Qatar: A Rising Power in the Gulf
Qatar is a Persian Gulf country that is caught between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the two regional powers waging a struggle for dominance in every sense. Despite its extremely small surface area and population, Qatar has in recent years increased its importance in both Middle East and global politics through astute use of its rich natural resources. After Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani became Emir in 1995, Qatar began to emerge from the shadow of global and regional actors and chart an independent course. Qatar began to export natural gas for the first time in 1997, and in 2006 became the largest global exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG). This huge economic boom has made Qatar’s per capita national income the highest in the world. Simultaneously, Qatar has become a close ally to the Western World, especially the United States, and hosts the largest American air base in the Gulf.
In parallel to these developments, the government made efforts to strengthen central authority in domestic politics and place the government’s relationship with society on a new foundation. These policies quickly made Doha one of the major trading and investment centers in the Gulf. Emir Hamad and the Government of Qatar, in forming the Al Jazeera news center in November 1996, brought a new dimension to the country’s increasing international visibility. In a very short time, Al Jazeera became one of the preeminent Arabic news sources of the Middle East. Al Jazeera presented special news programs that not only covered conflict zones like Iraq, the Balkans, and Afghanistan, but also offered a critical perspective both on Arab regimes and U.S. policies. So, while Al Jazeera increased Qatar’s prestige on the global scene, the country also began to play a more active role in regional politics.
During the era of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Qatar began to prioritize acting as a mediator in the international arena. Qatar stepped in to mediate during the military incursion committed by Israel against Lebanon in 2006, and in September 2008 the Qatar government served as the representative of the Arab League appointed to mediate in the negotiations between the Sudanese government and various rebel groups. In 2012 Sheikh Hamad visited Gaza, under Hamas control, and initiated investments in the region. Qatar’s political activism continues in their initiatives hosting Afghanistan peace talks, but the real turning point for Qatar’s international role occurred with the Arab Spring and the wave of change it triggered across the region.
In 2013, the Gulf region witnessed a rare transfer of power when Sheikh Hamad turned the throne over to his son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani. The Western-educated Emir Tamim in large part maintained his father’s political agenda, bolstering his country’s positive relations with the West and making further investments to secure Qatar’s rise in the international arena. One of the culminating point of this vision was to secure Qatar’s of hosting the 2022 World Football Championship. Under this ambitious initiative, Qatar launched infrastructure projects including stadium, airport, and port expansions, for which funds totaling billions of dollars were spent.
Qatar and the Arab Spring
Parallel to Qatar’s rise in the economic arena, the most important regional development contributing to Qatar becoming a household name in international politics was the Arab Spring. Qatar attempted to act as a mediator during these crises and adopted a stance supporting the preferences of the peoples of the region, while keeping its distance from the Sisi government in Egypt, which came to power in the aftermath of a military coup. Because of these policies, Qatar became the object of pressure from other countries, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) chief among them. During this turbulent period, Turkey has become one of Qatar’s closest partners. The two countries, not wanting Syria to become, like Iraq, a constant source of conflict and disputes, began to support the opposition against the Assad regime. In addition to sharing similar concerns with Turkey in the Syria crisis, Qatar’s foreign policy of supporting and engaging in diplomacy and mediation, in the context of the broader political changes that have arisen as a result of the Arab Spring, have revealed Qatar as an influential actor in the region.
Qatar has always prioritized domestic political legitimacy, no matter it showed its support to the Arab Spring. Deriving strength from this position, Qatar has not only supported the non-state actors and mass movements that have become increasingly important during the Arab Spring, but also the ‘discourse of political opposition’ produced by this wave of change. In this context, while on the one hand Al Jazeera has functioned to a great extent as the vehicle of international media support for the evolving political processes and popular uprisings occurring in the Arab world, on the other hand, Qatar has used the Arab Spring as an opportunity for expanding its regional influence via its policy of diplomatic and financial aid. This stance led to Qatar’s deteriorating relationships in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, since these two countries, unlike Qatar, saw the popular uprisings as a grave threat to their own regimes.
The different stances adopted toward the Arab Spring by Qatar, as opposed to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, revealed the major fault lines among the Arab monarchies regarding their policy approaches to the topics of social and political legitimacy. While Qatar has an image of being the most relaxed of the Arab monarchies in regards to the challenges of government legitimacy and political Islam, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are among those countries that are most afraid of the turbulence from this wave of change. This divergence, which is likely to constitute the most active fault line in this region for some time, emerged as a real crisis for the first time in June 2017 when Qatar suffered a political and economic blockade imposed by the other Gulf countries.
Qatar’s Syria Policy
In the Syria crisis, Qatar continued the policy of support for popular movements that it had adopted since the beginning of the Arab Spring. Although relations with Assad had been good before the civil war began, once it became clear that the regime would not adopt reforms but instead chose to target the civilian population, Qatar quickly began to follow a policy of confrontation with Assad. Thus, from the start of the popular uprisings in Syria in 2011, Qatar played a role supporting the opposition to the Assad regime, initially in partnership with two other Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and Turkey. In the same year, Qatar became the first country to close its embassy in Damascus, and, by taking a strong position against Assad, was an important part of the Arab League suspending Syria’s membership in the organization. Qatar and Saudi Arabia, whose relations had not deteriorated at that stage, brought the Syria issue to the floor of the UN General Assembly, condemned the use of violence by the Assad regime, and demanded that the UN support Arab initiatives aimed to resolve the Syrian issue. Qatar, then president of the Arab League, moreover led in the formation of a committee to deal with the crisis.
In the role-sharing and collaboration between the Gulf states, Kuwait played a critical role in transferring financial aid to Syria, while Saudi Arabia supported the opposition with fighters and weapons. Qatar meanwhile gave both financial and political support to strengthen the opposition, which would facilitate a sustainable governance in the post-Assad period. However, starting in 2013, differences between Riyadh and Doha became increasingly apparent and the two countries began to support groups that were in conflict on the ground. By putting the policies of the two camps in Syria in loggerheads, this situation seriously curtailed the Gulf states’ influence and effectiveness in the crisis and accelerated the disintegration of the opposition within Syria.
While the Assad regime recovered through the open support of Russia and Iran, Qatar continued as a spokesman for a post-Assad solution to the crisis. In 2015, during intensified fighting, new anti-regime opposition groups emerged and made important gains in the country’s northern and southern regions. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar, although supporting different wings of the internally divided Syrian opposition, nevertheless began to lay the groundwork for opposition groups to set aside their differences and attempt to unify. However, in the event each country used the rapprochement and coordination meetings to promote their own favored opposition groups, seriously damaging the opposition. In a sense, each meeting to unite the opposition acted instead as an occasion for opposition groups to divide into even more clearly defined blocs.
It is not possible to describe the opposition in Syria under any single category or as a single group; instead, it is possible to identify a number of partnerships and groupings that have emerged, ended, and resumed over this period. Since the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011, a number of Gulf states, including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE in addition to Qatar, have given financial support to various wings of the opposition. Over time, as the opposition disintegrated and new groups formed, the Gulf states have continued to identify and support new groups in Syria.
Similarly, it is not possible, in the context of the Syria crisis, to refer to a “Gulf state” position, insofar as every actor has taken positions that both reflect their own interests and change over time. Out of the opposition groups on the ground, Qatar and Turkey both provided aid to Ahrar al-Sham, especially at the outset of the fighting, but Qatar was also alleged to have simultaneously provided technical and military support to Faylaq al-Rahman, a sub-group of the Free Syrian Army, and to the erstwhile Al Qaeda-affiliated group known as al-Nusra. Given that since 2017 Saudi Arabia and the UAE have almost entirely withdrawn from Syria, Qatar stands out as the only Gulf country still actively engaged in Syrian politics. Yet despite all this financial support, the opposition’s weakness on the ground indicates that Qatar has failed to receive much of a return on its investment.
This open support given to the opposition pushed the Assad regime to take a confrontational stance against the Gulf states. In January 2017, when Qatar and Saudi Arabia were invited to the Astana talks, the Turkish and Russian initiative to bring the parties to the conflict in Syria together for negotiations in Kazakhstan, the Syrian government announced that it would only permit those two countries to participate if they ceased their support to opposition groups. In a similar vein, despite Aleppo returning to government control in February 2017, Assad stated that as long as France, Britain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar continued support for opposition groups, it would not be possible for the regime to claim victory in the war.1
1 The full statement is available on: http://www.voltairenet.org/article195768.html
Impressions from Doha
One of the frequently mentioned topics of discussion in Doha is based on the perception that Qatar’s foreign policy is shaped and implemented by a few senior members of the Al Thani family. As a result, formal state institutions like the foreign ministry are used more to apply these policies than to develop them. The fact that decision-making mechanisms limited to the initiative of a small group of people introduces certain challenges on institutionalization with additional problems on managing multidimensional and multi-actor crises such as the Syrian conflict.
In interviews conducted in Doha, it was repeatedly emphasized that Qatar’s foreign policy is designed around the goal of keeping channels of communication open with all countries and maintaining the ability to speak to all actors. Having shaped its foreign policy with the understanding of building a broad network of relationships, Qatar also hopes that these relationships will provide a security guarantee for them. During the interviews, it was underlined that the Gulf country has earned its position in international politics thanks to investments in diplomacy, mediation activities, and networks of influence; that is, soft power in place of brute force. The country has succeeded in maintaining a flexible foreign policy that allows it to adapt to the positions of Turkey and the U.S., its close partners at the regional and the international levels, respectively. Interviewees stated that the lack of any red lines in Qatar’s foreign policy means that if developments on the ground force a reconciliation with Assad, Qatar could adopt even this policy, however grudgingly. Although for Qatar the best solution in Syria involves a process leading to a post-Assad future, Qatar’s willingness to talk to every actor, including the PYD, shows this policy flexibility. On the other hand, Qatar does not want to fall into a dispute with Turkey, which they know sees the PYD as a red line of their own.
One expert interviewed in Qatar sees the country’s Syria policy as both necessary and legitimate after the role the country played in Libya. Although the expert emphasized that Libya was a much easier arena for Western intervention, Qatar’s position in favor of the revolution from the very beginning of the Syrian civil war can be seen as the continuation of the policy applied in Libya.
Britain and France’s interventionist policy in Libya created the impression, moreover, that the West would take an active role in Syria as well. However Syria, finding support from the countries, most notably Iran at regional level and Russia at global level did not experience a process of regime change as swift as in Libya. While in the beginning the Western countries, the USA foremost among them, read the events in Syria as a regional crisis, the military buildup occurred very swiftly and in a short time the country split into four regions controlled by the regime, the opposition, the PYD, and Salafi groups. In the context of this complex equation, Qatar, together with Turkey, offered a safe haven to the Syrian opposition. The two countries, having previously agreed on Libya and Egypt, continued this natural collaboration and opened their arms to the opposition in Syria; however, it is necessary to emphasize that Qatar’s effect on events unfolding on the ground has been extremely limited. The limitation on Qatar’s influence becomes even more obvious when one considers that while Turkey had intervened militarily in Syria by the middle of 2016, Qatar itself is not a sufficient military power to make such an attempt. Interviews conducted for this report emphasized the important role Qatar could play in financially supporting Syria’s reconstruction, but also indicated the potential that the frightening extent of corruption in Syria could shatter Qatar’s enthusiasm for that role.
Qatar’s first priority in Syria was preventing sectarian conflict. Qatar wanted to prevent Syria from entering completely into Iran’s zone of influence or from becoming the site of a sectarian civil war akin to what occurred in Iraq. Moreover, the interviews we conducted in Doha emphasized that Qatar’s foreign policy does not follow any sectarian agenda. Interviewees stated that Qatar’s priority was to establish an environment of peace and stability and had displayed a very generous attitude in attempting to accomplish this. Yet, for Qatar, no matter how much the Syrian crisis presented a new opportunity to provide support to the wave of change spreading with the Arab Spring after events in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia, Syria is not among its major foreign policy priorities. As an example, for Jordan, events in Syria are a critical security challenge in a neighboring country, while for Qatar Syria is rather more a stage to display and increase their own prestige and influence. In this context, it is easier to understand the reason for the decline in Qatar’s activity in Syria as the crisis there enters this difficult stage.
Despite Qatar’s waning influence, it remains a reliable haven for the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), created by the Syrian opposition as its representative in the peace talks in Geneva and Astana. In 2012, Riyad Hijab, who served as Prime Minister of Syria before becoming President of the HNC, fled Syria and took refuge in Qatar, where he began to direct the opposition. The HNC, claiming to represent 90 percent of the opposition in Syria, received recognition from Qatar as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in place of the Assad regime. As the most important example of this, Ambassador Nizar al-Haraki is recognized in Doha as the Ambassador of the Syrian Arab Republic and currently serves in that position. Qatar also distinguishes itself as the only state that hosts an embassy of the Syrian opposition as the official representative of that country.
An opposition representative interviewed in Doha made clear that Qatar played a critical role by supporting the Syrian people’s wishes from the very beginning. The opposition representative pointed out that with all the changes accompanying the transfer of power when King Salman succeeded King Abdullah and began to rule Saudi Arabia, the Qataris, who had pulled back and left the lead role in Syria to the Saudis, must now implement their Syria policies in coordination with Turkey. According to the representative, because Arabs constitute an overwhelming majority in Syria, the name of the post-Assad Syrian state must include the word “Arab”; however, because Kurds are also an integral part of Syria and have suffered many injustices in the past, the new Syrian state must also respect their rights. Another opposition representative stated that there was a bright line distinguishing the PYD from Kurds in general, and that the PYD do not represent their Kurdish “brothers.” From the perspective of the opposition, the Kurdish National Council (KNC, ENKS) is seen as the official representative of the Syrian Kurds. The PYD questions the legitimacy of the KNC and opposes it politically. Moreover, the PYD, accused of collaboration with the Assad regime, claims instead that it follows a third way in attempting merely to avoid conflict with the regime. In general, having taken a position against the Free Syrian Army from the very beginning, the PYD cannot be said to have a place among the opposition.
The Gulf Crisis
As a country with very limited military power, Qatar’s assistance to the Syrian opposition was largely financial, and also diplomatic as far as the country’s limited influence in international relations are concerned. Qatar’s immediate support for rising political actors, especially the Syrian opposition in the aftermath of the Arab Spring severely affected the country’s relations with Gulf countries and with some in the broader Middle East. In June 2017, the governments of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt began to cut all diplomatic ties with Qatar. These countries, which in a sense implemented a blockade of Qatar, sent an unacceptable list of demands to the government in Doha. Qatar’s relationships with the Gulf states, with which Qatar works together in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), were already extremely tense due to Qatar having denied the legitimacy of the Sisi administration in Egypt. Nevertheless, this political and economic embargo was one of the most important breaking points Qatar ever experienced in its foreign policy.
Although many arguments are presented as putative reasons for the crisis, it is clear that the fundamental cause of the diplomatic cleavage was in the countries’ different reactions to the wave of change passing through the Arab world. This crisis, which might be read as a settling of accounts from the Arab Spring, and punishment for Qatar’s support for the Arab Spring and political Islam, also resembles a wrestling match over the future shape of the region. The countries that imposed the blockade on Qatar are those states that look with suspicion and fear at the Arab Spring and the winds of change it signals. The demand by Saudi Arabia and the UAE that the Al Jazeera news network, which had already surpassed Qatar itself in its fame and influence, adopt their preferred broadcasting policy, is only one example of this concern. Qatar’s positive attitude towards the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, too, seems to have played a fundamental role in the imposition of this embargo. The UAE and Saudi Arabia declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization in 2014, and the authoritarian countries of the Gulf see the political project of the Brotherhood as a threat, especially as it strengthened in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Paradoxically, the Brotherhood is in parliament in both Kuwait and Bahrain.
This mid-2017 crisis, which led to Qatar’s intervention in Syria to drastically decrease, created a difficult situation for the opposition fighting against the regime in Syria. The fact that the constellation of countries supporting the revolution in Syria from the beginning had broken apart heralded the beginning of a trying time for the opposition. The groups on the ground supported by these two camps were now in a power struggle with one another at the same time that they were fighting the Assad regime. The goal for the opposition in Syria shifted from the longtime focus on regime change to regime reform. Considering that in reality the reform of this regime is not possible, it appears that the political process has turned into a means of buying opposition support for the regime through merely cosmetic concessions. At this juncture, it can be said that from now on, the supporters of the opposition will focus on building a decentralized administrative system during Syria’s reconstruction.
Ahrar al-Sham, supported by Qatar, is effective in Syria’s north, while in other parts of the country, especially Eastern Ghouta, groups Qatar supports are found alongside Saudi-supported Jaysh al-Islam. There is no doubt that the divisions and competitions within the opposition are extremely advantageous for the regime. Another dimension of this issue is in the problems experienced by organizations, like the High Negotiations Committee, that constitute pillars of the opposition in supportive countries. Although the HNC was established in Riyadh, the former president of the committee, Riyad Hijab, lives in Doha and had to travel to Riyadh frequently for meetings. As all traffic entering and exiting Qatar was cut off by Saudi Arabia, the work of the HNC now faces new technical challenges.
Since Fall 2017, as military clashes in Syria gradually diminish and the parameters of a political solution are beginning to be debated, the activities of peripheral countries, like Qatar, that had taken important roles in the beginning of the conflict, have markedly decreased. Especially after the major political crisis in the Gulf, Qatar, which had started out seeking regional unanimity and harmony, has largely lost its interest in the Syria issue. Qatar’s most important ally and partner in the region, Turkey, is currently side by side with Russia and Iran in the field, and carrying forward negotiations for a political solution, which suggests in a sense that there is no longer a need for Qatar as an intermediary. The Syria crisis, as one of the most important manifestations of Qatar’s active foreign policy and its desire to give support to the movement for social change and transformation in the Middle East, will carry importance for Qatar because it has nonetheless demonstrated that it should be recognized as a notable actor in regional politics, although it would not be able to dictate the outcome of the crisis. Qatar’s fate in regional politics has indeed shaped in accordance with the wave of change that came with the Arab Spring. In the present environment, Qatar’s primary goal for its regional policy is first of all to overcome the isolation it has suffered, and correspondingly to set about searching for new alliances in pursuit of this goal.