Sheikh-Up in Qatar

Will a new emir change foreign and domestic policy?

The U.S. may be the colossus that bestrides the globe, but Qatar is the pipsqueak that dominates the Middle East. An overstatement, perhaps, but the tiny kingdom of Qatar, essentially a family-owned energy company with some territory and a few people attached, has been destabilizing nearby nations. The new emir should concentrate on freeing his own people.

Qatar won its independence from Great Britain only in 1971, after which it was a pleasant backwater. But in 1995 Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani overthrew his father in a palace coup.

Sheikh Hamad had grand ambitions for his nation of about 250,000 citizens (and 1.7 million expatriate workers with no political rights). A year after taking power he created the Arab world’s premier television channel, Al Jazeera.

The government now hosts the annual Doha Forum, an internationally renowned gabfest. The emir and his cousin, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabr al-Thani, opened this year’s event, which I attended. The formal sessions could be a little dry, but coffee breaks afforded world-class networking possibilities for leaders in business, politics, and journalism from around the world.

Most dramatically, noted Karim Makdisi, a professor at the American University of Beirut, “For the past few years they’ve clearly taken a strategic option to try and assert their foreign policy.” Doha has played a balancing role, attempting to moderate and resolve several regional disputes. Christopher Blanchard of the Congressional Research Service noted “Qatar’s willingness to embrace Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Taliban as part of its mediation and outreach initiatives.”

Indeed, the government allowed the Taliban to open a controversial mission in Doha. Hamas political head Khaled Meshaal left war-torn Damascus to take up residence in Qatar. (He expressed his appreciation toward his new hosts when I interviewed him in May.) The government also has worked closely with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Doha hasn’t always found it easy to balance its divergent “friends.” Qatar’s relationship with Tehran has been strained by the former’s campaign to undermine the government of Syria, Iran’s ally. Sultan Barakat of the University of York noted that Tehran has accused “the ruling al-Thani family of acting on behalf of the United States in an effort to install anti-Iran regimes throughout the Middle East.” Nor has Washington always appreciated Doha’s eclectic approach. Indeed, pre-9/11 some among the royal family apparently supported Al Qaeda.

Still, the country has evolved into a major U.S. ally. As Blanchard explains, “Qatari-U.S. defense relations have expanded over the last fifteen years to include cooperative defense exercises, equipment pre-positioning, and base access agreements.” Now, with American forces out of Iraq and leaving Afghanistan, Qatar’s role may diminish.

Most controversially, Sheikh Hamad directly challenged the governments of Muammar el-Qaddafi and Bashar al-Assad. In Libya, Doha provided aircraft and troops and lobbied the West to take an active military role. Nor did the Qataris go home after Qaddafi’s ouster.

Observed Barakat: “recently some Libyan officials, including Abdel Rahman Shalgam, Libya’s envoy to the United Nations, have proved less than content with what they see as continued Qatari ‘meddling’ in Libyan affairs, suggesting that they see the peninsular state has having overstepped the mark in its enthusiasm for intervention: ‘they give money to some parties, the Islamist parties. They give money and weapons and they try to meddle in issues that do not concern them and we reject that.’”

The emir has been following a similar policy in Syria, supplying cash and weapons to Syrian rebels. Indeed, Blanchard reported on speculation that “Qatar may be encouraging Libyan militia groups to provide weaponry or volunteers to support counterparts in the Syrian opposition.” However, Doha’s differences with Saudi Arabia on who to support have limited Qatar’s impact.

Although the emir’s government articulated humanitarian principles, its support for the “Arab Spring” in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria reflected a realpolitik approach. The emir once was close to Syria’s al-Assad. Moreover, Qatar has worked to prevent change closer to home, especially in Bahrain. (Doha allegedly even forced Al Jazeera to skew its coverage to favor the Sunni monarchy in Manama.)

This aggressive policy carries obvious risks. “Qatar’s recent moves to ‘take sides’ during the Arab Spring revolutions,” warned Barakat, “could threaten the reputation of impartial broker which Qatari policy makers have so carefully crafted over recent years.” Worse, if the policy leaves friends turned enemies in place (Syria) or generates mounting instability (Libya), Doha ultimately might pay a high price for its role.

Of particular worry in Washington is Qatar’s penchant for supporting Islamic radicals. For instance, Blanchard noted international concerns over “selective Qatari support for militias and political forces, particularly Islamist groups affiliated with the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change.” Doha is doing much the same in Syria, with extremists taking an ever more dominant opposition role. Doha’s “support for Islamist groups in the Arab world,” noted the Financial Times, caused concern among its more cautious Gulf neighbors.