05 December 2011
Qatar, led by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani after he carried out a bloodless coup against his father in 1995, is a tiny Gulf emirate that has been riding high. Whether for its successful intervention in Libya, which gave NATO a veneer of Arab legitimacy, its drive to isolate Syria by galvanizing an ossified Arab League to action, its tough stance against Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh who signed the Gulf Initiative last week, or the broad inroads the tiny nation is making with post-Arab Spring countries as they hit the ballot boxes, the country has much going for it. However, its successes have led many in the region to question its sources of power and its agenda. Qatar’s aggressive foreign policy, despite all of its successes, is not only facing a backlash, but perhaps the beginning of its natural limits.
Qatar’s Sources of Strength
The liberal, Saudi-owned online daily Elaph, in an article published on November 15th titled “Arab Diplomatic Vacuum Opens the Field to Qatari Influence,” gathered three distinguished Arab political analysts and published their insight to Qatar’s recent successes. In short, Qatari foreign policy can be characterized as having two arms: one is “dynamic diplomacy” and the other is “the long arm of the al-Jazeera (satellite) channel.” Furthermore, Qatar’s “strong support for the Arab revolutions, while a number of Arab countries have been absent diplomatically, has presented Qatar an opportunity.”
Abdullah al-Shamri, a Saudi researcher in international relations, noted that in 1995 Qatar’s GDP doubled, bringing about new political and economic power. It was against this strong economy that Al Thani deposed his father, and less than a year later in 1996 al-Jazeera was founded. Ever since, the satellite station has “surpassed the abilities of Gulf embassies.”
Shamri also notes that Qatari foreign policy is based on “pragmatism and realism” and is “flexible, dynamic and able to exploit opportunities.” This is in comparison to “the rest of the Gulf Cooperative Countries” who are “committed to silence” on the Arab Spring. Their silence and decline has given Qatar a leadership opportunity. Shamri gives two examples: Qatar was “the first to withdraw its ambassador from Damascus and the fist to withdraw from the Gulf Initiative after being convinced that the Yemeni president was shamelessly stonewalling.”
Lebanese political writer and analyst Tawfik Shuman told Elaph that its power is relative. Given the turmoil in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria “within the context of rebuilding their political systems, the stability and integrity of their societies have disappeared as the main force (in the region), turning inwards on themselves, therefore creating a vacuum.” While Saudi Arabia’s traditional policy is to maintain the status quo, he writes, “it has removed itself over its reservations towards the change sweeping the Arab world.”
Shuman views Qatar as having “the ambition and boldness, in harmony with the international consensus (on the Arab Spring).” Of course, Qatar has money and media, “the first step in any political act.”
Media and political analyst Dr. Khalid Muhammed Batrifi from Saudi Arabia related that after the 1995 bloodless coup, “it seemed as if the giant had been freed from Aladdin’s lamp and went out into the world with the enthusiasm of youth and ambition, unbounded by geography or history.” Batrifi compares Qatar’s role to that of CNN during the First Gulf War, in which its news coverage was seen as helping to liberate Kuwait, noting that “open media holds the secret of the twenty-first century… al-Jazeera’s success is similar to CNN’s in the war to liberate Kuwait.”
Dominating media was only Qatar’s first victory, not its last. Qatar has managed to maintain “good relations with Israel, Hamas, Iran, and the U.S. at the same time” and it has had successes “from Lebanon to Sudan and to the WTO agreements in Doha.” In the end, Qatar has “media, diplomacy, and money,” said Shuman.
Qatar’s Natural Limits?
Qatar’s successes, however, have led many in the region to question its intentions and have brought the ire of its neighbors who are left unsettled by the ruthless pragmatism – they might say opportunism – that defines its foreign policy. For example, the Iraqi paper Sot al-Iraq ran a paranoid editorial on November 16, 2011, titled, “What Does the State of Qatar Want from the People and States of the Region?”
Tunisians, following the “moderate” Islamist party Ennahda’s parliamentary victory, protested against Qatar’s “blatant interference.” On November 1st, political and civil society leaders led a protest in front of the Qatari embassy. Essam al-Rajhi, founder of the “Tunisian Youth Movement,” said, “Qatar is trying to interfere in Tunisian policy and seeks to impose a political agenda after having imposed a media agenda via al-Jazeera.” He further said that “It must cease to support the Islamists, it is enough what they have done in Libya.”
Ennahda’s leader Rachid al-Ghannouchi’s first international visit less than two weeks after his party’s victory was to Qatar, which sparked controversy at home, leading many to question the reasons for his visit. Political analyst Asia Atroushi of the Tunisian Asabah newspaper said that the visit would have been fine “had Ghannouchi justified this… through a desire to support development projects between the two countries.” However, “his comments from Doha gave the event a more strategic-political dimension.” (Sheikh Al Thani visited Morocco on the eve of the country’s parliamentary elections, ostensibly to discuss economic cooperation between the two countries, although this could have been a lesson learned from Tunisia – Islamist were expected to, and in fact did, do very well). The Qatar News Agency quoted him as saying that Tunisia would embrace an Islamic constitution. Atroushi also noted that “Qatar is a small country trying to play a strategic and political role that exceeds its geographic size, especially in Egypt’s, Saudi Arabia’s and Syria’s absence.”
Professor of Political Science Nizar Said told Middle East Online that “Ghannouchi’s choice for his first visit outside of Tunisia to Qatar asserts that there are arrangements.” He also echoed Shuman in observing that “Qatar is trying to play a regional and international role, it has helped the rebels in Libya, and even Hamas and Hezbollah while at the same time maintaining good relations with Tel Aviv and Washington.”
The domestic pressure has led Ennahda to deny that it had invited Qatar’s sheikh to attend the opening session of the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly.
In Libya, passions run higher given the instability on the ground. Former National Transitional Council Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril lashed out against Qatar on the Saudi owned Al-Arabiya satellite channel, which rivals Al-Jazeera, accusing Qatar of “trying to play a role that is bigger than its true potential. The truth is that Qatar has what could be called the soft tools of money and media. But whether it is Qatar or any other country, all states when they reach the state of what political scientists call expansion beyond the capabilities, leads to breaking at the middle.” Jibril bitterly said that he has failed “because I have no weapons, no access to media to reach the public, and no money” — resources available to friends of Qatar.
Libya’s United Nations envoy Mohammed Abdel Rahman Shalgam slammed Qatar for providing weapons and money to Libyan Islamists and told the fellow Arab state to stop meddling in Tripoli’s domestic affairs. “There are facts on the ground, they (Qatar) give money to some parties, the Islamist parties. They give money and weapons and they try to meddle in issues that do not concern them and we reject that.”
President of the Supreme Council for Fatwas in Libya, Sheikh Sadiq Ghariani, had even attributed the longest sustained intra-rebel clashes between fighters from Zawiya and the Warcfana tribe in northwest Libya this month “to some satellite channels” seeking to “generate strife,” which is more often than not standard code for Al-Jazeera.
The Other Half
Despite Islamists with Qatari backing or affiliation making gains across the North Africa, it is worth remembering they are not the only ones. Approximately 60 percent of Tunisians did not vote for Islamists. Friday’s parliamentary elections in Morocco, amidst widespread voter apathy, resulted in a victory for the Islamist Justice and Development Party with 107 seats out of 395, but they will nonetheless have to form a coalition with the secular Democratic Bloc, which in all won 117 seats. In Libya, the National Transitional Council’s new interim government shocked everyone with an absence of Islamists, including Qatari-backed Islamists who were eyeing the defense and interior portfolios. Of course, events can change rapidly in Libya, but until now they have either signaled their acquiescence or have kept silent. Egypt began the first stage of a long, convoluted electoral process on Monday, so the results are to be determined. But the Islamist-secular divide grew even wider with the Islamists’ non-participation in this last weekend’s protests meant to reclaim the spirit and legitimacy of the January 25th revolution.
It is important to keep in mind the other half who, if they have not outright rejected Islamist parties, are wary of them. By extension this distrust applies to Qatar. Furthermore, the opening up of Arab societies and the subsequent proliferation of newspapers and freedom of speech will inevitably curb one of Qatar’s sources of power: Al-Jazeera. Lastly, if Qatar’s power and influence is relative to its regional powers’ decline, then it follows that their reemergence will limit Qatar. Although countries rocked by revolutions will remain on shaky ground for some time to come, others such as Saudi Arabia are making a comeback. Fresh off of the success of signing the Gulf Initiative in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia is looking to apply the same model to Syria.
Praise should be given when praise is due, and Qatar has done much for the Arab Spring. It’s influence, however, to paraphrase Libya’s ex-Prime Minister, may be expanding beyond its capabilities.
Andrew Engel is currently a reporter covering Middle Eastern affairs based out of Beirut, Lebanon, and a Masters student in Georgetown University’s Peace and Security Studies program. His previous projects include English language instruction in Damascus, Syria.