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Why an elected Majlis in Qatar will not work 11, May 2014

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The following Tweet simply and succinctly sums up for me why an elected Majlis in Qatar that actually has any power will not work.

It refers to a story in a local paper here in Doha quoting elected members of Qatar’s toothless ‘Central Municipal Council’ complaining and arguing against a recent hike in the price of diesel fuel. The core of the complaint is that the price hike will effectively be passed on to consumers in one way or another. While there may be some logic to this concern, I am struck by the similarity of this complaint to the exact genre of complaint that has so paralyzed Kuwait’s Parliament in recent decades.

Discussions about democracy in the Gulf unerringly come back to ‘the Kuwaiti example’. In short, though many in the Gulf may admire the relative freedom of action afforded to Kuwaitis and the power of its Parliament, potentially a real check on Emiri authority, few would actually want Kuwait’s system given its lamentable recent experience. As I wrote in 2011, 2012, and 2013 [and I suppose I’m now due to write the same article in 2014], there are fundamental problems at the heart of Kuwait’s democratic style of politics. In short, the issues are:

  • A ban on political parties frequently forcing candidates to make their own platform, which are typically so-called ‘service’ platforms i.e. parliamentarians promising to deliver more subsidies and other goodies for their constituents;
  • ‘Service’ platforms feed off historical differences in Kuwaiti society: in short, groups enfranchised in recent decades see this as an opportunity for them to get ‘their share’ of Kuwait’s wealth, which has been monopolized by other segments of society who have had far longer access to wealth and power;
  • The Prime Minister is appointed and he appoints to the Cabinet. Without the formalized input of the elected Parliamentarians, there is often little ‘buy in’ to the Cabinet and an antagonistic tone is set;
  • Before the Arab Spring, Kuwait’s politics was energized by growing youth movements, which were even more catalyzed by the Spring itself, which lent greater impetus to those seeking change and a greater access to wealth;
  • The only method available to the Government to keep the show on the road in recent years has been the increasing dispensation of cash. For example, from 2005 to 2013 government wages have risen from $6.7 billion to $17 billion. Though Kuwait’s oil revenues increased during this time period, there have been repeated and increasingly concerned warnings emanating both from within and outwith Kuwait as to the dangers of such levels of spending. The IMF, for example, predict that if the current spending rates are maintained, Kuwait will have exhausted all its oil savings by 2017.

While only some of these factors may be at play in Qatar – there are, for example, no similarly large cleavages in Qatari society as there are in Kuwait – the fundamental issue is the same. Would-be MPs in Qatar, in the absence of political parties, would inevitably fall back on a ‘service’ platform, which as the Kuwait experience has shown all too clearly has a caustic influence on long-term decision making and planning.

 

How personal politics drive conflict in the Gulf 7, May 2014

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The Emirates, The Gulf.
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The following article can be found on Steven Cook’s blog over at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“I love all the countries of the Gulf, and they all love me.” With this less than subtle statement, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the vocal Qatar-based Muslim Brotherhood scholar tried to do his part to repair regional relations in the Gulf that have badly frayed in recent weeks. Long-brewing discontent erupted in early March with the unprecedented withdrawal of the Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini ambassadors from Qatar. Subsequent mediation from Kuwait’s Emir has led the protagonists to the cuspof a modus vivendi, and a vague document has been agreed upon.

But core differences remain. Qatar is alone in the region in providing financial, material, and rhetorical support for popular governance around the Middle East. It can do this because its domestic security is strong and, without internal restrictions to speak of such as a strong Parliament, its elite is unusually unconstrained and capable of pursuing unusual foreign policy tangents such as assiduously supporting the new movements in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Such aid, which has been frequently channeled through Brotherhood connections, resonated favorably across much of the region. This allowed Qatar to play an important role in emerging popular revolts, keeping the autocratic monarchy with no meaningful elections on the right side of wider public opinion, while also laying the foundations for new, potentially close regional relations. Qatar’s Gulf neighbors, however, without as pliant a domestic context and driven by the intention of thwarting new Islamist actors, seek the firm reinstatement of the regional status quo ante.

In November 2013, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah presented Qatar’s new, 33-year-old Emir – a man one-third his age – with a document demanding a total reorientation of Qatar’s foreign policy under the guise of promoting regional security. In the face of conflicting interests between Saudi and Qatar, this was Abdullah’s attempt to cow Qatar and get its renegade regional foreign policy under control; something he had tried but failed to do for decades with Tamim’s father, Hamad. Tamim demurred, but  Abdullah was nevertheless led to believe that the Emir had acquiesced to the Saudi leader’s way of thinking. Yet Qatar’s rhetorical support of the Brotherhood continued and Qaradawi stoked ire across the region in early 2014. In January he accused Saudi Arabia’s leaders of not believing in sharia law and he also declared that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has “always been against Islamic rule” prompting its foreign ministry to summon the Qatari ambassador to explain the lack of an official denunciation or apology.

In March of this year, Qatari representatives facilitated the release of thirteen Greek Orthodox nuns held in Syria since in December 2012 with – according to some reports – a ransom of $67 million. From the Saudi perspective this was a clear example of Qatar adversely intervening in the conflict and further fermenting a petri dish in which jihadi groups grow, prosper, and strengthen. Saudi authorities also see Qatar fermenting similar problems in Saudi’s own backyard in Yemen where Doha stands accused of channeling itssupport through the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Al Islah party.

Despite their own material and financial support for suspect groups in such conflicts, Riyadh clearly believes that Qatari actions encourage jihadism, which represents a threat to Saudi security. Given the bitter Saudi experience with domestic terrorism in the mid-2000s and its large, relatively porous borders with Yemen and Iraq, fears are growing in the Saudi elite of the impact or ‘blowback’ of returning, more radicalized, and battle-tested jihadis. This is the reason that the remit of Minister of the Interior Muhammed bin Nayef has recently been extended to cover Syria and Yemen and why the Saudi leadership issued a decree in February making it illegal for their citizens to fight in regional conflicts.

The withdrawal of the ambassadors from Doha had little practical effect. Gulf diplomacy is conducted at a much higher level, but it was a public and unprecedented rebuke. Leaks to the press about the potential Saudi escalation including the cancellation of an impending airline deal by Qatar Airways in Saudi Arabia or potentially closing the land border to Qatar, added to a sense of near naked extortion.

The nature of the mooted compromise agreement that the Kuwaitis hammered out does not augur well for long-term stability. The agreement is thought to demand that Qatar curtails funding for a range of media organizations in the Middle East that are critical of the policies of the Gulf States; expels Brotherhood members currently living in Doha; halts its support of the Brotherhood and the Houthis in Yemen; and stops naturalizing Gulf citizens fleeing states as opposition members or Islamists. Though Qatar has, according to reports, now agreed to implement these statutes, it is difficult to see how Doha could possibly do so without fundamentally shifting its foreign policy, something it is most unlikely to do.

Since the late 1950s Qatar has provided various kinds of support for the Brotherhood. Even without a meaningful religiously based commonality – Qatar being theoretically closer, ironically, to the Saudi interpretation of Islam – Qatar often found Brotherhood members both available and sufficiently qualified to staff its emerging bureaucracies. This filled a basic need, while also allowing the Qataris to diversify away any existing dependency on Saudi Arabia in such matters. The Brothers, who settled in Qatar over the decades, whether notable ideologues like Qaradawi or those with the loosest of affiliation to the group, found Doha to be a safe and secure location. These relationships came into their own during the Arab Spring, when their potential for influence increased, for a time at least. Though the Brotherhood is once more deeply repressed across much of the region and should never be seen as a group in “Qatar’s pocket,” there is an unusually deep connection that has been cultivated over decades.

Qatar enjoys this relationship because neither the Brotherhood nor any similar groups poses a challenge to the country. Indeed, the local Brotherhood branch disbanded itself in 1999. Additionally, Qatari society is so small and close-knit, and the socioeconomic bargain so strong, that the ruling elites feel entirely and understandably comfortable supporting a group that offers an alternative arrangement of government. Saudi Arabia, however, does face a challenge from the Brothers in two ways. Firstly, the Brotherhood offers a competing form of Islamic government, one that was realized for a time in Egypt and that directly challenges Saudi Arabia as the beacon of Islamic governance. Secondly, Saudi Arabia faces politicized Islam as an oppositional force: Discord throughout the Kingdom could be channeled by the Brotherhood and used to confront the royal family. The UAE has similar fears, stemming from the disparities in wealth between Abu Dhabi and Dubai and the northern Emirates. The government also insists that it has rooted out dozens of Brothers who were planning to disrupt the status quo. Equally, the UAE’s de facto leader, Mohammad bin Zayed, is known to have a deep distrust and dislike for the group that directly shapes the state’s policy.

Given that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have recently labeled the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group, there is no turning back the clock; their antipathy is now institutionalized state policy. In the aftermath of the ambassadorial withdrawal, dozens of Qataris changed their Twitter profile pictures to photos of the Emir.  Qataris – even those who do not support the Brotherhood – were clearly signaling that they would not be  bullied into changing their policy. So while Qatar could theoretically change tack and join the bandwagon, such an about-face would be seen as a capitulation and would be received poorly back in Doha. Also, aside from the legacy of the policy toward the Brotherhood in Qatar, if there has been a central theme in the country’s foreign policy in the last twenty-five years it has been one of unambiguously asserting Qatar’s independence from Saudi Arabia. Reasonable accommodation has been made in the past, such as in 2008 when Qatar controlled to a greater degree Al Jazeera coverage of Saudi Arabia to ensure the return of the Saudi ambassador to Doha after a six year absence, but the current proposals seek strategic change. Part of the mooted accord attempting to resolve this latest crisis hints that once more Al Jazeera’s coverage might be on the table and Qaradawi is, for the time being at least, cooperating by toning down his rhetoric. But without precisely the kind of meaningful change that Qatar cannot undertake, relations seem set for an extended cold snap, punctuated by personally-led spurts of anger, potentially peripatetically lurching relations from one mini-crisis to the next.

Al Jazeera mark II 6, May 2014

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It has been known for some time that Qatar has been planning to launch a new news channel based in London. Half of the ‘Al Arab Al Jadeed [The New Arab]’ venture began on 30th March 2014 with the news website, while the expected TV channel is still in the works. Many have puzzled as to why Qatar, which has already spent untold billions on its main broadcaster, Al Jazeera, would sink money into another venture, while other have mocked the decision.

The driving force behind the whole venture is Azmi Bishara. The colorful Doha resident who has seemingly been influential behind the scenes in Doha for some time now and is the head of the Arab Centre for Policy Studies, which is in the process of expanding to become a Masters degree-awarding institution. Under Bishara’s leadership, AL Arab Al Jadeed is thought to provide a counter weight to Al Jazeera Arabic, which unabashedly tows a pro-Muslim Brotherhood line. Despite the mockery, there is a certain logic to this. It strikes me as perfectly sensible for Qatar to attempt to balance out its image as a slavish Ikhwan-supporting state, for that is how it is viewed by some, though the truth is inevitably much more nuanced.

Aside form Al Jazeera, Qatar has long sought to boost its ‘soft power’ – to use the hackneyed phrase – using media. Aside from Al Jazeera, one of the ways that it wanted to boost the Libyan opposition was by establishing  Libya al-Ahrar TV station. Qatar is also believed (or rather rumored) to be behind a range of other media ventures elsewhere in the Middle East, such as the Al Jadeed channel in Lebanon. Qatar’s elite clearly feel that as a small country with a minimal ability to project power because it is such a physically small place, using its key resource – cash – to buy asymmetric soft power is a wise investment. This is not such a bad calculation.

As for the more conspiracy minded notions that Emir Tamim is pursuing this Al Arab Al Jadeed venture because his hands are tied when it comes to altering Al Jazeera because it was started by and is somehow still under the ‘protection’ of his father, Hamad bin Khalifah Al Thani, there are more persuasive (and likely) if less entertaining reasons afoot. Firstly, purging Al Jazeera may be too vocal or obvious a sign that Qatar has given in to the Saudi-led tub-thumping, some of which has allegedly demanded that its coverage be altered. Clearly Qatar needs to give some ground, but it wants and needs to do this in as quiet a way as possible. Clearing house at Al Jazeera, though I have argued that it would be a beneficial idea overall, would understandably be an obvious sign of change. Secondly, it is practically impossible to change bureaucracies. They have a profound inertia all of their own. Even in Qatar where the Emir is relatively unconstrained, the leadership has shown over and over again that it prefers to duplicate bureaucracies rather tackle them head-on. Hence the creation of the Supreme Councils over the years to actually make meaningful, effective institutions as opposed trying to reform the old bureaucracies in charge of the same fiefdoms.

 

 

The drive-by Qatar article 29, April 2014

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I can almost hear the editor haranguing the journalist:

Yes, Qatar is interesting, but it’s all been done before…we need a new angle…find me something new.

And so the journalist comes to Qatar. Another in a long series of drive-by articles. Even the late, great Anthony Shahid wrote a stinker of an article back in 2011 for the NYT (an ephemeral skyline, Al Jazeera, World Cup, Moza, etc., etc.) on a 36-hour trip to Doha. Perhaps it’s Qatar’s fault that it somehow elicits such articles?

So the premise of this new BBC article is that Qataris are unhappy because they’re the richest people on earth. Quite the counterfactual, alternative way of thinking: bonus points from the editor.

It starts as ever with the contractual skyline note: seemingly it’s rising like an ‘artificial forest’ at the moment. Then – kudos! – a Qatari is interviewed. She notes that Qatar’s economic life has changed. Certainly it has. And that families have become separated. Well, absolutely speaking, I suppose this is the case: more Qataris have their own houses now so don’t all live together, so they are more separated. What else could be complained about with this logic? That kids going to school means less ‘quality time’ at home with the family eking out an existence? That modern medicine deprives families of spending weeks mopping each others’ brows when they are sick thanks to its ‘advances’ quickening recovery times?

The article continues.

You can feel the pressure in Doha. The city is a building site, with whole districts either under construction or being demolished for redevelopment. Constantly snarled traffic adds hours to the working week, fuelling stress and impatience.

No you can’t. Qatar is like any other growing city in the world: there is traffic and there is construction. And is working in Doha any more stressful than in London or New York? I suspect not; working hours are, on the whole, not comparable to such places.

The article then stumbles on a genuine and concerning change: divorce rates rising and the obesity problems. But this gets 23 words only noting that there is a problem. That’s it.

We then learn that Qataris get lots of stuff for being Qatari and Qatari students – unlike all students all over the world?? – feel pressure when leaving education looking for work. Indeed, what a nightmare it must be for graduating Qataris to “be faced with 20 job offers.” Really, with this sentence, the article jumps the shark in a naked attempt to magic up controversy where plainly none exists.

More moaning ensues about the Qatari-ex-pat divide. Sure, this is worth discussing, but I suspect that not much more than a couple of conversations went into the article so when we get deep, meaningful quotes like:

The sense is deepening that, in the rush for development, something important has been lost.

I become suspicious that in the yearning for profundity all we’re getting is more trite clichés.

The problem of Qataris being raised by maids is a genuinely interesting topic and one that needs extensive study.

As for a  sexagenarian Qatari woman complaining that life used to be “beautifully simply”, I don’t know where to start. Suffice to say that I imagine that today’s air-conditioning, education for her children, exponentially wider opportunities for all, trips to London for holidays, and trips to Frankfurt for medical treatment might begin to help her reconcile her awful modern existence.

The article then jumps the Orientalist shark (again). We’re off into the desert to drink camel milk “fresh from the udder”. The noble Qatari “chewing thoughtfully” reminiscing about back in the day when things were “much better”. Naturally.

There is something to be said about Qatar’s sense of siege, but perhaps with less sense of drama. But it is deeply wrong to suggest that Qataris want to keep the kefala system in place in order to avoid undermining their “cultural values” or some such guff. Qataris want to keep it because it offers them control over foreigners so they can be evicted and because it is cheap. There are no noble reasons behind it.

After half a sentence on regional politics we are told that cleanliness is an obsession in Doha: I must have missed that. And the article is finished off with the most stupid quote yet, noting that Qataris have “lost almost everything that matters.”

Suffice it to say that Edward Said is gyrating in his grave.

 

Qatar, the Ikhwan, and transnational relations in the Gulf 24, April 2014

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The following article was first published by POMEPS on 18 March 2014 after having been prepared specifically for a workshop in Venice (‘Visions of Gulf Security’) earlier that month. The original article can be found here.

___

 

Qatar has often found itself at the heart of intra-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) disputes. From the early 1990s to 2008 Qatar was involved in a cold war with Saudi Arabia, while its Bahraini bilateral relations have been fractious for more than a century. More recently Qatar’s relations with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have ebbed and flowed, while Saudi Arabia’s leadership is becoming, once again, increasingly irritated with Qatar. The latest iteration of these regional difficulties was crystalized when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain took the unprecedented step of withdrawing their ambassadors from Qatar en masse in early March.[1]

The roots of the difficulties are clear: Qatar’s evident preference for channeling its support through and therefore bolstering the Ikhwan (the Muslim Brotherhood). Given how increasingly difficult and costly this policy is becoming for Qatar with its regional relations, it is worth re-examining existing understandings as to why Qatar supports the Ikhwan. Subsequently, recent bilateral issues will be examined to draw conclusions to inform a cost benefit analysis of Qatar’s continuing Ikhwan-supporting policies.

Qatar and the Ikhwan: the roots

Understanding Qatar’s links to the Ikhwan typically relies on quasi-academic, short articles in lieu of any notable academic sources. While many articles note that, for example, Yusuf al-Qaradawi – arguably the Ikhwan’s most prominent cleric – left Egypt for Qatar in the early 1960s, few note the scale of the influx of Ikhwan (or Ikhwan associated) scholars to Qatar around that time. [2]

Abdul-Badi Saqr arrived in 1954 from Egypt to be the director of education and subsequently run the Qatar National Library after being recommended by a prominent Cairo-based religious sheikh.[3] Under his leadership an influx of Ikhwan teachers “stamped the education system with their Islamic ideology.”[4] When Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani (r.1972-1995) took charge of the education portfolio in 1956 to 1957 he was concerned about increasing Ikhwan domination of education so he sacked Saqr and replaced him with the Arab nationalist Syrian Abdulrahman al-Samrah. However, he didn’t last more than a year thanks to the pressures of the British resident keen to evict such an ardent pan-Arabist. Even while trying to avoid the domination of Ikhwan or pan-Arab thinkers, Khalifa still oversaw significant recruitment from Cairo. In 1960 the head of Islamic sciences at the education department, Abdullah bin Tukri al-Subai, went to Al-Azhar to recruit teachers and thinkers. Ahmed al-Assal arrived in Qatar in 1960 and taught in schools, lectured in mosques, and helped form Ikhwan groups. Abdel-Moaz al-Sattar – Hassan al-Banna’s personal emissary to Palestine in 1946 – went to Qatar to be a school inspector and then director of Islamic Sciences at the ministry of education and co-authored numerous textbooks for the nascent Qatari school system in the early 1960s. Kemal Naji took on various roles including the director of education from 1964 to 1979, the head of the publication committee, and was also the foreign cultural relations advisor of the ministry of education. Qaradawi left Egypt for Qatar in 1961. Initially he ran a revamped religious institute and subsequently established and became dean of the College of Sharia at Qatar University. Today he is widely considered to be one of the most influential and well-known Ikhwan intellectuals; a facet helped since the mid-1990s by his popular talk show “Sharia and Life” broadcast on Al Jazeera, which afforded him a large pan-regional audience.

Despite the prevalence of Ikhwan or at least Ikhwan sympathetic thinkers throughout Qatar’s various bureaucracies – but particularly its education system – few would suggest that today’s policies are a result of domestic pressure from Qataris inculcated into an Ikhwan ideology. The lack of apparent transference of Ikhwan ideology stems from a variety of factors.

Qatar is a country where the Wahhabi creed of Salafi, Hanbali Islam prevails. Qatar’s ruling family hails from the same central Arabian tribal group (the Bani Tamim) as Wahhabism’s founder, Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab and Qatar’s leaders have long adhered to its scriptures. Even in the 21st century when nothing about Qatar’s orientation or policies chimes with a typical understanding of the puritanical Wahhabi creed, the national mosque opened in 2012 was named after al-Wahhab himself. Though the state overall was receptive to the influx of the Ikhwan, the ground for proselytization was not so accepting.

Indeed, the Ikhwan is “barely [actively] involved in Qatari domestic affairs.”[5] In distinct comparison to Saudi Arabia, Qatar has limited the institutional opportunities available for religious scholars of any description to exert influence domestically.[6] Religious schools as founded by Qaradawi in 1961 remain niche and in 2008 to 2009 only taught 257 students, the vast majority of whom were not Qatari.[7] Institutionally not entertaining the notion of religious influence on politics, there is no office of Grand Mufti in Qatar and the ministry for Islamic affairs and endowments was only established in 1993.[8]

The Ikhwan’s lack of penetration in Qatar is also explained by its inability to perform a variety of its usual social functions. Running local sports clubs or operating food banks – typical Ikhwan activities elsewhere in the region – are popular but inevitably undercut the state’s legitimacy.[9] In 1972 when Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani took over seamlessly from Ahmed bin Ali al-Thani, he augmented his wider legitimacy and diversified his support from nigh on exclusively based on the al-Thani to a far wider base. He did this through a budget splurge creating jobs, building houses, augmenting pensions, and increasing wages.[10]

The Ikhwan, therefore, though having little discernable direct effect on policy in Qatar was an important part of the background makeup of the state. The two entities came to develop a mutually beneficial relationship so long as the Ikhwan in Qatar were, inevitably, outward facing. It is no surprise that the Ikhwan soon began to use Qatar as “a launching pad for its expansion into the Emirates and especially Dubai” from the early 1960s.[11] The Ikhwan search for an outward focus found real traction with the influential Al Jazeera platform afforded to Qaradawi from 1996 onward and is personified in the official closure of the Ikhwan branch in Qatar in 1999.[12]

Utility of Ikhwan links for Qatar

In the 1950s, 1960s, and subsequently there have clearly been those in the Qatari elite who have been motivated to a degree by a religiously-inspired agenda. This in and of itself is a motivating factor explaining the push for the influx of Islamic scholars to Qatar alongside the prosaic need to staff emerging bureaucracies with educated functionaries. The same impulses explain Saudi Arabia’s reliance on Ikhwan teachers and professionals from the 1960s.[13] Equally, for some in Qatar there may have been wider motivating factors, some of which prevail to this day.

Qatar’s status as a Wahhabi country was firmly established by the modern-day founder of the state, Sheikh Jassim.[14] As such this was an inviolable plinth of the state’s makeup. Yet it was not one that could be actively used to augment legitimacy or to promote Qatar as a state for Wahhabism that is indelibly linked to Saudi Arabia. To augment the status of Wahhabism in Qatar, to explicitly instil it through education systems in schools or to give its religious scholars an official place in government, would have been to intractably instill the necessary deference of Qatar to Saudi Arabia as the custodian of the two holy places and the al-Wahhab legacy.

Instead, supporting the Ikhwan allowed a different group to develop Qatar’s systems. This avoided a reliance on Saudi-scholars or jurists to design and staff Qatar’s systems in a Wahhabi image inevitably tilting toward Riyadh. Also, Qatar’s leadership was in a stronger position and could set and enforce guidelines as to the group’s limitations to a greater degree.

Otherwise, this hosting of Ikhwan scholars allowed Qatar to augment its regional status with Ikhwan ideology being more widespread than Wahhabi thought. This allowed Qatar to fashion for itself a place as a key spoke in the Ikhwan wheel. Ikhwan members that Qatar attracted over the years with its “open door” policy were to prove useful in the Arab Spring.

Recent problems: A changing calculation?

For the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Ikhwan is – today – anathema. It has not been forgiven for supporting Iraq President Saddam Hussein in 1990, is blamed for radicalizing Saudi youth, and is something of a threat as a large, well organized religiously-driven group.

The UAE too harbors deep suspicions about the Ikhwan and has consequentially taken a hard line and sentenced dozens of Ikhwan to jail sentences. For the UAE’s de facto leader, Muhammad bin Zayed, the Ikhwan is an issue of abiding importance; indeed leaked U.S. diplomatic cables give an unvarnished, personal view of his steadfast concerns about the group’s activities in the UAE.[15] That the Ikhwan profited from the Arab Spring, gained power, and proved that they can effectively mobilize tens of thousands of citizens could only augment Zayed’s suspicions and concern.

There have been numerous spats involving Qaradawi in recent years, but recently there has been an escalation. On January 31, in a Friday sermon broadcast as usual by Qatar television, Qaradawi criticized the UAE describing it as being “against Islam.” Amid a furor on social media, the UAE’s foreign ministry summoned the Qatari ambassador to account for why his ministry had not denounced Qaradawi’s comments though Zayed subsequently insisted that relations were fundamentally sound nevertheless. Qaradawi did not give a sermon on the next two Fridays, leading to speculation that he had been censored by the Qatari government or even stripped of his nationality. However, his absence was due to illness and he returned on February 21[16] to once more criticize the UAE, albeit in a more conciliatory manner, drawing on the predictable Emirati editorials bemoaning Qatar’s inability to muzzle Qaradawi.[17]

Qaradawi also irked Saudi officials at the end of January, when he accused them of supporting Defense Minister Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi et al in Egypt who were “far from God and Islam.”[18] Contemporaneously, accounts of Qatar’s support of Houthi rebels against Saudi Arabia’s interests are reportedly the last straw for Saudi’s leadership, increasingly angry over a litany of other issues,[19] to the extent that according to Al Arab, Saudi Arabia was considering closing the Qatari-Saudi land border, Saudi airspace to Qatar, and scuppering the imminent Qatar Airways deal to operate flights in the kingdom.[20] Scurrilous social media exchanges also indicated the possible excommunication of Qatar from the GCC.[21]

Mediation by the emir of Kuwait has reportedly calmed the situation and this is not the first time in recent years that Qatar has been publically rebuked: There was a February 2012 GCC meeting about Syria and Iran without Qatar because it “is considered unreliable when it comes to Iran.”[22] However, that such threats are emerging to the public sphere is at least a cause for concern. While their implementation may be highly unlikely, Saudi Arabia has recent evidence of undertaking a surprising, complete reversal of policy directed by the king in the rejection of the U.N. Security Council seat in October 2013.

Conclusion

Qatar’s support of the Ikhwan is not as much of a preference as it may seem. It originated as the result of a structural necessity to staff positions without inculcating any systems that would automatically defer authority to Saudi Arabia. Equally it also continues to make Qatar an important spoke of the wider Ikhwan wheel, expanding its importance regionally. These networks played the central role in Qatar seeking to augment its influence during the Arab Spring. Though many of these gambles subsequently misfired, this strategy could be recycled at some stage in the future.

However, this entire policy thrust leaves neighboring countries uneasy. The Ikhwan’s importance has transcended from a potentially influential group to one with demonstrable capabilities in a revolutionary era. Qatar’s policies seem to underestimate the depth of antagonism they create. For Qatar, a country with a small native population where there has typically existed a strong ruler-ruled sociopolitical bargain, the Ikhwan has never posed any kind of threat. To the UAE, which is convinced it has found plotting Ikhwan elements with relatively poorer Emirates in its federation, the Ikhwan is seen as a genuine threat to its leadership. Similarly in Saudi Arabia, a country that had to employ an Arab Spring-inspired budget of $130 billion and continues to struggle with a slow burning insurgency in its critical eastern region, stoking or supporting Ikhwan actors is seen as a deeply grave concern.

The emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, cannot submit to regional pressure, for this would look weak, send the wrong signals as to Qatar’s status under his charge, and it would also be difficult to overturn his father’s policies. Yet some accommodation needs to be made. Tamim was the first leader to sign and ratify the GCC security pact, which likely contains draconian provisions related to the censure of speech and the extradition of citizens that Tamim himself would not propose, so he is willing to compromise.

In the current climate many of Qatar’s Ikhwan links have either been checkmated or otherwise degraded in utility. It would be beneficial, therefore, to keep these relations on a low profile. Qaradawi is virtually untouchable because he was so supported by Tamim’s father – a facet Zayed may well understand – and because any such move would be seen as a capitulation. But to show a willingness to tackle Gulf states’ concerns, Tamim could direct a clearing-house in Al Jazeera Arabic: the channel whose reputation has sunk lower across the Arab world as its clear support of the Ikhwan has grown. Restoring balance to Al Jazeera would not only show Qatar’s willingness to act, but could lead to the slow resuscitation of the channel’s credibility and as one of the key fonts of Qatari soft power this is a worthy goal.


[1] Simeon Kerr, “Diplomatic Crisis as Gulf States Withdraw Ambassadors from Qatar,” Financial Times March 5, 2014.

[2] Haykel’s short brief on Qatar and Islamism being a noted exception. Bernard Haykel, “Qatar and Islamism,” in Policy Brief (Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre, February 2013).

[3] Abdullah Juma Kobaisi, “The Development of Education in Qatar, 1950-1977″ (Durham University, 1979), p. 123.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ahmed Azem, “Qatar’s Ties with the Muslim Brotherhood Affect Entire Region,”  The National (May 18, 2012)

[6] Steven Wright and Birol Baskan, “Seeds of Change: Comparing State-Religion Relations in Qatar and Saudi Arabia,” Arab Studies Quarterly 33, no. 2 (Spring 2011).

[7] Ibid., p. 98.

[8] For a discussion of the influence of Saudi’s clergy on politics see Nawaf E. Obaid, “The Power of Saudi Arabia’s Islamic Leaders,” The Middle East Quarterly V1, no. 3 (September 1999). Wright and Baskan, “Seeds of Change: Comparing State-Religion Relations in Qatar and Saudi Arabia,” P. 109.

[9] Alexus G Grynkewich, “Welfare as Warfare: How Violent Non-State Groups Use Social Services to Attack the State,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 31, no. 4 (2008).

[10] Jill Crystal, Oil and Politics in the Gulf : Rulers and Merchants in Kuwait and Qatar  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 156-7.

[11] Tarek Al Mubarak and Amr Al Turabi, “Al Masar Al Mukhtalifah Fee Al Khaleej [Different Paths in the Gulf],” As Sharq Al-Awsat (6/11/2013)

[12] Haykel, “Qatar and Islamism.” Sultan Al Qassemi, “Qatar’s Brotherhood Ties Alienate Fellow Gulf States,”  Al Monitor (January 23, 2013).

[13] Ondrej Beranek, “Divided We Survive: A Landscape of Fragmentation in Saudi Arabia,” in Middle East Brief (Brandeis University January 2009).

[14] Rosemarie Said Zahlan, The Creation of Qatar  (London, New York: Croom Helm 1979), p. 54.

[15] “UAE Minimizing Influence of Islamic Extremists,” Wikileaks (November 10, 2004). “Strong Words in Private from Mbz at Idex,” Wikileaks(February 25, 2009).

[16] Haj Salmeen Ibrahim, “‘Al Qaradawi’ Yaawd Li-Minbr Al Jmaaah Mntqadah Askar Misr Wa Al-Imarat [‘Qaradawi’ Back to the Pulpit on Friday, Criticising the Egyptian Military and the UAE],”  Al Quds Al Arabi (February 21, 2014).

[17] Aisha Al Marri, “Tyraan Sadyqah Min Qatr [Friendly Fire from Doha],”  Al Ittihad (2/24/2014)

[18] Amena Bakr, “Influential Cleric Urges Saudis to Stop Backing Egypt’s Dominant Military,”  Reuters (January 28, 2014)

[19] “Al Alaqat Al Saudiyah Al Qatariyah Mutazmah Jidan Wa Al Harb Al Alamiyah Tshtaal Bayn Al Biladayn Qa Amir Al Kuwayt Ytwasat Lil-Thdah Qa Ttwyq Al Tawatr  [Qatari-Saudi Relations in Crisis as a Media War Flares up between the Two Countries; the Emir of Kuwait Mediates to Calm Tensions],” Al Rai Al Yaum (November 22, 2013)

[20] “Sabr Al Saudiyah Yunafth Wa Ijraat Mutwqaah Dud Al Dawhah [Saudi Arabia’s Patience Is Running out and Action Is Expected against Doha],” Al Arab (February 19, 2014)

[21] For example, follow the Twitter hashtag ‘ السعودية على تتآمر قطر‘# to see the toing-and-froing of accusation and counter accusation.

[22] Clemens Von Wergin, “Iran Schmuggelt Waffen Übers Meer an Die Hisbollah [Iran Smuggles Weapons across the Sea to Hezbollah],” Die Welt (February 15, 2012)

 

References

Al Alaqat Al Saudiyah Al Qatariyah Mutazmah Jidan Wa Al Harb Al Alamiyah Tshtaal Bayn Al Biladayn Qa Amir Al Kuwayt Ytwasat Lil-Thdah Qa Ttwyq Al Tawatr  [Qatari-Saudi Relations in Crisis as a Media War Flares up between the Two Countries; the Emir of Kuwait Mediates to Calm Tensions].” Al Rai Al Yaum (November 22, 2013).

Al Marri, Aisha. “Tyraan Sadyqah Min Qatr [Friendly Fire from Doha].” Al Ittihad (2/24/2014).

Al Mubarak, Tarek, and Amr Al Turabi. “Al Masar Al Mukhtalifah Fee Al Khaleej [Different Paths in the Gulf].” As Sharq Al-Awsat (6/11/2013).

Al Qassemi, Sultan. “Qatar’s Brotherhood Ties Alienate Fellow Gulf States.” Al Monitor (January 23, 2013). http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/01/qatar-muslim-brotherhood.html

Azem, Ahmed. “Qatar’s Ties with the Muslim Brotherhood Affect Entire Region.” The National (May 18, 2012).

Bakr, Amena. “Influential Cleric Urges Saudis to Stop Backing Egypt’s Dominant Military.” Reuters (January 28, 2014).

Beranek, Ondrej. “Divided We Survive: A Landscape of Fragmentation in Saudi Arabia.” In Middle East Brief: Brandeis University January 2009.

Crystal, Jill. Oil and Politics in the Gulf : Rulers and Merchants in Kuwait and Qatar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Grynkewich, Alexus G. “Welfare as Warfare: How Violent Non-State Groups Use Social Services to Attack the State.” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 31, no. 4 (2008).

Haykel, Bernard. “Qatar and Islamism.” In Policy Brief: Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre, February 2013.

Ibrahim, Haj Salmeen. “‘Al Qaradawi’ Yaawd Li-Minbr Al Jmaaah Mntqadah Askar Misr Wa Al-Imarat [‘Qaradawi’ Back to the Pulpit on Friday, Criticizing the Egyptian Military and the UAE].”

Kerr, Simeon. “Diplomatic Crisis as Gulf States Withdraw Ambassadors from Qatar.” Financial Times, March 5, 2014

Kobaisi, Abdullah Juma. “The Development of Education in Qatar, 1950-1977.” Durham University, 1979.

Obaid, Nawaf E. “The Power of Saudi Arabia’s Islamic Leaders.” The Middle East Quarterly V1, no. 3 (September 1999).

Sabr Al Saudiyah Yunafth Wa Ijraat Mutwqaah Dud Al Dawhah [Saudi Arabia’s Patience Is Running out and Action Is Expected against Doha].” Al Arab (February 19, 2014).

“Strong Words in Private from Mbz at Idex.” Wikileaks (February 25, 2009). http://www.wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/09ABUDHABI193_a.html

“UAE Minimizing Influence of Islamic Extremists.” Wikileaks (November 10, 2004). http://www.wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/04ABUDHABI4061_a.html

Von Wergin, Clemens. “Iran Schmuggelt Waffen Übers Meer an Die Hisbollah [Iran Smuggles Weapons across the Sea to Hezbollah].” Die Welt (February 15, 2012). http://www.welt.de/politik/ausland/article13870565/Iran-schmuggelt-Waffen-uebers-Meer-an-die-Hisbollah.html

Wright, Steven, and Birol Baskan. “Seeds of Change: Comparing State-Religion Relations in Qatar and Saudi Arabia.” Arab Studies Quarterly 33, no. 2 (Spring 2011).

Zahlan, Rosemarie Said. The Creation of Qatar. London, New York: Croom Helm 1979.

– See more at: http://pomeps.org/2014/03/18/qatar-the-ikhwan-and-transnational-relations-in-the-gulf/#sthash.gKhYWMTZ.dpuf

Gulf Troika Troubles 23, April 2014

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The Emirates.
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The following article was published on 13 March 2014 by the New America Foundation. The original article can be found here.

__

 

It had been coming, some might say, for years. The announcement of the removal of the Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini Ambassadors from Qatar is the latest step in worsening relations between the brotherly Gulf States. The Gulf troika are angry that Qatar supported the Muslim Brotherhood during the Arab Spring, angry that Qatar has typically taken a conciliatory line towards Iran, angry that Qatar did not support Saudi sponsored groups in Syria, and angry overall that Qatar just will not do as it is told.

This dispute remains – at the moment – limited to individually unimportant acts of political showmanship. Yet, the Gulf is a region that does not need any more complications. If clashes in the region that supplies much of the world’s oil and gas transcend from rhetoric to reality, they could undermine economic recovery efforts around the world.

How did we get here – and how likely is this to blow up into a larger, regional conflict? First, a little background on the Gulf: At first glance, one might expect the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to get along better. They are united to varying degrees by broad religious beliefs with Sunni Islam serving as the dominating denomination. The same families, tribes, and economic systems spread across the GCC states; hydrocarbon industries dominate, which has contributed to the creation of similar political systems. And in the face of Iran, an ideologically, historically, politically, and religiously antithetical state menacingly close by, it would be natural to assume that GCC states would overcome their differences and coordinate their action. In fact, the Iranian threat was the instigating factor behind the formation of the GCC.

Aside from a lack of the necessary maturity of the GCC states to overcome their differences, the key reason for their divisions lies in US protection agreements. Coddled with security agreements and reassured with the presence of huge US military bases in the region, the GCC states don’t feel the pressure to overcome disagreements at the behest of overarching security concerns and are insulated from the realities of their region.

The announcement of the removal of the Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini Ambassadors from Qatar is the latest step in worsening relations between the brotherly Gulf States.

The subsequent bickering has ebbed and flowed over the years. In the early 1990s it reached the level of border clashes between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and in 1996 Riyadh is alleged to have support of a counter coup against former Emir Hamad Al Thani after he took over from his father in 1995. This sour bilateral relationship limped on until 2002 when Saudi Arabia finally had enough and removed its Ambassador from Doha. He did not return until 2008, symbolic of Saudi Arabia finally coming to terms with the independence of Qatar. Though it became independent from Britain in 1971, Saudi Arabia’s rulers still saw the Qatari Peninsula as essentially part of Saudi Arabia: it had extracted taxes from those on the Peninsula, it commanded the loyalty of large tribes draped across the ‘border,’ and Qatar’s leadership in the 1970s and 1980s had shown deference to the Kingdom.

The post-1995 leaders were different. They sought to carve out Qatar’s independence, implementing a raft of policies that served to simultaneously antagonize Saudi Arabia and ram home Qatar’s independence. It worked: Qatar riled the leadership in Riyadh and unequivocally established Qatar’s independence.

Eventually, with the return of the Saudi Ambassador to Doha, the countries reached a compromise:  Saudi Arabia understood that it could not control Qatar anymore, but the more egregious examples of Qatar’s behaviour – notably Doha-based news organization Al Jazeera’s pointed Saudi-focused exposés – had to stop, which they did.

The Arab Spring upset this negotiated truce. Qatar used the links that it had been cultivating for decades with the Muslim Brotherhood to channel most of its support and it was initially successful. It played an important role in the removal of at least two entrenched leaders in the Middle East: Colonel Gaddafi in Libya and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

Mubarak was a stalwart who had friends in the Gulf. Worse still, he was replaced by a Muslim Brotherhood Government: a movement that had long been anathema to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

In particular, both countries feared the group’s influence domestically. Now, their brotherly state, Qatar, was directly boosting an organization that had created a movement with the power to marshal the support of hundreds of thousands of Muslims.

Qatar used the links that it had been cultivating for decades with the Muslim Brotherhood to channel most of its support…It played an important role in the removal of at least two entrenched leaders in the Middle East: Colonel Gaddafi in Libya and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

As Qatar’s support for various Muslim Brothers became increasingly a problem for neighbouring Gulf states, so too the speeches from Qatar by the Muslim Brotherhood’s most prominent cleric, Yusuf Al Qaradawi, were becoming symbolic of the burgeoning differences. In late January 2014 he accused the UAE Government of being ‘against God’, which drew a predictable reaction on social media and led to the summoning of the Qatari Ambassador to the UAE Foreign Ministry for an explanation. This occurred around the same time that he was also uncomplimentary about Saudi Arabia’s links to the military junta in Egypt and rumors surfaced about deep anger in Riyadh as to Qatar’s meddling with Houthi rebels in Yemen. These exact issues have antagonized before, but in this new climate, they have taken on a new importance.

Diplomatic relations haven’t improved much since the start of the Arab Spring. But the recent withdrawal of the Saudi, UAE and Bahraini Ambassadors doesn’t indicate big change if it is merely symbolic. What Qatar’s leadership needs to work out is whether this is instead one more step along a continuum of escalation.

Because it could be that the UAE and Saudi are in the process of escalation, or they could simply be trying to change Qatar’s discourse and direction; to cow the independent streak that it has displayed for two decades. They may be trying to take advantage of the young Emir in his first year in office.

Emir Tamim is now stuck between the Scylla of not being able to capitulate in the face of such pressure and the Charybdis of needing to normalize relations to a degree lest the situation escalate even more. The closure of Qatar’s border with Saudi Arabia, for example, would be devastating in the short term at least for Qatar’s economy, which is hugely dependent on this link in lieu of a port of sufficient size.

The closure of Qatar’s border with Saudi Arabia, for example, would be devastating in the short term at least for Qatar’s economy, which is hugely dependent on this link in lieu of a port of sufficient size.

So what’s Qatar to do? Emir Tamim’s options are limited. In private and over time, Qatar can promise to quieten down its support for its various Muslim Brotherhood contacts around the Middle East. Many of them have in any case been outmaneuvered in recent months and are less useful today. Restoring a semblance of non-biased reporting and editorial control at Al Jazeera Arabic by redefining its editorial line or removing some journalists, could restore the channel’s image, which has plummeted recently as its Muslim Brotherhood-supporting policies have gathered strength. This would be good for Al Jazeera’s wider reputation, good for Qatar, and placatory to the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

In the coming weeks, the Emir of Kuwait will launch a mediation effort, a reminder that Kuwait and Oman have not joined in this boycott: That’s not surprising given Kuwait’s fractious domestic politics and Oman’s independent stance. It also underscores an important point: This is not a united GCC front against Qatar.

Since the initial Ambassadorial withdrawal, Emirati and Saudi journalists have been pressured to stop writing for Qatari newspapers: I am sure that that Qatari press will survive. If relations remain at this nigh-on puerile level, then we can hope that Saudi and the UAE have finished for this round. Though the Kuwaiti Emir may offer a shorter-term palliative, for a lasting truce, we might have to wait for leadership changes in the two antagonistic states: something that is likely not that far away in both states given the ages and ill health of their leadership.

 

On the 2022 World Cup: ’92 training sites’ 22, April 2014

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qatari world cup

At long last an article on Qatar’s World Cup adventure makes the salient point.

In addition to the stadiums, 92 training sites will be constructed, Al Kuwari said.

This is the key issue with the Qatar 2022 World Cup as far as environmental issues are concerned. Yes, building x amount of stadiums that will potentially be air conditioned is not a particularly ‘green’ thing to do. But each team needs at least two practice pitches, which will also have to be air conditioned to a height of 2 meters, if the event will be in the summer. This is where the egregious nature of the environmental impact will be seen.

Otherwise, I would just briefly note that three top-notch Gulf experts that I’ve spoken to recently have argued that they think the World Cup will not be in Qatar; that for some reason it will be taken away. While their thoughts are always valuable, all I would say is that such a decision probably needs to come from a FIFA expert more than a Gulf expert. If FIFA engages in some Blatter-purge or goes through a rigorous anti-corruption process like the International Olympics Committee did after Salt Lake then there could be issues for Qatar.

On Qatar and its LNG competition 21, April 2014

Posted by thegulfblog.com in LNG, Qatar.
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LNG Tanker

 

Robert Tuttle – a solid reporter when it comes to financial-type things in Qatar and the Gulf – has written a good article on Qatar’s LNG future. Indeed, it’s one of the best I’ve seen recently offering a reasonably rounded snapshot of a crucial issue for Qatar going forward.

He rightly notes that Qatar will face stiff competition in coming decades, notably from Australia. As CNN reported back in 2012 in a snazzy slide-show, six out of the world’s ten most expensive energy projects revolve around Australian LNG. Tuttle’s suggestion that Qatar will be surpassed in 2018 as the world’s largest LNG supplier is entirely plausible. However, it is not quite that simple. The bureaucratic and particularly the environmental red tape in Australia are fearsome and while the investment and political will to push through Australia’s impending LNG domination is formidable and will doubtless win out eventually, the cost and the timescale are open to debate.

Tuttle does not touch on the LNG boom in East Africa, which, though utterly beset with institutional and governance issues, is still probably of a potential magnitude worth considering in such an article [though I should note that apparently the full length article is due out with Bloomberg soon].

The US shale revolution is certainly of relevance to Qatar going forward. Qatar’s decision to invest in a range of ‘competitors’ is a reasonable reaction to this, though its investment in the Golden Pass terminal in Texas is less a savvy assessment of trends and a subsequent engagement in a strategy of diversification as the result of investing in (i.e. building) an importing terminal, which subsequent to the Shale revolution became redundant.

In terms of grumbles about his article, there are a few. Very little started in 1971 with the discovery of the North Field (the world’s largest gas field that Qatar shared with Iran). Indeed, at the time the entire field was dismissed as irrelevant such was the myopic desire for oil. Quoting the Gas Exporting Countries Forum based in Doha makes some sense, but it is entirely unclear as to whether the organisation is of any meaningful, practical use whatsoever.

More importantly, the question of demand is not addressed at all. Certainly, articles have word limits and irascible editors and such, but this issue is not only about supply. Indeed, without considering the potential changes in demand, it is difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions as to the effects of greater supply on Qatar. If demand from East Asia keeps on rising then it is entirely possible that the new supply will meet the demand and the net result will be negligible as far as Qatar is concerned.

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

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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