Doha’s growing self-assurance in diplomacy

Sending jets to patrol Libyan skies is the latest sign of Doha’s confidence on the diplomatic stage. Published in MEED, 22 April 2011

The sight of Qatar trying to flex its diplomatic muscle in the region may be a fairly common one. The sight of its military aircraft patrolling another Arab country’s airspace, however, is not.

By sending its Mirage fighter jets to help police the no-fly zone in Libya, Doha has given the boldest sign yet of its self-confidence in the diplomatic sphere. There are some real risks to its approach, but for Qatar, which has played a smart and calculating diplomatic game in the past, these risks appear worth taking.

One clear advantage to its position in Libya is the debt that the US and other Western powers now owe to Doha. The presence of Qatari jets is largely symbolic as almost all the sorties are carried out by Nato planes, but symbols are important in diplomacy.

The support of Qatar and the UAE was vital when Western governments were drawing up plans for the no-fly zone. The promise of direct involvement from Arab states offered the diplomatic cover the West needed to take military action against Muammar Qaddafi’s regime.

Bold stance

Qatar has also been taking a bolder stance in other aspects of the Libyan conflict. On 28 March, it became the first Arab state to recognise the National Transitional Council in Benghazi as the sole legitimate government of Libya and it has also been helping the rebels to sell crude oil.

However, given the Cairo-based Arab League’s support for a no-fly zone and the unpopularity of Qaddafi in other Arab capitals, Doha’s actions have not led to protests from other countries.

“The key factor with Libya is opportunity,” says David Roberts, deputy director of the Qatar office of the UK think-tank Royal United Services Institute. “All the stars fell into the right alignment. They have the opportunity with Western and nominal Arab League backing to make a difference, so they do it.”

If the conflict continues for an extended period of time and the civilian death toll in Libya starts to mount, then the wisdom of the policy could look very different. Should public opinion around the Arab world turn against the military efforts to oust Qaddafi and start to equate it to another unwanted Western grab for Arab oil, Doha could be left exposed.

“There is certainly widespread condemnation of Qaddafi and there’s no rush to support his regime,” says Fred Wehrey, a senior policy analyst at US think-tank, Rand Corporation.

“But the memory of Iraq is still fresh and of how these interventions can degenerate into occupation and protracted struggles. It depends on the prevailing sentiment about civilian casualties. If the narrative changes where Western intervention is seen to have prolonged the suffering of the Libyan people and created a civil war … Qatar would be implicated.”

Such risks means Doha is only likely to send its armed forces into a conflict zone on very rare occasions. It appears far more comfortable playing the role of international diplomat rather than enforcer, something it returned to when hosting an international conference on Libya on 13 April. Among those attending was Moussa Koussa, the former foreign minister of Libya, who defected to the UK in March.

Strategy evolves

The limited nature of its military commitment to the Libyan no-fly zone means it is still too early to refer to it as the start of a newly interventionist foreign policy in the Arab world. Qatar’s role involves providing just six French-made Mirage jets and two Boeing C-17 cargo planes out of an entire allied fleet of 195 aircraft. Instead, it is more of an evolution of its past approach.

Doha’s actions during the other revolutions and rebellions around the region this year have been more in keeping with its longer-term policy of focusing its efforts around mediation and negotiated settlements, in cases where it gets involved at all. Its involvement in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions was largely restricted to the presence of Doha-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera, whose reporters relayed the events to the rest of the Arab world and beyond, despite intense harassment at times. In Yemen, Qatar has been acting alongside the other Gulf states in encouraging President Ali Abdullah Saleh to leave quietly, although Saudi Arabia has been taking the lead. In Bahrain and Syria, however, it has steered clear of getting involved altogether as the political stakes are too high.

“I dare say the emir would have liked to do something in Bahrain and Syria, but the political realities precluded that,” says a local observer. “This isn’t the start of an interventionist foreign policy by Qatar in the Arab world that’s for sure.”

To date, Qatari foreign policy has been an object lesson in how to build up ‘soft power’. As well as trying to encourage an orderly transition of power in Yemen, it has tried to broker peace agreements in Gaza, Darfur and Lebanon in the past and tried to mediate on a border dispute between Eritrea and Djibouti.

Such initiatives have not always been successful, but they have helped to raise Qatar’s international profile each time. All the while, the abiding principle for Doha seems to be to stay on friendly terms with as many people as possible.

“Qatar has been trying a very difficult balancing act,” says Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think-tank. “It tries to be on all sides. It’s very clever at managing to have links with Hamas, but also have quite good tacit relations with Israel. It has links with Iran, but also the US. It’s genuinely an attempt to be friends with everybody, to diversify its alliances.”

Doha has also tried to extend its influence further east with initiatives like its charity Reach Out To Asia.

Winning the right to host the football World Cup in 2022 is another element of this brand building exercise. However, the best known weapon in its arsenal of soft power remains the Al-Jazeera television network.

“Al-Jazeera has been important for many years,” says Roberts. “It was critically important in the beginning in differentiating Qatar and putting it on the map. It’s had profound effects in the Arab world. It garners them support on the notional Arab street. In regional capitals, it garners them pretty much the exact opposite. Ambassadors have been recalled because of Al-Jazeera so it has caused them problems.”

But while Doha seems comfortable dealing with the occasional recall of ambassadors, there are clear limits to how far it is willing to annoy its neighbours, as it has shown in its refusal to get involved in Bahrain this year.

“They do a cost-benefit calculation,” says Wehrey. “It’s certainly not principled. It’s opportunistic, it’s very pragmatic.”

Calculating the value of the benefits that the country’s diplomatic initiatives can bring is as difficult as weighing up the risks of its involvement in the Libyan no-fly zone. However, there are a number of areas where Qatar can profit, not least in simply making itself better known and gaining a reputation as a country willing to assist more troubled nations.

Perhaps most importantly, its strategy acts as an insurance policy in case Doha ever needs to call on the help of others in the future.

That was clearly articulated by Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim bin Jaber al-Thani, who is both prime minister and foreign minister, in a discussion with US diplomats in late 2009, according to a US cable published by the Wikileaks website.

When US Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman extended Washington’s thanks for Qatar’s support for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, Sheikh Hamad replied by saying, “We might have our own Katrina.”

Bolstering legitimacy

The diplomatic strategy could be aimed at bolstering the Al-Thani regime’s legitimacy at home, something that is relevant in the light of the pro-democracy protests that have swept around the region since December 2010.

“These ruling families don’t enjoy an electoral mandate so they have to use their foreign policy to build legitimacy at home,” says Wehrey. “Especially now, they’re conscious of their position, so they want to take action on the world stage, they want to appear to their populations that they are assertive, strong rulers, that they’re able to throw their weight around.”

Quantifying and qualifying soft power is not easy and the only proof of whether Qatar has been successful will come if and when there is a crisis in which it has to call on the support of other countries. The actions it is taking in Libya now will, it hopes, ensure there are plenty of countries that are willing to help. In the meantime, its self-confidence on the diplomatic stage is unlikely to diminish.