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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.

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