May 01 2012
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Qatar's foreign policy has attracted a mixture of respect, suspicion and envy from other countries. But how successful will the country's efforts to become a regional power-broker be in the long-term?
"The other Gulf countries view Qatar with extreme wariness," says Kristian Coates-Ulrichsen, a Gulf expert at the London School of Economics (LSE).
Qatar has positioned itself as a mediator in conflicts ranging from Darfur to Lebanon and has worked hard to build ties throughout the region. It maintained formal relations with Israel, until the 2009 war between the Jewish state and Palestine's Hamas. It also maintains officially warm relations with Iran, despite leading Arab efforts to isolate the government of Syria's Bashar al Assad, the Islamic Republic's only Arab ally. Last year in a major initiative, Qatar deployed millions of dollars and its armed forces to help oust Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi. As the Arab uprisings unfolded over the course of 2011, Doha's hotels teemed with senior western diplomats, Islamists and Arab dissidents.
To illustrate the tensions that Qatar's foreign policy engenders among its neighbours, analysts highlight Doha's relationship with Islamist groups. Qatar's support for the powerful Muslim Brotherhood group for example, "has caused great friction with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the latter having clamped down hard on Muslim Brotherhood activists within its borders," says Coates-Ulrichsen.
"Qatar believes that the best thing to do with Iran - bearing in mind they share a gas field - is to keep them onside, to build relations with them. These measures typically go against the standard GCC line," says David Roberts, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), based in Doha.
The distrust with which Qatar's ties to Tehran are viewed was underscored at a recent meeting of Arab leaders in Riyadh focused on Iran, which conspicuously excluded Qatar's Amir. Distrust of Qatar's diplomatic ties is compounded by suspicions that a significant element of Qatar's foreign policy is driven by its rivalry with Saudi Arabia.
"Qatar's foreign policy objective is to balance Saudi regional power with US and other alliances," argues Hokayem. "The two countries have a contentious history and it is not too long ago that Saudi Arabia quietly sponsored efforts to destabilise the ruling elite."
Any intransigence toward Riyadh was nevertheless quickly subsumed during the Shia-led uprising in Bahrain last year. Saudi Arabia made it "perfectly clear it would accept no deviation from the GCC line," says Roberts. For the first time in history, the GCC Peninsula Shield was deployed and troops dispatched to Manama to quash anti-government protests. Coverage by Qatar's Al Jazeera, the Arab world's most popular news channel and a source of much regional friction, was toned down dramatically.
"Most, if not all, Arab countries have had severe arguments with Qatar at some point or another, over Al Jazeera if for no other reason," observes Roberts. Al Jazeera has been a key feature in Qatari foreign policy. US Embassy cables released by the website Wikileaks in 2010 claimed that Qatar used Al Jazeera in foreign policy negotiations by offering to adapt its coverage to suit foreign leaders and to stop critical transmissions in exchange for concessions.
Qatar's readiness to engage with multiple actors, from Hamas and Hezbollah to western powers, forms part of a strategy to gain autonomy from stronger regional powers, say observers. For example, should an agreement be reached between Afghanistan and the US to push forward with the opening of a Qatar office for Taliban insurgents, observers say it would be a boost for the Obama administration - which is trying to build stability in Afghanistan before extricating the US from an expensive and demoralising war - as well as Qatar's peace-broking credentials.
"Qatar is seeking a mixture of autonomy and interdependence," says the LSE's Coates-Ulrichsen. "Autonomy from the major regional powers, and thickening ties of mutual dependence, based around energy, with major industrial and emerging economies around the world, giving them a direct stake in the continuing security and stability of Qatar."
He argues that Qatar also mobilises its brand of "state capitalism" to direct investment toward areas in which it has a "foreign policy or mediatory objective".
"Its 'business diplomacy has been active in recent years in Lebanon, Yemen, and Sudan, aiming to provide material inducements that will buttress the mediation process," he says.
The success of such carrot and stick policies remains to be seen. But there are flaws in Qatar's model. Foreign policy is directed by just a handful of people who surround the Amir, and the prime minister Shaikh Hamad bin Jassim al Thani: "Throughout the Gulf, the circles of power are drawn tightly around senior members of ruling families, but nowhere more so than in Qatar," says Coates-Ulrichsen.
Because power is in the hands of such a small group of people, Qatar has been able to react quickly to conflicts. "Personal proclivity can be pushed straight into policy," says RUSI's Roberts. "The Amir has this mantra that Arabs should solve Arab problems, and if he is able to do it, he will try."
Yet concentrating decision making so narrowly has its own set of disadvantages: "Decision making is effectively in the hands of a tiny group of people," he notes. This, he says, has its advantages when it comes to rapid decision making, but also disadvantages - in that there is low follow-up capability - and points out that Qatar's record of mediation does not look good when it comes to analysing the longer-term monitoring and implementation of the agreements actually signed.
The long-term success of Qatar's intervention in Libya is a case in point. It remains to be seen whether Qatar will emerge as the key winner in the North African country, or if alliances with Islamist groups will pay off. Syria is also testing Qatari diplomacy.
"Gaddafi was an easy call - he was already disliked and ridiculed by elites and peoples, and there was a credible regional consensus that Qatar led," says Hokayem. "Qatar tried to use its influence over Assad in Syria and when it failed to sway him, it could afford to write off its political and economic investment there as a sunk cost. But the political and strategic cost of the struggle over Syria will be incommensurately greater than Libya."
Qatar has yet to prove that it can consolidate and capitalise on its successes, he argues. Doha will also have to disprove its more distrustful neighbours that Qatari policy is not well thought through and may come to have unintended consequences in the future.
© The Gulf 2012
© Copyright Zawya. All Rights Reserved.
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