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Qatar Punches above its Weight

July 18, 2008


Qatar, the small Middle Eastern nation that pokes like a stubby finger into the Persian Gulf, has found a niche for itself in the diplomatic world [“Qatar, Playing All Sides, Is a Nonstop Mediator,” by Robert F. Worth, New York Times, 9 July 2008]. Qatar’s latest diplomatic foray was helping broker a deal in Lebanon.


Editorialists praised the Qatari emir as a modern-day Metternich. Huge billboards went up on the road to the Beirut airport, proclaiming, ‘We all say: Thank you Qatar.’ An ice cream shop in downtown Beirut put out a sign offering a Doha Agreement Cone. But the Qataris did not linger over their diplomatic triumph. They were too busy trying to solve every other conflict in the Middle East.”


Worth goes on to explain that the Qataris are becoming masters of gaining and using leverage in finding diplomatic solutions to nagging problems.


In the past year alone, the Qatari foreign minister, Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani (widely known as H.B.J.), has flown his jet — repeatedly — everywhere from Morocco to Libya to Yemen, using charm, guile and large amounts of money to mediate disputes, with varying success. This work has not always earned him gratitude. In an increasingly divided Arab world, the Qataris have fashioned a reputation for themselves as independent-minded arbitrators who will cozy up to anyone — Iran, Israel, Chechen separatists — in pursuit of leverage at the bargaining table. … Qatar has close ties with Iran, yet it also is host to one of the world’s biggest American air bases. It is home both to Israeli officials and to hard-line Islamists who advocate Israel’s destruction; to Al Jazeera, the controversial satellite TV station; and (at least until recently) to Saddam Hussein’s widow. Saudi Arabia is a trusted ally, but so is Saudi Arabia’s nemesis Syria, whose president, Bashar al-Assad, received an Airbus as a personal gift from the Qatari emir this year. ‘They really put all the contradictions of the Middle East in one box,’ said Mustafa Alani, a security analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai.”


Maintaining all of these strange bedfellow relationships has resulted in some interesting activities, including questionable gifts and investments. Worth reports:


The Qataris also back their diplomacy with some eclectic investments. Many Americans know about the emir’s gift of $100 million to help Hurricane Katrina victims, but Qatar is also building a $1.5 billion oil refinery in Zimbabwe, a huge residential complex in Sudan and a $350 million tourist project in Syria.”


Investments in so-called pariah states have raised more than just eyebrows. They have sometimes raised ire.


Some call Qatar’s policy deranged. The Qataris prefer to think of it as useful. Blessed with enormous oil and natural gas reserves, Qatar is surrounded by large and ambitious neighbors: Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Diplomacy has become a way for Qatar to protect itself and its riches, by forming alliances and by trying to stabilize the region. ‘The idea is to try to keep everybody happy — or if we can’t, to keep everybody reasonably unhappy,’ said one former Qatari official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss foreign policy. ‘If that makes the Americans or the Russians a little cross, well, tough luck.’ It does make them cross. American officials have been quietly furious about Qatar’s assistance to Iran and Syria, which includes substantial financial investments as well as votes against sanctions on Iran during Qatar’s tenure on the United Nations Security Council. The Americans are also angry about Qatar’s hefty financial aid to the militant Palestinian group Hamas after it won elections in 2006.”


Such patchwork pragmatism has kept both friends and foes a bit out of balance — never really knowing what the Qataris are going to do next.


Mr. bin Jaber, the foreign minister, who is also prime minister, has been coy about the details of Qatar’s unusual diplomacy. He has given some interviews in which he says Qatar wants ‘good relations with everyone’ and defends his country’s relationship with Israel. … Qatar’s policy was born in 1995, when the current emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, carried out a bloodless coup against his father, who was on vacation in Switzerland. The new emir instantly began transforming Qatar from a sleepy, inward-turned backwater into a dynamic new state. At home, he began an ambitious remodeling of the emirate’s education policies with the help of his wife, Sheikha Mozah bin Nasser al-Missned. Abroad, the emir and his cousin, Mr. Jaber, began building a bold new way to engage with the world while maintaining their country’s independence.”


Although its foreign policies have been met with both anger and amusement, according to Worth, they seem to be working for the country.


Qatar … has an absolute monarchy and virtually no domestic dissent. It is therefore free, unlike almost every other country in the world, to pursue iconoclastic policies abroad without worrying about how they play at home. The fact that Qatar also has the world’s highest per capita gross domestic product, at more than $80,000, probably helps to keep things quiet. Unlike some other countries in the region, Qatar has had only one terrorist attack, a suicide bombing in March 2005 in a Doha theater popular with Westerners. One British citizen was killed and a dozen other people were wounded. Despite occasional diplomatic problems and frequent complaints, Qatar’s policy seems to have worked, catapulting the country to new levels of recognition around the globe.”


As further proof that Qatar has gained both reputation and respect, the country and its monarch were featured in a short article in The Economist [“Small country, big ideas,” 7 June 2008 print edition]. The Economist article also alluded to the Emir’s success in brokering the deal in Lebanon and it provided a bit more background on the country.


In 1952, the year that Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani was born, Qatar had fewer than 40,000 people, most of them barefoot nomads and fishermen, and not a single school. The emirate he rules now hosts Education City, a complex of branch campuses from some of the world’s most prestigious colleges. According to IMF figures, the country’s 950,000 residents this year surpassed those of Luxembourg to become the world’s richest. They enjoy an income per person of $80,870. Yet that plump figure belies the far greater private wealth of native Qatari citizens, who number fewer than 200,000 but who own nearly all the emirate’s assets, as opposed to the army of foreign guest workers who serve them.”


Like many Gulf states, Qatari citizens enjoy the benefits of oil revenue and leave the hard work to foreigners. This may become problematic for Qataris in the long term. It’s good to have money, but the day will come when the oil runs out. History has also shown that people are happiest when engaging in meaningful work that contributes to supporting the family. In the meantime, as Worth noted above, the Qataris are using their wealth to bolster their diplomatic missions. The Economist article continues:


Qatar’s oil money has certainly helped to make peace. A free week spent in one of Doha’s six-star hotels would dull the meanest fighting spirit, and there are wags in Lebanon, for instance, who contend that their politicians pocketed other, bigger sweeteners. But there has been plenty of fast Qatari footwork too. Since Sheikh Hamad ousted his father in a bloodless coup in 1995, observers have questioned the apparently erratic course of Qatari foreign policy. But under the guidance of his distant cousin, Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim, the long-serving foreign minister, and more recently also prime minister, Qatar has cut the apron strings that traditionally tie smaller Gulf states to bigger, older regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and adopted a firmly independent line.”


With Qatar’s liquid natural gas output expected to double over the next five years, the short-term future of the country looks bright. Wise investments will likely keep the country flush and the growing reputation of its leaders as diplomatic troubleshooters will likely keep Qatar punching above its weight.

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