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Qatar tames its ambitions... An active international role guided by Gulf interests first

Qatar tames its ambitions... An active international role guided by Gulf interests first

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Politics History

Tuesday 22 August 202306:42 pm
إقرأ باللغة العربية:

قطر تروّض سياساتها... دور دولي فاعل تحكمه "مصلحة الهيكل الخليجي"

Qatar's presence has notably receded from the forefront of Arab affairs. Both its actions and influence have been conspicuously absent and there has been no movement or roles since the reconciliation agreement in Saudi Arabia's Al-Ula city in 2021. The Sudanese crisis serves as a stark illustration of this, as Doha's role has been completely absent from the equation. Qatari analysts perceive their country as having embraced a conciliatory approach within the Gulf region, steering clear of regional rivalries and contradictions, while primarily focusing on international matters.

The current regional role of Qatar, characterized by a subdued influence, bears similarities to its position prior to 1995. Back then, Qatar's foreign policy was largely confined within the bounds of the regional framework. However, the distinction now lies in Qatar's substantial global impact, maintaining an active role and cultivating a commendable reputation for itself.

Qatari foreign policy

The evolution of Qatar's foreign policy was set in motion with the rise of a new administration to power in June 1995. This transformation occurred as Hamad bin Khalifa assumed leadership, accompanied by an ambitious elite. Under the rule of Hamad's father, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad (1972-1995), Qatar's foreign policy was in alignment with the regional order. However, a shift transpired in 1995 as Hamad bin Khalifa sought more independent strategies and foreign policies distinct from his regional neighbors.

Hazem Al-Dmour, General Manager of the "Strategiecs" center for strategic studies and research, asserts to Raseef22 that "the post-Gulf War era acted as an alarm bell, signifying that a geographically modest nation like Qatar couldn't maintain its stance without formulating strategies that propel its foreign policies to a higher echelon of regional influence and gain an advanced regional position."

Qatar aspired to reach all parts of the Arab world, leveraging media as its conduit. This endeavor took shape with the establishment of Al Jazeera tv channel in 1996. The subjects it tackled were previously regarded as forbidden topics by its Arab counterparts.

Salam Kawakibi a researcher at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Paris, contends that Qatar "capitalized on the decline in cultural and media prominence of traditional urban hubs in the Arab region, such as Baghdad, Beirut, Cairo, and Damascus, to emerge as a pivotal hub for Arab culture on the regional stage."

In the 1990s, Qatar secured a mix of trust, protection, and resources that empowered it to pursue an effective, dynamic, and independent foreign policy, and so, the ambitions of its leaders grew, but what has changed today?

He further emphasizes, "Under the leadership of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, the approach was resolutely directed towards catalyzing change, steering away from the status quo, and harnessing the nation's potential and natural resources to the fullest. Qatar's foreign policy, since the pivotal year of 1995, has unmistakably mirrored its profound commitment to national interests, regional aspirations of its leaders, and security imperatives."

Qatar stands as a possessor of more than 24 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, which represents a staggering 13% of the global reserves. Its annual production capacity hovers around 79 million tons, a figure that is projected to expand significantly to 126 million tons by the year 2027. At present, Qatar holds sway over 25% of this global market, a strategic position that contributes to the financing of various pivotal endeavors in the region, including the provision of salary support for employees of the Gaza Strip.

Moreover, Qatar's prominence gained further momentum with its decision to establish a commercial office to represent Israeli interests in 1996. Subsequently, the relocation of the United States' forces from Saudi Arabia to Qatar's Al Udeid Air Base in 2003 marked a pivotal juncture, as the base became the headquarters of the US Central Command's operations in the region.

As articulated by Al-Dmour, "Throughout the 1990s, Qatar secured a mix of trust, protection, and resources that empowered it to pursue an effective, dynamic, and independent foreign policy approach. Fueled by substantial gas discoveries and major financial returns, Qatar positioned itself prominently on the global financial stage. Coupled with its burgeoning military affiliations with the United States, these strategic foundations aptly enabled Doha to realize its ambitions of evolving into a substantial regional power."

Qatar's role reached its zenith during the period spanning from 2011 to 2014, marked by heightened activity, effectiveness, leadership, regional autonomy and engagement. During this transformative era, Qatar galvanized Arab consensus on myriad issues linked to the Arab Spring, most notably the expulsion of Syria from the Arab League, the isolation of its regime, and a steadfast bolstering of support for its opponents and adversaries.

Al-Dmour observes that prior to 2011, Qatar portrayed itself as a universal friend to all, positioning as a neutral player amidst a highly polarized landscape. It cultivated relationships with various stakeholders in the region, including Gulf states, Iran, and even Israel. However, he points out that the events of "the Arab Spring of 2011 marked a significant turning point in Qatar's regional policy. The nation's objectives shifted from merely establishing its identity as a neutral state to actively shaping the emerging regional dynamics and the future trajectory of the Arab world."

Returning to the era before 1995

In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt initiated a blockade against Qatar, severing diplomatic and trade ties. They presented Doha with a list of 13 demands as a prerequisite for reconciliation. These countries were concerned about Qatar's involvement in regional affairs and its role in fueling projects associated with political Islam, which they feared and vehemently opposed. Qatar was, indeed, involved in supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, a group whose leaders had taken refuge in Qatar and its powerful ally, Turkey. Moreover, Saudi Arabia was particularly uneasy about Qatar's pursuit of an independent foreign policy, including its dealings with Iran.

The collaborative efforts of the Arab Quartet, however, failed to achieve their political objectives. Qatar did not comply with any of the 13 demands. Subsequently, Saudi Arabia and Egypt sought reconciliation after years of estrangement and rupture. Riyadh and Doha then jointly established the Saudi-Qatari Coordination Council, led by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad. This initiative aimed to enhance both political and economic cooperation.

As Qatari political analyst Saleh Gharib informs Raseef22, "Qatar continued to seek dialogue until the surrounding countries agreed to it, and the nation succeeded in that endeavor. It adopted a new dialogue format in dealing with its regional issues."

While Qatar did not formally meet the Quartet's demands, its influence in various regional matters and crises that were contentious prior to the reconciliation has notably waned.

Following the Al-Ula Summit two years ago, Gulf states started pursuing unified policies, particularly in addressing international issues, yielding positive outcomes in Qatar's approach and policies towards its neighbors. How did this shift manifest?

The presence of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Arab League Summit in Jeddah last May posed a significant test of Qatar's resolve. Despite Doha's repeated expressions of opposition to the event, which was backed by Saudi Arabia, it did not actively resist Syria's reinstatement as an Arab League member. Its lack of opposition highlighted the extent of Doha retreating in its attempt to have a weighty voice in the Middle East's diplomatic landscape.

Ultimately, Qatar reluctantly withdrew its opposition to the Saudi initiative for Syria's reintegration. The Qatari leadership clarified that while it maintained reservations about normalizing relations with Damascus, it would not obstruct the prevailing Arab consensus, as reported by Reuters. Bilal Turkiah, the acting head of the Syrian opposition mission in Doha at the time, remarked, "Qatar did not embrace this decision, but neither did it stand in its way."

Gharib expresses, "Despite Qatar's stance on the Syrian regime, it participated in the summit for the sake of the general consensus. However, Qatar's position remained unwavering."

Analysts suggest that Qatar's shift on Syria may indicate a retreat from its previously ambitious regional foreign policy, possibly to avoid ruffling the feathers of its more powerful neighbors.

On the other hand, Al-Dmour believes that "Following the Al-Ula Summit two years ago, Gulf states started pursuing unified policies, particularly in addressing international issues. This has yielded positive outcomes in Qatar's altered approach and policies towards its neighbors and its view of the value of these relations."

Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics, remarks to Reuters that "Qatar was cautious not to play a disruptive role in Syria's reintegration. Such involvement could risk antagonizing the leadership in Riyadh and other key Arab capitals."

Notably, Qatar's voice remained conspicuously absent during the peace dialogues between the Yemeni Houthi group and Saudi Arabia, as well as in endeavors to quell the clashes among rival military factions in Sudan. A Western diplomat quoted by Reuters emphasized that "Qatar prioritizes cultivating constructive working ties with its neighbors. This explains its more tempered engagement in Yemen and Sudan compared to the past."

Recent actions have demonstrated Qatar's pivot toward cooperative initiatives, aimed at averting confrontations on regional fronts. In June of last year, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad agreed to launch a joint initiative to support the Sudanese people.

According to Al-Dmour, Qatar is "redefining its regional position, veering away from its previous alignment with Turkey and Iran. It's adopting a more measured foreign policy stance, especially in regards to contradictions, notably its support for Islamist groups."

Gharib suggests that Qatar's role "has assumed greater consistency and evolution than before, underscored by its active participation in Gulf Cooperation Council meetings." He adds, "Even through the blockade, Qatar's role had remained unaltered. However, after the reconciliation, the Gulf coalition has grown stronger and more united on crucial Gulf issues, achieving consensus across the board."

The Qatari analyst concludes, "Qatar will persist as a welcoming harbor (for escaping politicians), albeit now taking on a renewed form of support for Arab causes and providing assistance to Arab populations."

Transitioning into an international role

At present, Qatar remains steadfast in its ambition to establish itself and be recognized as a regional power, employing a range of strategic tools, as outlined by Al-Dmour. He highlights that Doha has shifted its focus towards elevating its international standing as a leading Middle Eastern nation, a goal that was further solidified by its successful hosting of the 2022 World Cup.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations have acknowledged Qatar's pivotal role in defusing international conflicts, evident through several instances. In reciprocation, Qatar has showcased its commitment to not deviate from the Gulf's "house of obedience"

Gharib contends that Qatar has skillfully leveraged the Gulf reconciliation to foster dialogue among disparate parties like Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Afghanistan. This strategic shift towards addressing major international issues stems from Qatar's growing capacity and rich experience in resolving global challenges. These developments are supported by Qatar's balanced and amicable relationships within the global arena.

Qatar operates as a mediator between Iran and the United States, providing a political platform for the Afghan Taliban during their conflict with Washington. Furthermore, Qatar played a key role in mediating between various factions in Afghanistan, facilitating discussions between the Taliban and the U.S., culminating in the Doha Agreement. Qatar's mediation efforts also extended to brokering discussions between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2018 and hosting peace talks between Sudan and rebel groups in 2019.

A report by French journalist Nicolas Beau on "Monde Afrique" highlights that "Qatar is currently engaging in its most extensive diplomatic activity in Africa."

In March of the previous year, Qatar achieved a significant diplomatic breakthrough in its external mediation efforts. It secured the release of Rwandan dissident Paul Rusesabagina, who received clemency from the Rwandan government after being sentenced to 25 years in prison, thanks to Qatar's intervention.

"I am of the opinion that the GCC countries, following the Gulf crisis, have come to recognize Qatar's pivotal role in resolving international issues. This acknowledgement has extended globally, including to countries like the United States, which now rely on Qatar's diplomatic prowess," concludes Gharib.

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