Explaining Qatar's schizophrenic foreign policy

Daily News Egypt
11 Min Read

In recent months, Qatar has found itself embroiled in resurgent notions of an Arab Cold War. Moreover, Qatar is often painted as one of the instigators of this potential cold conflict. Hosting Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) conferences and unexpectedly inviting Iran, hosting post-Gaza invasion conferences apparently seeking to wrest away the mantle of Arab leadership from the traditional Saudi/Egypt axis and financially supporting Hezbollah are but a few methods by which Qatar can be seen to be fermenting issues.

However, at the same time as clearly siding with what might be described as the more radical elements in the region, Qatar has good relations with America and hosts numerous crucial US military bases. Furthermore, Qatar is the only GCC country to recognize Israel. They have been interacting with the Jewish state since the late 1990s and have opened up an Israeli trade office in Doha. Granted, this is sporadically closed because of the vagaries of international politics, but this nevertheless certainly sets Qatar apart. Outwith these examples, Qatar is touting itself as a peacemaker. From Lebanon to Western Sahara and from Indonesia to Yemen, Qatar is involving itself in a range of conflicts. From time to time they are successful and thus accrue plaudits and international prestige. The best example of this was with the successful Qatari mediation of the 2008 Lebanese civil conflict that had flummoxed countless mediators before Qatar.

Another key strand of Qatar’s foreign policy is their international munificence. Qatar uses its significant financial largesse from their ever expanding Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) sales to give large amounts of foreign aid to, for example, the victims of hurricane Katrina and to Hezbollah.

There are, therefore, apparent contradictions throughout Qatar’s foreign policy. There cannot be many actors in the world – certainly none in the Middle East – that have close relations with Hezbollah and America, to the point where they will give aid to both.

Yet there is method to Qatar’s apparent madness, which stems from Qatar’s answers to its intrinsic vulnerabilities. Not only is Qatar a tiny country with negligible armed forces but it is penned-in to its north by irascible and unpredictable Iran and by the deeply conservative Saudi Arabia to the south. Both are infinitely larger and militarily more powerful countries and both controlled the Qatari Peninsula at one stage.

There are, therefore, firm and well-grounded irredentist claims against Qatar’s peninsula. Furthermore, there are – frankly – good reasons to invade Qatar. Not only would there only be a tiny native population of less than 250,000 to subdue, but Qatar has the fourteenth largest oil reserves and the third largest reserves of gas in the world. This is, it must not be forgotten, in a region which has seen a similar situation leading to invasion and war not two decades ago. Qatar is, therefore, suitably concerned and has sought ways to guarantee its security against these or indeed any other threats.

Seeking international friends

Qatar is pursuing policies where popularity is one of the key determinants. Supporting Hezbollah with their ever-popular anti-Israeli credentials as opposed to following policies emanating from a deeply unpopular regime in Cairo garners Qatar more kudos. In the same way, backing, interacting and establishing good relations with Iran, their anti-American stance being as popular as ever in the Arab world, is a more populist policy than following the archaic and conservative line of Riyadh. These kinds of policies garner Qatar support on what may loosely be referred to as ‘the Arab street’. However, it is not just an Arab audience that Qatar plays to.

When Qatar host US military forces and have relatively close relations with Israel, they are not aiming at the Arab street but the Western one. Supporting the US in their efforts in the Middle East and the progressive and even liberal policy of recognizing and interacting with Israel is likely to curry favor in the West. Additionally, when Qatar seeks to mediate conflicts around the world they are primarily doing two things. First, when successful, Qatar accrues kudos and thanks from the country involved. Second, and perhaps more importantly, by marketing themselves as peacemakers Qatar is increasing its deterrence, for it is surely harder to attack a country that is primarily known for promoting peace.

.and trying to influence them

Yet what exactly is the importance of ethereal notions of popularity, kudos or thanks? Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye coined and popularized the terms soft and hard power back in 1990. For Qatar, hard power is primarily evidenced by the US military bases in Qatar, which offer a direct military threat to anyone contemplating attacking: it is a stick. Soft power is more about carrots. The essence of soft power is getting one’s way through attraction and not coercion. Increasing Qatar’s attractiveness in the West by hosting US bases, recognizing Israel, acting as an international peacemaker and so on may well enable the US forces to remain in Qatar for longer. US domestic pressure was, after all, one of the factors that precipitated the removal of US forces from Saudi Arabia to Qatar.

More generally, if Qatar presents itself as an attractive, modern, relatively progressive peacemaking state in a region which is none of these things, then this can offer Qatar comparative advantages over their neighboring countries. This can be of particular importance in terms of economics. For although Qatar has huge supplies of gas it must nevertheless think and plan for its post-gas future. Foreign direct investment (FDI) is, therefore, critical. Qatar will need to seek investment in terms of finance, technology and skills to transform itself from a primarily one-industry country. At the same time, however, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the Emirates are in the same position and vying for the same commodities. Every dollar or engineer that goes to Abu Dhabi, therefore, is one dollar and one engineer that does not go to Doha: it is an entirely zero-sum game. Whatever Qatar can do to increase its chances, for example, by using its soft power to augment its international image, it must.

Qatar’s widespread international relations, particularly those where they are involved in mediation, can act as a starting point for closer bilateral relations. Qatari negotiators necessarily interact with important leaders in any given country. Also, the protagonists in the conflict are usually brought to Doha for a conference to seek a resolution. It stands to reason that these occasions contribute to the fostering of contacts and a development of relations, which can potentially lead to improved reciprocal trade or other relations

On the street

When Qatar seeks to improve its soft power on the Arab street, it is presumably aiming at fostering some kind of solidarity. Whilst it is unreasonable to expect native populations to significantly alter their country’s policies towards Qatar, having something akin to popular support in the Arab world is important for legitimation. Several Arab leaders, notably from Nasser onwards, have sought Arab popularity and used it as a platform for political leadership and mandate. It is also important to recognize that there are other reasons afoot, in terms of these policy decisions. Iran, for example, sharing the world’s largest gas field with Qatar, having the Middle East’s most potent military, being one of the most bellicose countries in the region and having occasional irredentist spurts of rhetoric are clearly the biggest potential threat to Qatar. These policies of closer relations with Iran and Hezbollah obviously also derive from the belief that if not appeasing, then at least accommodating Iran is far wiser than antagonizing or ignoring it. This factor dovetails perfectly with Qatar’s overall desire to foster the maximum amount of international support possible.

Soft power is an elusive and nebulous concept that is difficult to define and yet more difficult
to pick out specific examples of it in action. However, for a small state like Qatar, soft power would be particularly important as it is difficult for such countries to corral, coerce or force other international actors to do something. Therefore, such small states must rely on attraction (i.e. soft power) in order to get what they need in international relations.

Qatar’s deliberate decision to foster its soft power through seeking to pursue broadly populist policies is working well so far. Qatar is also lucky that its need for US protection whilst maintaining good Iranian relations is served well by this policy. There is always the danger, however, in that trying to please everybody Qatar ends up pleasing no-one. Or that supporting these two antagonistic groups at the same time may weaken support in both camps. Yet so far Qatar is skilfully prospering and carving out a role for itself as something of the Scandinavia of the Middle East: rich, relatively neutral, mostly popular with all sides and with a reputation for the honest brokering of peace deals.

David B Robertsis a doctoral student at the University Of Durham, UK focusing on Qatar.

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