Adventurism 27, June 2013

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The following article was published by Foreign Affairs on the 25th June 2013.

Earlier this month, the Taliban opened an official office in Doha, landing Qatar once more in Western headlines. That might have been part of Qatar’s plan: the decision to host such a controversial office is symptomatic of a desire to play a central role in a wide array of important diplomatic issues. Yet the debacle of the office’s first 36 hours shows just how far Qatar still has to go.

No sooner had the office opened, on June 18, than the trouble began. Despite assurances from the Americans and Qataris to the Afghan government that the office would be relatively low-key and would not resemble an embassy, the Taliban spokesman who opened the office did everything in his power to imply that he was representing a state. The Taliban anthem was played, an official plaque outside referred to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Afghanistan’s name under Taliban rule), and the flag of the Taliban in Afghanistan was raised at a mini opening ceremony. The media circus around the events did nothing to dispel the images of nationhood and power.

Karzai reacted furiously [1], recanting [2] on promises to send negotiators and pulling [3] out of talks with the United States. The U.S. airbase at Bagram also came under Taliban fire [4], leaving four U.S. personnel dead. After some frantic diplomacy on the part of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the Qataris forced the Taliban to lower the flag — apparently by cutting [5] the flagpole in half and then removing it entirely. But the damage had been done, and the Taliban had scored a significant diplomatic victory.

The Qatari authorities could never have been expected to have total control over the Taliban, but they could have been expected to at least extract some guarantees that the Taliban would behave itself on opening week. (After all, what else would funding the office in its entirety have been for?)

Like the opening of the Taliban office, the talks that are supposed to take place there in the coming weeks do not inspire much confidence. It is true that both sides are exhausted from over a decade of fighting, and that both realize that neither can ever fully win. But there is still a deep gulf to bridge. The Taliban are fragmented, with no agreement about the extent to which the office in Qatar officially represents them. And, on the other side, Karzai hates the Taliban, mistrusts Qatar, and acquiesced to the talks only because he had no choice: after all, how could his High Peace Council refuse to go to peace talks? Meanwhile, James Dobbins, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan who will head up negotiations in Doha, will be dismayed to find that he has to cool tempers and coax the partners back to the table before he has even arrived there.

Qatar’s role in all this was simply to provide a forum where the key protagonists — the Taliban, the Afghan government, and the United States — could come together to talk. Although that task might sound relatively mundane, it is critical given that in peace talks in 2010, a Taliban impostor posing as a negotiator walked off [6]with “a lot of money,” and, in talks in 2011, another impostor killed [7] the Afghan government’s lead negotiator.

For the Qataris, how the talks actually turn out is almost beside the point. Never lacking in ambition, the government has gone into overdrive in recent years. After dipping its toe into mediation and international engagement, notably in Lebanon in 2008 and in ongoing talks on Darfur, Qatar jumped into diplomacy in earnest during the Arab Spring. It began by supporting the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt before most other countries, particularly with its assiduous coverage of gathering protests on al Jazeera, the state-funded satellite channel. Subsequently, Qatar gave support [8]to opposition forces against Libya’s Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi and was the first Arab state to officially recognize the opposition after that. Although Western support was critical, the relatively quick removal of the entrenched dictator was interpreted as a confidence-building victory for Qatar’s foreign policy adventurism.

The Qataris hoped that the same trick would work in Syria. After informal elite-to-elite negotiations failed in 2011, al Jazeera began to cover the growing conflict in depth. By Spring 2012 Qatar was one of the leading suppliers of light arms and other supplies to the opposition. But the fears that the world had initially held about intervention in Libya — that the state would fragment, that the body count would rise, and that the government would ruthlessly repress its people — are now being realized hundreds of miles away.

A desire to make bold policy moves — be it quickly and overtly supporting Libya’s opposition, funneling arms to Syria’s opposition, or hosting a Taliban office — is almost unique to Qatar. An unusual combination of the state’s intrinsic security, which is provided and guaranteed by the United States, its great wealth, and its rulers’ desires to make Qatar a useful international actor, has transformed the state’s foreign policy. Not only, therefore, does the United States implicitly facilitate many of Qatar’s key foreign policies, but some policies — particularly those aimed at establishing discussions with a variety of groups with whom the United States has difficulty interacting (Hamas, the Taliban) — are aimed at making Qatar uniquely important to the United States.

Yet Qatar’s leadership is learning that operating at such a high and politicized level requires a level of preparation, planning, and execution that Qatar struggles to meet. After all, there are only 250,000 Qataris, and the state has had modern bureaucracies for barely a generation. It is no great surprise, then, that it lacks certain capacities. Qatar’s elite are simply willing to take the risks that their policies might go awry. Recently, though, there has been a greater reliance on international allies, such as Qatar’s passing of its Syria file [9] to Saudi Arabia, which appears to be part of an appreciation in Doha that it must take more of a multilateral approach.

Complicating foreign policy-making, too, are the changes [10] in Qatar’s leadership. Unusually in the Arab World, under no domestic pressure, the Emir of Qatar stepped down on June 25 in favor of his son and heir apparent, Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani. At the same time, the foreign minister, who is also the prime minister and has long been synonymous with Qatar’s foreign policy, is expected to step aside as part of a wider cabinet reshuffle. In one fell swoop, then, the two central architects of Qatar’s modern history will be gone.

The next generation of leaders is impressive and skilled at diplomacy. There is as yet no hard evidence that they will continue to make Qatar’s foreign policy as dramatic and interventionist as it has been in recent years. Yet it would be reasonable to assume some continuity: Qatar’s ultimate foreign policy goal will remain making itself as important as possible to a range of key international states. For Qatar, that is the key to living well as a small, wealthy state in an intrinsically unstable region. If the elite in Doha can marry the country’s desires with a nuanced appreciation of their own limitations and either take a more measured approach or act more multilaterally, Qatar could once more be a disproportionate force for good in its wider region.

Links:

[1] http://ti.me/10yCDRq
[2] http://on.ft.com/12i1DXh
[3] http://ind.pn/1c8Ho45
[4] http://bit.ly/14iuzS9
[5] http://bit.ly/12XJKUY
[6] http://nyti.ms/12l6zdN
[7] http://on.wsj.com/ogZi7i
[8] http://fam.ag/pad1NF
[9] http://atfp.co/16O6tnX
[10] http://on.ft.com/1aDtPvq

Qatar Emir Voluntarily Abdicates 25, June 2013

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The following article appeared on RUSI.org on the 25th June.

Once again Qatar leads its region and takes the world by surprise. After months of speculation and rumours, change is finally coming to Qatar. In stark contrast to leaders across the Arab World, without any popular pressure whatsoever, the Emir of Qatar, Hamad Bin Khalifah Al Thani, has passed power to his son and Heir Apparent, Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani. Like his father did 18 years ago when he took power from his father, Tamim will spend the next few days greeting his fellow citizens taking their oath of loyalty before beginning the work of establishing a new Cabinet and Government.

Changes

Thirty-three year old Emir Tamim is one of the youngest leaders in the world and is approximately sixty years younger than his contemporary in Saudi Arabia. Though Qatar has seen abdications before (though not in the last two changes of power) this change is deeply unusual and has no recent regional precedent. Emir Tamim is expected to instigate a widespread reshuffle in the Qatari Government, which many believe will include not only younger Qataris but perhaps even female Cabinet Ministers.

While a younger Government and Emir Tamim will have room to stamp their own personality on Qatar going forward and may well bring some needed impetus to proceedings, no one expects large changes. The strategic direction of Qatar is set: it is an international focussed country, inextricably linked to a range of key countries. Without the leadership of Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Al Thani, one of many Ministers expected to lose or change portfolios, the more pointed nature of Qatari diplomacy may be smoothed and Qatar may not so readily launch itself into regional issues. Nevertheless, Qatar is unlikely to back away from its foreign commitments or significantly alter its approaches domestically.

Legacy

Emir Hamad has transformed Qatar. From a small backwater with no regional ambition or capability of extending its influence as it entered the 1990s, under his leadership, Qatar has become an often pivotally important country on the international stage. From hosting two huge, critically important US bases for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; becoming the world’s largest supplier of liquefied natural gas (LNG); starting the Middle East’s media revolution by founding Al Jazeera; becoming one of the world’s most prominent investors; and more recently actively supporting the Arab Spring: the legacy of Qatar’s Emir is extraordinary.

The Emir could not have done all this without his key lieutenant, Hamad Bin Jassem Al Thani, who has been Qatar’s Foreign Minister since 1992 and Prime Minister since 2007. HBJ as he is often known, has become one of the world’s most prominent diplomats and has overseen Qatar’s inexorable expansion in its foreign policy. He has also been the head of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, the Qatar Investment Authority since 2005 and has led its key acquisitions around the world, but most notably in London.

Though in the recent past Qatar has enjoyed unusual success in its foreign policy, most notably in getting Lebanese factions to an agreement in 2008 and in the support of the Libyan rebels against Colonel Gaddafi, more recently Qatar has come unstuck. Like many actors, Qatar is at a loss of how to effectively support the rebellion in Syria. Their tactics thus far of supporting a motley group of opposition activists has not proven successful, while the Qatar-based Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Yusuf Al-Qaradawi has been exacerbating sectarian tensions from Doha with increasingly shrill speeches and sermons. While Qatar is not alone in being befuddled as to how to solve the Syrian crisis, this is an ongoing issue that Qatar’s new elite will have to cope with immediately.

Going Forward

The two Hamads cannot easily be replaced. They were unique individuals in the history of Qatar and of their region who shared a similar vision and drive. However, the Emir has steeped his children including the new Emir, Tamim, in this vision and his work will not be unpicked. Indeed, the Hamads have inextricably tied Qatar into a range of international countries through its energy supply, its investments, and its wider government-to-government agreements. It would be almost impossible to rewind and for Qatar to retreat to an introspective focus. The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar is yet another marker in the sand compelling Qatar to continue with its grand infrastructure projects and maintain its open attitude towards the world.

Tamim’s mother, the hugely influential Sheikha Moza, is still – for now – head of the Qatar Foundation – the multi-pronged social and educational charity in Qatar under whose auspices Education City containing several foreign Universities are found. Even if Moza were to step aside soon, she has inculcated her children into the Foundation’s goals and has made four of them (out of six including Moza herself) Board Trustees.

As for Tamim’s personal political inclination, aside from generic rumours suggesting that he is of a conservative persuasion, he is a relatively unknown quantity. Yet there is little evidence to support such a conclusion beyond Doha-based gossip. While Tamim was the impetus for supporting the pay rise for Qatari public workers and military officers – a classically traditional policy of Gulf rulers – thus far his key portfolios in Qatar are related to vastly expanding sporting access, boosting Qatar’s sporting pedigree around the world and making Qatar more food secure in terms of increasing Qatar’s ability to produce a meaningful percentage of its own food requirement using technology and careful management. These are hardly concerns typically associated with conservative tendencies.

Instead we need to sit and wait to see what Emir Tamim will be like. There is huge potential for him to set initiatives using his personal judgement, which will be keenly watched to discern more of an inkling as to his personality. Yet Qatar’s position in the world and its core interests have not changed.

 

The Genesis of Qatar’s Foreign Policy 19, June 2013

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Al-Jazeera, Egypt, Foreign Policies, Qatar.
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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.