Qatar’s foreign policy, the challenges in the MENA region

Since the getting in power of the new Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani in June 2013, Qatar’s diplomatic and foreign policy has undergone a shift. The outcome of the Arab Spring and its geopolitical and security implications, as well as the criticism over unscrupulous Qatari foreign policy in the region, persuaded Sheikh Tamim to redefine the country’s strategy.

During the reign of his father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who ruled the country from 1995 to 2013, Qatar pursued an incisive strategy by combining economic resources, deriving from the oil and gas sector revenues, together with diplomatic mediation. A combination that allowed Qatar to have a strong role in the definition of regional and international dynamics. Sheikh Hamad succeeded in his main goal, which consisted in the recognition and trustfulness of Qatar as a mediator in the international arena, transforming it into a “needle of balance” in the Gulf region.

Starting from the mid-90s, Qatar’s national wealth increased dramatically thanks to its gas revenues: the country owns from 13 to 15% of the total gas reserves in the world. In fact, Qatar is the third biggest exporter of gas after Russia and Iran and, since 2006 it has been the largest exporter of liquefied natural gas in the world. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was worth 198 billion U.S. dollars in 2013, ranking Qatar as the second richest country in the world.

While exploiting the gas-driven rentier economy, Sheikh Hamad managed to transform the country by following his precise political and diplomatic strategy of ambition and influence, by focusing on two different tools. First of all, the financial tool which has been promoted through the Sovereign Wealth Fund and the Qatar Investment Authority (and its financial vehicle – Qatar Holding) since 2005. The investment sectors differ widely in order to diversify the country’s incomes from gas revenues, banking and finance, infrastructures, technology, tourism, sport and culture. In the last few years, although the interest in Europe remains very strong, Qatar shifted its investments towards Asian countries (mostly Japan, China and South Korea).

The second tool has been the strenous use of the media. Since its foundation back in 1996, the Al Jazeera broadcast has been used as an effective and modern tool for diplomacy, by influencing a pan-Arab feeling amongst all populations of the region. The main examples are the covering of the second Intifada in 2000 and the wars in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq, in 2003. Al Jareeza was considered as the most influential and independent broadcaster in the Middle East. Unfortunately, the channel has recently lost many of its shares in the region and has been criticized for supporting the Qatari government’s vision. In 2011, Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani, member of the ruling family, and the present Minister of Economy and Trade, was appointed Director of Al Jazeera. The network strongly supported Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood movement during the Arab Spring, as well as the Islamist rebels in Libya and Syria by promoting a strong campaign against the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. This last episode turned Al Jazeera into an enemy for Egypt and other countries in the Middle East.

At the same time, during his reign, Sheikh Hamad succeeded in promoting the country as the lighthouse of the region by pursuing a strategy accused of a lack of clear ideology and many contradictions (at least commonly share by the other member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)). In the last twenty years, Qatar maintained its own empowerment and diplomatic independence by keeping its distance from bulky Saudi Arabia and from the image of an ultra-conservative monarchy. The disagreement between said these two can be represented by the different policies pursued by both countries: the Qatari soft power and foreign policy promoted worldwide vs. the low profile political-energy diplomacy, also known as smart power, of Saudi Arabia.

Qatar pursued a “friendly” foreign policy towards all the actors of the Middle East region, and focused on mediation and conflict resolution both at regional and international level, in several conflicts such as those taking place in Sudan, Somalia, Lebanon, Palestine and Libya. Qatar had an important role in the release of the Israeli military, Gilad Shalit, in 2011. It also hosted fundamental international forums, such as the 2012 UN Climate Change Conference in Doha. Furthermore, it weaved strong diplomatic and economic relations with Iran, with whom it manages the South Pars / North Dome Gas-Condensate field, one of the biggest in the world. On the other hand, with Israel, since it was the first Arab country that welcomed a commercial delegation from Israel to strengthen economic relations with the Jewish State in 1996.

Thus, Qatar managed to create a complex network of relationships with adversarial parties, which all held specific interests, and who were all in conflict with each other. The power vacuum caused by the Arab Spring from 2011 to 2013, prompted Qatar to push the country in a leadership position. It did so by shifting its traditional diplomacy of mediation into a diplomacy of influence, thanks to a proactive foreign policy, and by taking advantage of the decline of traditional powers (Egypt and Saudi Arabia). Indeed, Saudi Arabia was concerned by its internal affairs because of many rebellion movements on the eastern borders. Egypt was also struggling in its transitional period following the revolution of 2011.

When the Arab Spring broke out in Tunisia and in Egypt, the conservative regional powers feared the challenges the uprisings could bring on their soil but, Qatar acted differently. It welcomed and supported the overthrowing of authoritarian regimes, and became the regional hub for diplomatic and logistic support of the revolutionary forces in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Indeed, Qatar orchestrated the Arab League efforts, in order to quest the UN to intervene in Libya. This facilitated the UN Security Council resolution that allowed the intervention of (some of) NATO’s allies against Muammar Gaddafi. They also imposed the no-fly zone.

It is worth underlining that, before the overthrowing of Gaddafi, Qatar invested almost 10 billion U.S. dollars in Libya, mainly in construction projects. It accomplished this through a joint venture between the Libyan Investment Authority’s Economic and Social Development Fund, and the Qatari Diar, a real estate company established by the Qatar Investment Authority. As soon as the government crumbled, Qatar backed the Islamist militias. This support was confirmed during one of “The Friends’ Committee in Support of Libya” in October 2011. Furthermore, the Libya National Transition Council (NTC), through the speech of its leader Mahmoud Jibril, stated that Qatar was its major partner, even if the relationship soured when it became clear that Qatar was supporting the Islamist militias as well. Qatar was the first Arab country to recognize the NTC and actively participate in the war with its own air-crafts and elite troops.

At the end of the conflict, the Emirate contributed 400 million U.S. dollars to the rebels, set up the revolutionary TV station in Doha and provided political and organizational support. It went even further by trying to bring Libya under its sphere of influence. It backed Islamist rebels such as Abdelhakim Belhadj who was the leader of the Lybian Islamic Fighting Group that fought in the civil war as the leader of the Lybian Islamic Movement.

Qatari’s support to some Islamist militias exacerbated the weakness of Libya in the efforts of building a unique military command, especially because the Islamist movements challenged the constitutional legitimacy of elected national bodies. Further more, the intra-militias violence during last summer convinced Qatar to lower its political activism in the country, although it was also because it was concerned by economic issues. Regarding Egypt, Qatar has been the biggest guardian of the Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, politically and economically (it provided over 8 billion U.S. dollars in loans and aids during the Brotherhood’s government). It supported the organization in different ways, even on its own territory, by welcoming the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Yusuf al-Qaradawi and the exiled leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashal.

On the other hand, Qatar called for an Arab military intervention in 2012 against President Bashar al-Assad in order to end the bloodshed in Syria. It also backed the Syrian revolution in different ways, with the use of diplomacy, of the media, of the military and the involvement of the humanitarian sector. Qatar’s diplomatic strategy in Syria was to use its influence on the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood as official opposition within the Syrian National Council (SNC), created in Doha, and to get a Syrian Muslim Brotherhood member as strongman. Instead, the SNC elected Ahmad Jarba, close to Saudi Arabia where he was exiled, as President. Since then, the influence of Qatar on the SNC has peaked but, according to the media and some analysts, the country continued to militarily back the Islamist rebels.

Civil wars in Syria and in Libya have shown the features and issues of a proxy war fought between Qatar and Saudi Arabia: they have sought to influence the transformations in North Africa to take advantage of their own interests and assure a strong role in the new governments. Since last year, the MENA region has encountered new developments that reshaped the region’s powers, and most influential changes occurred a few days after Sheikh Tamim came to power: the ousting of Egyptian President Morsi, escalating tensions in Libya, the tensions in Yemen, and the geographical and ideological expansion of the Islamic State.

Relationships with the other members of the GCC worsened in March 2014, when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar. Officially, the decision was taken after Qatar refused to ratify the agreements of non-interference in domestic policy within the GCC, during the 34th Summit in Kuwait, in December 2013. According to the media and some analysts, Qatari diplomatic isolation has been affected by the suspect of Qatari support to Islamist groups, the Islamic State and mostly Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, considered as a political party in Qatar.

In order to support this thesis, as soon as Morsi took the power, the Egyptian government declared the Brotherhood a terrorist group in December 2013, and in August the Court banned Hamas. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates followed the Egyptian statement and banned both Islamist groups, as well as Hezbollah, al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State. Although the ambassadors have been reinstated in Qatar (November 2014), the diplomatic crisis within the GCC represented the biggest challenge Sheikh Tamim had to face during the first year of his reign, and the diplomatic crisis aroused a regional imbalance threatening the intra-regional relationships.

Since Sheikh Tamim has come to power, Qatar’s diplomacy style changed significantly. The new Emir is concerned in making domestic policies the new priority of Qatar. Indeed, the biggest change was the ousting of Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, cousin of the Emir, who has been Minister of Foreign Affairs since 1992, and simultaneously Prime Minister since 2007. He became the most influential person in Qatar after the Emir, and shaped the political strategy of the country. At the same time, the economic and foreign interests became interwoven with those of the state, at detriment of domestic policy. Sheikh Tamim appointed as new Prime Minister Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani, who has been promoted by the Minister of the Interior and other ministers to be re-empowered.

The government is redefining its domestic policy which reflects Qatari concerns over rapid domestic development, and that includes achieving its development goals by 2030 and those related to the 2020 World Cup, that since the assignation to Qatar has been a source of pride for the Arab world. In this concern, what remains now, after the media buzz and beyond the billionaire infrastructure investments, are the criticisms over the conditions of foreign workers that judged Qatar a “modern slavery state”, and the accusations of corruption and fraud.

Foreign policy has been the most difficult issue for the new Emir, but he demonstrated Qatar’s availability in underpinning GCC dynamics. In September, he expulsed nine members of the Muslim Brotherhood from the country and constrained Al Jazeera to tone down the criticism against Egyptian President el-Sisi, as soon as he appointed the new Director General of the network, Mustafa Souag.

More important, the features of the dynamics of the region have shown that Doha is unable to drive a regional agenda, in a diplomatic and political manner. Qatar cannot afford to antagonize Saudi Arabia, and Sheikh Tamim is left with little choice but to reach an understanding with Riyadh by coordinating future foreign policy priorities. He has been breaking from Sheikh Hamad’s unilateral approach and is seeking to influence a GCC consensus on regional strategy.

Another manner is that, despite Qatar attempts to move out of the Saudi orbit, there are limits on its individual foreign policy. Furthermore, the fallout between Qatar and other GCC members has limited the council’s ability to coordinate concentrated responses to growing security threats in the region. Anyway, improving ties with Iran is expected to be a priority for Sheikh Tamim’s government, since the stabilization of the Persian Gulf is a strategic priority for Qatar.

Nonetheless, Sheikh Tamim is going on to improve economic agreements worldwide with various strong trustfulness attempts. In July, he renewed the defense agreement with the United States and confirmed the cooperation in the Combined Air Operations Center (CENTCOM) in the base of Al Udeid (the biggest U.S. military base outside the country). All of this happened despite strong opposition within American administration because of suspects on Qatar’s support to the Islamic State.

In October, the new Emir met U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and Queen Elizabeth II, while waiting for a Qatari-British Economic Forum to showcase mutual investments opportunities. At the same time, improving ties with Iran is expected to be a priority of Sheikh Tamim’s government, since the stabilization of the Gulf is a strategic priority for Qatar.

The new Emir’s policy has been renamed smart power, in adjustments of other GCC States, and in particular Saudi Arabia, that combines soft and economic power and is changing the diplomatic style of Qatar. It would be possible to conclude that Sheikh Tamim learned that it is not possible to pursue a friendly policy with each actor of the region, from Israel to Hamas and Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia, and in the meanwhile pursue intrepid economic and financial investments in Europe. By doing so, Qatar lost part of its credibility.


Master’s degree in International Relations of Asia and Africa (University of Naples “L’Orientale”)

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