Qatar's foreign policy success

The revolution in Libya was a success for Qatar’s foreign policy, but life could get trickier for Doha in the future. Published in MEED, 23 September 2011

On 24 August, when opposition fighters stormed Muammar Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound in central Tripoli, one rebel stopped to pose for a photo. He stood smiling on top of the statue of the fist crushing an American fighter jet that Gaddafi commissioned in the wake of the 1986 US attack on his residence. In his right hand, he held a gun and in his left, the Libyan rebels’ tricolour; and on top of the graffiti-strewn building behind him was the maroon and white of the Qatari flag.

It was a clear sign of the way in which Qatar’s assertive foreign policy has placed it firmly at the centre of events in Libya. The country was a prominent and active supporter of the rebel movement, contributing military planes alongside Nato forces and helping Gaddafi’s opponents to sell the oil under their control. Although the UAE also sent some of its air force jets, Doha was the most forthright of Arab states in its support for the anti-Gaddafi cause.

Libya success for Qatar

Now, having played such a prominent role in the campaign to oust Gaddafi, there is a question mark over what benefits might accrue to Doha from the role it played in the conflict and what it might mean for the Gulf state’s foreign policy in the future.

Qatar insists that it is not looking for any special favours in Libya as a result of its support for the winning side. In an interview on Al-Jazeera television on 7 September, Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, said: “All know that Qatar is rich and is in no need of others’ help. We interfered there for the sake of the Libyan people. In the meantime, it is unthinkable that the Libyan people would allow their wealth to be plundered or exploited only because there are countries that helped them gain freedom.”

Such munificence does not mean that the favours will not be returned by the new rulers in Tripoli and Benghazi though. It is certainly true that access to Libya’s oil or money is not, per se, of too much interest to Qatar, but there are likely to be some other ways in which it could benefit as the country seeks to rebuild and reform itself. In particular, Qatari companies have been actively seeking and making investments around the region for years, including many government-owned firms, and they will no doubt be hoping that few obstacles are placed in their way in Libya in the coming years.

“They don’t need Libya’s oil, but I’d be amazed if you did not see Qatari companies investing there and that is in Qatar’s interest,” says Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “They need more diversified investments and Libya needs investment in practically every sector – not because of the conflict, but because of the sanctions before that.

“I’m sure you’ll see Qatari and UAE firms interested in the banking sector, which is completely underdeveloped. I would be pretty certain that there will be investment in construction and tourism because the Gulf countries are good at that and they’ve invested in pretty much every other country in North Africa.”

Libya’s interim government, the National Transitional Council (NTC), has been outspoken in its praise of Qatar, with vice-president Abdul Hafeez Goukh telling the official Qatar News Agency on 3 September that “without the unlimited support provided by the state of Qatar, the rebels would not have achieved victory”. He added that he hoped to receive the emir in Tripoli soon.

It was merely the latest in a series of positive remarks by NTC officials, which has helped to create the impression that the new government in Libya is favourably disposed towards Doha.

While there may be some benefits for Qatar from the outcome in Libya, the position it took in the conflict also carries some potential costs. Until the turn of this year, Doha had developed a reputation as a regional mediator, willing to talk to all sides in a conflict when others would not. It followed this approach in Lebanon, Sudan and elsewhere and has generally been seen as successful. The decision to take sides in Libya could, however, make it more difficult for Doha to play a similar role in the future.

Qatar’s growing confidence

“For the past few years they’ve clearly taken a strategic option to try and assert their foreign policy,” says Karim Makdisi, associate professor of political studies at the American University of Beirut. “It has been growing in confidence, largely because they’ve managed to be effective, at least in some of these endeavours, such as brokering a peace agreement in Lebanon in 2008. They were doing something that a lot of the other regional and international powers weren’t doing, which was reaching out to talk to everyone and thus creating genuine spaces of dialogue. They were able to exploit European weakness and dithering on the one hand and the collapse in US credibility and legitimacy in the region on the other.

“In Libya, they seem to have changed tack and, rather than play that mediator space, they went all-out and took a very strong position with one side. The coming weeks will determine whether this apparent shift in strategy is a clever or detrimental move to Qatar’s image in the region and its ability to get things done.” Qatar has also taken sides in other countries affected by this year’s Arab Spring, although to a lesser extent.

In July, it became the first of the Gulf states to withdraw its ambassador to Damascus after an attack on its embassy there and, with its GCC partners, it has called for President Bashar al-Assad to end his brutal repression of protests. It was also part of the GCC efforts to resolve the conflict in Yemen before pulling out of that initiative in May due to the lack of progress. Earlier in the year, Al-Jazeera played a notable role in broadcasting the Egyptian uprising.

Diplomacy in the Middle East

Closer to home though, it has stood firmly alongside those in power, siding with the Al-Khalifa ruling family in Bahrain in the face of pro-democracy protests there in February and March. Although Al-Jazeera’s English language channel aired a highly critical documentary in early August about the vicious crackdown on protesters, called Shouting in the Dark, it was notable that the documentary was not carried by its Arabic language sister channel.

Al-Jazeera is a key element in Doha’s foreign policy apparatus, although it is nominally independent from government control. Qatar’s international presence has also been aided by its use of other soft power tools, from the successful bid to host the football World Cup in 2022 to more prosaic initiatives such as Silatech, which aims to address issues around youth unemployment in the Arab world by supporting small and medium enterprises. Alongside its actions in Libya, such initiatives have helped Qatar to create a distinct international identity for itself as a more open and forward-thinking Gulf state. Of course Qatar itself remains an autocratic monarchy, but there has been no sign of domestic unrest this year. Indeed, the ability of Doha to favour the opposition movements in Libya and at least some other countries has largely been a result of this absence of political problems at home.

“Qatar’s behaviour is explained partly by its complete lack of fear of domestic unrest,” says Kinninmont. “There are some people who are dissatisfied with some aspects, who don’t like everything the government is doing, but with such a small and wealthy population they seem very confident that they will be internally secure.”

Despite the partial positions it has taken during the Arab uprisings, Qatar is expected to try and maintain its more neutral position when it comes to other areas of tension in the region.

In recent years Doha has been able to remain a close ally of the US, while still keeping channels open to both Hamas and Hezbollah, which the US deems terrorist organisations. It also has far more cordial relations with both Tel Aviv and Tehran than its GCC peers, even if there is still much mutual distrust. In a US diplomatic cable of 20 December 2009 released by whistleblowing website Wikileaks, prime minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani is quoted as characterising Qatar’s relationship with Iran as one in which “they lie to us and we lie to them.”

This diplomatic strategy can irritate its Gulf neighbours at times. “Qatar has a more liberal view to a lot of these things,” says one Doha-based political analyst. This, he says, can cause tensions with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, particularly over relations with Iran.

Upstaging Riyadh

Indeed, Saudi Arabia, which has traditionally been the most important diplomatic actor in the GCC, is the country that has perhaps the most to lose as Qatar becomes a more confident and active player on the international stage. Meanwhile, Israel has expressed anger with Doha for the latter’s support for Hamas, as well as its backing of the recent initiative for the UN to recognise Palestinian statehood.

Despite the complaints it gets, Doha clearly perceives a benefit in trying to play both sides and, despite what others might say in public, this could suit some of its key allies, both in the region and beyond. There may be a benefit in the future if they have an ally with good connections to Tehran, to ease the path of any negotiations over its nuclear programme, for instance.

For all its studied neutrality in these long-term issues, however, the events of this year have exposed a problem at the heart of Qatar’s foreign policy, namely the county’s strategy of supporting autocratic GCC regimes, while backing democracy movements elsewhere.

“There’s an apparent contradiction between Qatar supporting rebellion and democracy in parts of the Arab region and it being a kingdom,” says Makdisi. “It’s going to be interesting to see how this is resolved.”

Doha has proved adept at walking a diplomatic tightrope in the past. The events of this year will mean those skills will be tested even more in the future.