Explaining Qatar's foreign policy
> Timur Akhmetov,
28 February 2012
Qatar plays a key role in the Middle East, mostly because of its successful
foreign policy, which has the characteristics of a balancing act. With so
many different allies with contradictory interests, how has Qatar managed to
obtain this central position and how long can they hold on to it
About the author
Timur Akhmetov is an undergraduate at the Moscow State Institute of
International Relations (MGIMO-University)
The changes of the past year in the Middle East and North Africa revealed
how active small states can be. Engagement of Qatar in NATO operations in
Libya, actions of the Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani against Syria
in the Arab League and the coverage of the Al Jazeera channel during the
uprising in the neighboring Kingdom of Bahrain suggest that this small
carbon-rich Gulf monarchy has a potential to influence regional politics. In
this article I attempt to explain why this small Gulf state is so active in
the Middle East and North Africa, and what drives such an active engagement
Perhaps only network analysis can help us understand the foreign policy of
Qatar. The object of social network analysis is the relations or connections
that explain why an actor is able to exert influence in and its environment.
y-0#1> 1 Qatar seeks diversification of its relation to other countries due
to its own limitations, since influence can be achieved not only through
possessing resources, but also by forging as many connections within the
network as possible.
The modern state of Qatar was formed in the mid-19th century as a result of
a concentration of power in the Al Thani family¡¯s hands. However, until its
independence in 1971 Qatar was a British protectorate. Since then due to the
discovery of its massive oil and later gas fields, Qatar has become one of
the richest monarchies in the region with the highest GDP per capita in the
world. The present ruler of Qatar, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, seized
power after a bloodless coup d¡¯¨¦tat in 1995. Beginning in the early 1990s,
Qatari foreign policy was formed into what we see now: multidimensional
engagement and activity on major issues in the region.
Qatar¡¯s relations with its neighbours weren¡¯t always good. The small
monarchy has faced territorial problems with Bahrain and its much bigger
neighbour, Saudi-Arabia. Long lasting tensions with Bahrain over the Hawar
Islands were resolved in 2001 by the decision of the International Court of
Justice in The Hague, saying that these disputed islands belong to Bahrain.
A border conflict with Saudi-Arabia in 1992-1994 resulted in the signing of
a border demarcation agreement in 2001.
Taking into account the fact that all its neighbours have oil or gas fields,
Qatar has found itself in a situation where it could not create much
leverage in regional politics on the basis of resource richness alone.
Furthermore, sometimes Qatar¡¯s economic activity was restricted due to the
absence of cooperation with other Gulf monarchies, as for example the
instance when a number of energy pipeline projects were curtailed as a
result of the reluctance of Saudi Arabia to provide territory for Qatar¡¯s
oil and gas supply.
Aiming to be more independent of the state of affairs in the region and of
Saudi Arabia in particular, Qatar decided to seek relations outside the
Gulf. As an oil and gas-rich exporter Qatar was an interesting candidate for
partnership in the eyes of many western countries, especially in Europe, who
in turn were looking for more carbon suppliers.
The Defence Cooperation Agreement signed in 1991 between Qatar and the
United States symbolized the developing military collaboration between the
Gulf state and the West. After the withdrawal of its military base from
Saudi Arabia, the US chose Qatar as a home for its Central Command and built
the largest military base in the region, the Al Udeid As Sayyliyah US Air
Force base. Since then Qatar¡¯s security has been guaranteed by the presence
of the US troops on its turf.
But Qatar went further in alliance with western countries. During the civil
war in Libya, Qatar supported the efforts of NATO to establish a no-fly zone
and provide the rebels with military assistance. Qatar sent its six Mirage
jet fighters and supplied the insurgents with modern anti-tank missiles and
rifles. Later on the Qatari government acknowledged that its military
officers had trained the Libyan rebels and had sent its troops to Northern
Beside military cooperation with the west, the announcement of democratic
reforms in the country suggests that Qatar wants a normative approach with
its allies outside the region. Though reform initiatives are mostly of a
proactive character, i.e. they are not a reaction to outside pressure, and
deal with a wide range of issues - from the elections to municipal councils
to a referendum on a permanent constitution - Qatar continues to be a
typical Gulf monarchy with limited freedoms.
Although Qatari foreign policy to some extent can be described as a
pro-western one, you will hear few critical sentiments about its
relationship with the west in the region. The reason for this lies in the
skilful manipulation of multiple ¡°identities¡± by the Qatari Emir. Qatar
enjoys good relations with almost all Islamic countries; its popularity will
rise even more given the fact that Qatar supports the revolutions in Libya
and Egypt where Islamists have won power in parliament.
Qatar is busy fulfilling its intention to become an interlocutor between the
west and Islamic world. The Al Jazeera network channel, established in 1996,
has become a unique and effective tool of the Qatari Emir in his activity as
a cultural bridge.
y-0#5> 5 Funded by the government, Al Jazeera serves as ¡°a voice of the
voiceless¡±. The channel pretends to represent the whole Islamic ¡°Ummah¡±
(community), promoting a vision of an Islamic Qatar that is in complete
contrast to its pro-western credentials.
Aside from financing the satellite channel, Qatar in its aspirations to gain
weight in religious affairs in the Middle East has long been hosting
prominent clerics from other countries. For example, Yusuf Qaradawi, who was
forced to leave Egypt in the wave of oppression against the Muslim
Brotherhood, has been living in Qatar since the 1960s, issuing fatwas
(religious decrees) and writing philosophical works, some of which contain
rather extremist notions of western powers waging war against Muslims.
Seeing that Qatar is capable of maintaining relations with several sometimes
opposing stakeholders, it may not be surprising that the Qatari Emir also
has ties to some terrorist organizations like Hizbullah and Hamas and rogue
states like Syria and Iran. Although these regional players are mainly at
odds with the western countries, such an exclusive access to them and
relatively good relations makes Qatar a valuable mediator during
negotiations, whether it is over the Palestinian interim government or the
preventing of civil war in Lebanon.
A balancing act
Taking everything into account it is hard to imagine a regional conflict
without the direct or indirect involvement of Qatar. In 2007-2008 Qatar
mediated between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels; in 2010
Djibouti and Eritrea asked Qatar for mediation in their border dispute;
Qatar proposed the agreement to Sudan and the Darfur rebels in 2010, though
it was rejected. Qatar is making clear that it wants to play the role of
mediator and even active participator in future conflicts.
The roots of such a proactive foreign policy of such a small state can be
found in domestic affairs. In 1995, after the coup d¡¯¨¦tat, the new Emir
was trying to establish a positive and liberal image of a new ruler with a
single goal ¨C to consolidate his regime in a hostile environment where
supporters of the old regime inside the ruling family and outside the
monarchy (Saudi Arabia) cherished hopes for restoration. The biggest threat
to the regime in Qatar even now comes from inside the Al Thani family.
Events in the first Gulf war and earlier during the so called 'Tanker War'
(the Iraqi-Iranian conflict 1980-1988) clearly demonstrated to Qatar that
cooperation within the Gulf Cooperation Council could not fully provide
security to its supply facilities.
y-0#7> 7 Qatar chose to call on the west for protection and security in case
of any emergencies in the region. Another cause for resorting to western
assistance was the intention to get rid of the Iranian influence (due to
large Shia community in Qatar) as well as the Saudi Arabian influence in the
However, with the rise of fundamentalism in the region it has become too
risky to bind itself too heavily to the west and to portray itself as its
ally in the Middle East. Qatar¡¯s foreign policy was directed towards
maintaining relatively good relations with forces who were seen as main
supporters of radical Islam ¨C from armed militias in the Gaza Strip and
Lebanon to Iran and Syria. Having great financial resources Qatar has been
able to provide help to these actors in the region, especially after the
armed conflicts that have occurred.
Looking at an overview of Qatari activity in the region we might conclude
that such a dynamic foreign policy, participating in major issues in the
Middle East and cultivating broad relations with all the main stake-holders,
is actually the only way out for Qatar from the dangers it faces. Keeping
all sides close simultaneously and counter-balancing all central players
gives Qatar a chance to be an influential hub within the network of
relations. Qatar tries to lessen the influence from its neighbours by
investing in regional affairs. But the question is: how long will Qatar be
able to maintain such a skilful foreign policy and preserve the equilibrium
between the various sides?
1 Hafner-Burton Emilie M.,¡°Network Analysis for International Relations¡±,
International Organizations, vol.63(2009), p.560
6 Mehran Kamrava, ¡°Royal Factionalism and Political Liberalization in
Qatar¡±, The Middle East Journal, vol.63 (2009), p.411
7 David G. Victor, Amy M. Jaffe, Mark H. Hayes, ¡°Natural Gas and
geopolitics from 1970-2040¡±, (Cambridge University Press; 1 edition (2006),
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Received on Tue Feb 28 2012 - 18:05:22 EST