How Qatar got its fingers burned

When uprisings toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya in 2011, other Arab regimes trembled. But not Qatar. Brimming with self-confidence, Qatar – perhaps alone among the Arab states – viewed the upheaval as an opportunity rather than cause for alarm.

"Qatar's regional posture went into overdrive," Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a specialist in the politics of the Gulf monarchies, told an audience at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London last night.

"The country took advantage of the niche it had spent years cultivating to play a high profile role, displaying unprecedented regional leadership in the initial stages, bordering on outright activism," he said.

Despite being ruled by hereditary autocrats, Qatar managed to position itself – rather improbably – as a champion of the popular uprisings "in a seemingly altruistic, initially benign and highly visible manner".

For the first couple of years this looked like a smart strategy, and Ulrichsen outlined several factors that made it possible:

  • Qatar was not constrained by an elderly or incapacitated leadership. It had less historical baggage than many of its neighbours and fewer domestic constraints. With a small circle of decision-makers, it was able to move swiftly and decisively.

  • Its extraordinary wealth made domestic unrest very unlikely.

  • It had managed to create a distinctive "brand" for itself on the international stage as "a relatively impartial, relatively honest broker". With a number of successful mediation efforts to its credit, it had acquired soft power leverage on a scale that was disproportionate to its size.

Ulrichsen, who is the author of a forthcoming book, "Qatar and the Arab Spring", continued:

"There was much to gain from making a highly visible stand against authoritarian misrule in North Africa, in Syria and in Yemen. Moreover, the opportunity cost of doing so was low at first as Qatari expressions of declaratory and material support for opposition movements elsewhere were unlikely to rebound domestically while they also played into Qatar's efforts to be taken seriously as a responsible participant on the regional and international stage."

However, according to Ulrichsen, this strategy has started to unravel – partly because of Qatar's ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and partly because it is now viewed less as an impartial mediator and more as an activist and opportunist.

The Muslim Brotherhood

In effect. Qatar had taken a huge bet on the Muslim Brotherhood becoming the major force if and when a regional political opening occurred. 

The country has a long history of providing refuge to Brotherhood figures: the Egyptian-born cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi has lived in Qatar for around half a century and there have been many others. While Qatar was not the only Gulf state to do this, it treated the Brotherhood exiles differently, Ulrichsen said.

"In contrast with the gradual domestication of Brotherhood movements in Kuwait, in the UAE and to a lesser extent in Saudi Arabia where they developed local political groups, Qatar extended and diversified its ties with the regional branches of the movement outside Qatar while keeping a firm lid on any activities at home. 

"While Qaradawi and others were given a platform on al-Jazeera, they and other Brotherhood exiles were accommodated in Doha on a tacit understanding that they would refrain from intervening in or commenting on social issues within Qatar itself, thereby establishing a clear distinction between the domestic and regional spheres of activity, and what activities were permissible and what were not."

With the uprisings of 2011, Qatar was able to make use of this, through individual connections to Doha-based exiles who then returned to their countries of origin, and through the broader institutional influence it had acquired.

With hindsight, though, it looks as if Qatar has backed the wrong horse and Ulrichsen noted that the young new emir, Sheikh Tamim, took over from his father only a week before Brotherhood's overthrow in Egypt.

From honest broker to opportunist

With the uprisings in Libya and Syria, Qatar began exercising hard power as well as soft power. This was a significant change, but it didn't seem especially problematic at first.

Gadafy's idiosyncratic and largely friendless regime was a safe target (unlike Bahrain, for example, where Qatar has been much more circumspect). The Assad regime in Syria appeared, at least for a while, to be a similar case.

In Syria and Libya, Qatar's shift from mediation to advocating intervention was a natural step up in its diplomacy, Ulrichsen said, and this was well received in the west:

"It presaged a realignment of Qatar's objectives with global values in a way that resonated powerfully with the international community, with observers and analysts, in that halcyon period of 2011 ...

"The apparent success of the Libyan adventure led to a high watermark of Qatar's influence in late 2011. However, intervention in Syria has failed to prevent a slide into violent civil war and as evidence of the full scale of Qatar's shadowy involvement in Libya becomes more widely known and controversial, a regional backlash against Qatar has gathered pace. 

"This has implications for its reputation as diplomatic mediator stemming from its loss of impartiality arousing regional and international scepticism of Doha's motivations and the unravelling of a series of risky bets and gambles such as the decision to back Muslim Brotherhood linked groups in North Africa and elsewhere.

"Above all, there's a danger that the lack of a coherent strategy in its foreign policy which is opportunistic, seizing opportunities as and when they arose, now makes Qatar susceptible to international and domestic sources of instability going against one of its main drivers of foreign policy – which was to maintain a network of security and stability."

For these reasons, Ulrichsen expects Qatar to become more introspective under its new emir. 

There are certainly plenty of domestic issues to be tackled. The country's population has trebled from 600,000 to two million in the last seven or eight years, making Qatari nationals (who number about 250,000) an increasingly small minority of the total population. 

This in turn has led to infrastructural bottlenecks requiring massive investment and placed a strain on public and social services, housing, etc.

Qatar's controversial hosting of the 2022 World Cup has also exposed its internal affairs to greater international scrutiny, while the construction boom is bringing negative publicity over its treatment of migrant workers.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 22 January 2014