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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.

Understanding Qatar’s Foreign Policy Objectives 19, July 2012

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I’ve written a piece for Mediterranean Journal on Qatar’s foreign policy. The opening couple of paragraphs are below and the rest can be found here.

Neither in the bowels of the Foreign Ministry nor in the Emir Diwan in Qatar is there a large-scale strategic plan underscoring and directing Qatar’s foreign policy before, during, or after the Arab Spring. There are no Machiavellian plans afoot to support the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region or to corral support against Saudi-led Salafi groups. Al Jazeera is not a tool of the Foreign Minister, Qatar’s desire to promote democracy does not make it any more hypocritical than any other state, the Qatari Emir is neither a lackey of America nor Tehran, and nor have there been several attempts on his life in recent years, as, for example, Syrian media outlets so adamantly claimed.

Wading through the reams of misinformation, clichés, propaganda, and vitriol masquerading as analysis and reportage of Qatar’s foreign policy and its objectives takes practice, perseverance, and a deep understanding of Qatar itself. Arriving at any firm conclusions is further complicated by the conservative and private nature of Qataris themselves and the lack of any kind of meaningful policy documents, whitepapers, official explanations, and overall transparency throughout Government.

The key to understanding Qatar’s foreign policies is to place them in the context of the State of Qatar itself. A clear and dispassionate grasp of the factors, be they social, economic, or political, that contributed to the milieu in which the policies were made is the first step towards a nuanced and transparent understanding of the emergent foreign policies.

The Atlantic on Qatar 26, September 2010

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The Gulf Blog is quoted in The Atlantic on Qatar’s foreign bits and pieces.

On September 5, Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, revealed another enigmatic relationship: He hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Doha. It is widely known in the region that Iran and Qatar have become closer allies since Ahmadinejad
was elected. The Emir and Ahmadinejad are close friends.

But the Emir has another friend, too– President Obama. U.S. Central Command has had a significant strategic presence in Qatar since 1996, and it built the current Army base, Camp As-Sayliyah – which has played a crucial role in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars – in 2000.  At the U.S.-Islamic World Forum held in Doha in February, Obama called Qatar “a place where our countries come together to forge innovative partnerships in education and medicine, science and technology.”

So how does the Emir maintain relationships with both Obama and Ahmadinejad without undermining the trust of either? And why is Qatar the only GCC country to attempt this seemingly strange balancing act?

“If people are confused about Qatar’s role, they shouldn’t be because it has worked,” says Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. “It’s not as baffling as it might be at first glance.”A closer look into current regional geopolitics helps explain how the Emir can afford to keep both countries close. And why it has been so successful at nurturing each relationship.

Geographically, the Gulf connects Iran to the West. But Qatar has by far the closest relationship to Iran of any GCC country. Saudi Arabia sees Iran as an enemy.  The United Arab Emirates, also close to Iran, is still angry about Iran’s seizure of Abu Masa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb, three islands in the Strait of Hormuz, in 1971. Iran rushed to occupy the islands on the eve of the UAE’s independence, right after the British guarantor left the region.

“If you are Qatar, you look across the water and you think, when Iran did have the opportunity to take a few Arab islands, they did it,” explains David Roberts, a Qatari foreign policy Ph.D. candidate at Durham University in England who writes The Gulf Blog. “To me, that’s one example of part of the underlying mistrust between the two [nations].”
Despite that latent distrust, Qatar needs to keep up good relations – its livelihood as a nation depends on it. Ras Laffan, or RasGas, Qatar’s natural gas production company, maintains its gas terminal at the northern tip of the country – the part closest to Iran.

If a conflict erupts between America and Iran, Roberts says, Qatar would literally be caught in the middle. “Iran, if it wanted to, could click its fingers and sever Qatar’s money,” he says, adding that he thinks it highly unlikely that Iran would ever attack Qatar. But even so, “Qatar needs to have the ability to peacefully go about their business of sucking all the gas out of that giant field.” Iran, he says, could make that process very difficult.

Notably, the Iran-Qatar relationship is symbiotic: Iran needs Qatar as much as Qatar needs Iran. Ahmadinejad doesn’t want to appear isolated. Having friends makes him – and Iran as a nation–seem more balanced and less psychotic. And if America does attack Iran, it helps to have a rich, amicable neighbor to provide humanitarian support.

Qatar’s wealth is also a key factor in its more flexible, creative approach to foreign policy. In September, Global Finance named it the richest country in the world, according to its GDP per capita. Unlike Jordan and Egypt, other regional U.S. allies, Qatar doesn’t rely on U.S. aid. Its self-sufficiency means it can make its own decisions, and take policy risks, without seeking U.S. approval. Further, it’s more stable than Egypt and Jordan: the Emir is seen as a legitimate ruler, and there are no reported opposition movements brewing in the country.

Still, the question lingers: how does the Emir pull off hosting Ahmadinejad and U.S. Troops in the same country without any visible backlash from either side?

First, the United States understands -implicitly–that Gulf countries must invest in self-preservation. “There’s a recognition of the general tendencies of the Gulf states to hedge their bets,” says Steve Cook, a senior fellow of Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “There’s always a question in the back of the minds of the leadership–how much faith can they put in the U.S.?”

Second, Qatar’s willingness to support the U.S. presence in the region indicates they are strongly on the U.S. side. Thus, the U.S. government trusts the Emir, it cuts him some slack.

“Because they are so clearly in our camp, they have the flexibility to try to reach out and retain some kind of positive relationship with Iran,” says Noah Feldman, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor at Harvard Law School, adding that it’s also in the U.S. interest to maintain connections to Iran because of its strategic place in the region.

But as the debate continues over a potential American strike on Iran, experts wonder increasingly how Qatar might be able to maintain the balancing act in the midst of conflict.
Would it force the Americans out of its country, and side with the Islamic Republic? Or would it back the Americans, and risk vulnerability to Iran’s predatory policies?

According to Hamid, Qatar would come out against the strike, and likely wouldn’t provide the U.S. with any type of support. However, the emergence of a conflict could give Qatar the chance to play its increasingly favorite role in the regional disputes – that of the mediator.
“Even if it does come to the point of violent conflict, Qatar is still going to be particularly well placed to help resolve it,” Hamid says.