Deciphering the Qatar Enigma
Of all the actors in the Arab Spring, one of the most effective -- and perhaps the most intriguing -- has been the state of Qatar. Protruding from the eastern flank of Saudi Arabia, this mini-state points a plump finger of waterless desert at Iran on the opposite side of the Gulf. Situated between these two regional giants -- with each of whom it entertains somewhat wary relations -- little Qatar’s remarkable achievement has been to carve out an independent and ambitious role for itself.
How has this pocket-sized state become a world-class mover and shaker? And what is it seeking to achieve? Any visitor to Doha, Qatar’s glittering sea-front capital-city, is bound to ask himself these questions so great is the contrast between the country’s global ambitions and its limited human resources. Its foreign service, active on numerous fronts across the world, is staffed by a mere 250 diplomats. Its native population numbers only some 200,000. These fortunate few – whose annual per capital income of over $100,000 is said to be the highest in the world – are served, pampered and supported by an immigrant Arab and Asian population of 1.7 million.
Over nearly two decades, Qatar has built a considerable reputation for itself in the tricky and often tedious field of conflict mediation. It has tried, and usually succeeded, in calming tempers and forging agreements between opponents – whether between Eritrea and Yemen in their dispute over the Hamish Islands in 1996; or between Eritrea and Sudan a couple of years later; or between Yemen and its Huthi rebel movement in 2007; or between rival Lebanese factions in 2008, which ended 17 months of crisis and prevented a return to civil war; or between Sudan and Chad in 2009; or between Eritrea and Djibouti in 2010; or between feuding Palestinians factions in early February 2012, to name only some of its many endeavours in the cause of peace.
This past year, however, has seen a major change in Qatari diplomacy: From being an impartial mediator, praised by all parties, it has begun to take sides in Middle East conflicts. For example, it played a key role in the overthrow of Libya’s dictator Muammar al-Qadhafi, pouring into the civil war hundreds of its own well-equipped troops and some $400m in aid to the rebels. In Syria, Qatar has led the assault against President Bashar al-Assad, pressing for his condemnation and boycott in the Arab League while arming and funding the opposition.
Even more significantly, Qatar has been a major backer of the Muslim Brothers in their recent rise to power across the Arab region. This has caught the West by surprise, in particular the United States. Having spent the past fifteen years fighting the Islamists, Washington is now scrambling to come to terms with -- and even befriend -- these new political actors, whether in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Morocco and elsewhere. Unlike Qatar’s earlier mediations, this switch to activist policies inevitably makes enemies as well as friends. Not the least of Qatar’s contradictions is that while it embraces progress and modernity with open arms, it also promotes radical Islamic movements, for example giving ample airtime on Al Jazeera to the tele-preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
In waging its battles, Qatar deploys many assets, of which the first is undoubtedly the vigour and daring of its leadership. Four members of its ruling autocracy deserve special mention. The Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, 60, a graduate of Britain’s Sandhurst military academy and former Defence Minister, deposed his father in a bloodless coup in 1995, setting the country on its path to spectacular development. The Emir’s right-hand man is his distant cousin, Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim Al Thani, 53, who has served as Foreign Minister (since 1992) and also as Prime Minister (since 2007), acquiring a formidable reputation as an international diplomatist but also as a remarkable financier with major stakes in Qatar Airways, in the London department store Harrods, and dozens of other real-estate, commercial and industrial enterprises. He is the owner of the 133-metre yacht al-Mirqab, said to be the eighth largest super-yacht in the world, valued at over $1bn. Some sources estimate his personal fortune, perhaps with a touch of hyperbole, at $35bn.
Another major figure is the Emir’s second wife, Sheikha Mozah, widely admired for her elegance, energy and culture, who chairs the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development. One of her five sons is Crown Prince Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, a clever, highly-popular, French-speaking young man in his early thirties. Sheikha Mozah’s Foundation has brought numerous foreign universities to Qatar’s ‘Education City’ and sponsors many training and leadership programmes, as well as the lively Doha Debates on Al Jazeera television, Qatar’s brilliant media arm -- a powerful agent of its world-wide influence.
Needless to say, all this would be vain were it not for the prodigious revenues Qatar derives from exporting oil and liquefied natural gas. Its oil reserves of 25 billion barrels would enable continued output at current levels for the next 57 years, while the reserves of its offshore gas fields are estimated at 250 trillion cubic feet, the third largest such reserves in the world. Gas provides 85% of Qatar’s export earnings and 70% of government revenue.
Qatar’s skill has been to acquire a wide variety of foreign friends without being overly dependent on any of them. Since his 1995 coup, the Emir has forged especially close ties with France, which supplies some 80% of the country’s military equipment. He has purchased one of France’s top football clubs, Paris Saint Germain (PSG) -- perhaps as a prelude to hosting the 2022 World Cup -- as well as a score of valuable properties across the French capital. Serious investments have been made in major French firms such as Veolia and Lagardère. Qatar also has warm relations with Britain, the former colonial overlord of the Gulf until its withdrawal in 1971, and is bound militarily and industrially to the United States.
Qatar’s Al Udeid Air Base is the forward headquarters of the United States Central Command, which oversees a vast area of responsibility extending from the Middle East to North Africa and Central Asia. CENTCOM forces are deployed in combat roles in Afghanistan as well as at smaller bases in Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. No doubt the presence of CENTCOM provides Qatar with some protection, but it also runs the risk of attracting hostility if, for example, Qatar were to allow itself to be sucked into the quarrel now raging between the United States and Israel on one side and Iran on the other. A regional war could deal a catastrophic blow to Qatar’s prosperity and development.
Qatar has become a global brand name as well as a global player. These are clearly the goals its leaders have striven to achieve. But this mini-state operates in a turbulent region, a situation which demands constant vigilance and nimble footwork. Many might wish it had restricted itself to its noble role as a peace-maker. Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press). Copyright © 2012 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global