The Strange Power of Qatar

The Strange Power of Qatar, Hugh Eakin’s piece in the NYRB, is an overview of Qatar’s recent foreign policy well worth reading.

But I disagree with Eakin’s conclusion, reproduced below, that Qatar is merely using the Arab Spring to divert attention away from its domestic situation. I simply don’t see anny opposition movement making any demands in Qatar, whatsoever. The vast majority of the population is satisfied. Like the rest of the small oil-rich countries of the Gulf, there may be an avant-garde that would like to see more democratic institutions, but there does not seem to be any mass dissent by nationals (foreign workers may be another thing.)

My own theory for Qatar’s hyperactive foreign policy is that it stems from the personality of the Emir and the foreign minister, and is aimed at putting Qatar on the map partly to stroke their egos, but also because they believe in certain causes genuinely (forms of Islamism, Arabism). There is also a strategic aspect, of course, but it has more to do with buying insurance for what is naturally a fragile, coup-prone political system: the more the Emir makes himself an indispensable man in the regional system, hedging his bets through multiple, at times contradictory, moves, the safer he is.

This is why Doha might host Hamas, but also hosts CENTCOM. This is why is challenges Saudi Arabia but also collaborates with it. This is reflected in domestic policy, too: what better way to get yourself insurance and prestige that draw the most prestigious educational brands to your country? For a few billion dollars, you’ve made leading universities stakeholders in your regime’s survival. That's soft power for you.

Reading Eakin’s essay, I am also struck by the social transformation taking place in Qatar. I boil it down to a simple question: after a generation of massive educational investment, will the majority of Qataris still adhere to Wahhabism as they do today? And if they move way, in which direction will they move? Towards Sheikh Youssef Qaradawy’s MB-inspired “reformist” pan-Islamism? Something else? And what does that mean for the legitimacy of the al-Thani dynasty, inasmuch as it probably relied (although to a much lesser extent than the al-Sauds) on the approval of Qatari Wahhabi religious leaders?

Here’s Eakin’s conclusion:

In the end, Sheikh Hamad’s particular genius, it seems, has been to promote Qatar as one of the most sophisticated and open societies in the Arab Gulf, all the while being careful to keep its own closed political and social system—and its status in the Islamic world and among the traditional Gulf monarchies—largely intact. Indeed, for all its activist foreign policy, Qatar’s concerns, like those of other Gulf nations, are essentially parochial: military security, food security, social stability, and an economic system that can be sustained, in a hostile climate, over the very long term—even beyond the era of gas and oil.

From this perspective, Qatar’s involvement in the Arab uprisings, and its remarkable military intervention in Libya, may take on a different cast. “They have been playing a deep game,” Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a specialist in politics and security in the Gulf at the London School of Economics, told me. By taking the lead in Arab world support for the Libyan rebels, he suggested, the emirate has not merely put itself on the side of revolutionaries (and in its direct support for various individual rebel leaders maximized its chances of picking an ultimate winner); it has also allowed Qatar and other Gulf states that have followed suit to show they are responsible members of the international community, while deflecting attention from the Gulf itself. For Qatar, at least, promoting democracy abroad and investing lavishly in a comparatively young population at home have allowed the emir to stay ahead of the changes sweeping through the region, all the while strengthening his hold on power.

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.