Geopolitics and Qatar s Foreign Policy

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Introduction

            Qatar’s foreign policy has been a subject of heated scholarly debate in recent times. This is because of several factors, including its rapidly growing economy, geopolitical position, and evolving foreign policy. For instance, in recent years, the country has endeavored to act as a mediator in various conflicts within the Middle East. However, the image that Qatar portrayed following mediation efforts in Sudan, Lebanon, and Yemen, as well as humanitarian assistance elsewhere, stands in contrast to the more direct approach the country has adopted in the Libyan and Syrian conflicts. For this reason, questions linger about the extent to which this changing foreign policy may be attributed to Qatar’s economic transformation. The aim of this paper is to provide an analysis of Qatar’s economic transformation, geopolitical location, and changing foreign policy. The paper examines the country’s efforts to emerge as a regional political power and the extent to which these efforts serve to facilitate the realization of its foreign policy objectives.

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Transformation of Qatar’s Economy

            Qatar has undergone a massive economic transformation in recent years. This growth is attributed primarily to oil and gas exports (Dargin, 2007). The country has started using this economic strength to establish itself as a regional political power. However, Qatar’s location in a region that faces political instability has increased its vulnerability to geopolitical tensions. Nevertheless, it continues to maintain an economic and political competitive edge over its neighbors. This is because of its low population and massive resources, which bring about guaranteed maneuverability on the regional and global political-economic fronts. Qatar’s position as a regional leader is demonstrated by the fact that it is the fastest-growing country in the fastest-growing part of the world. Moreover, it is among the few countries that are currently offering emerging market returns at-risk levels of developed markets. At the same time, it stands to benefit immensely from growing trade flows among emerging economies.

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            The latest phase of Qatar’s rise as a global economic powerhouse may be traced to the oil price increases during the 2000s. Qatar used the wealth accumulated from oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) sales to purchase prime real estate in the developed world, primarily France and the United Kingdom. These factors have enabled the country to compete with major financial centers in the region such as Dubai. It has become an attractive global investment destination because it uses the English common law and has also embraced international standards in terms of its regulatory regime. For example, the country offers access to free zone and domestic markets even though it is not a free zone itself.

            The contribution of the 2008 financial crisis to the country’s economic transformation should also be highlighted. This crisis hit the neighboring financial centers such as Dubai harder than it did Qatar (Hawser, 2012). Consequently, many investors started directing their investments to Qatar instead of Dubai in the post-crisis era, leading to a rapid increase in the former country’s inward investment. Similarly, the choice of Qatar as the host for the 2022 FIFA World Cup has also given the country a competitive edge over other financial centers in the Middle East.

Geopolitical Location of Qatar

A major factor in Qatar’s present position as a regional and global powerhouse is its geopolitical location. The country is in a region that has continued to face political unrest in recent times. With its abundant resources, small local population, and a high expatriate population, Qatar is less vulnerable to Islamic extremism that continues to affect the economies of neighboring countries such as Iraq, Iran, and Yemen. For instance, Qatar did not experience the kind of social unrest that ravaged many Middle East countries during the first decade of the 21st century. This situation makes the country to see itself as a regional leader and a worthy mediator in regional conflicts. 

Qatar’s changing geopolitical strategy may be attributed to its growing economic strength (Dargin, 2007). Despite being a small country, it has the resources needed to finance its regional and global political ambitions. The country has responded to the reduction in demand for LNG from the United States by securing long-term contracts for LNG exports to Asia. At the same time, rising tensions over the nuclear program in neighboring Iran pose a risk to continuity in the gas export business. Any conflict flare-up in the Middle East would possibly have a negative impact on Qatar’s gas export business along the Strait of Hormuz.

To protect its economic interests, Qatar feels obliged to use its financial power to play a greater role in various geopolitical events affecting the region by always making its stand known to the world (Hawser, 2012). For example, it recently decided to support opposition forces in Syria and Libya during the respective crises that affected the two countries in 2011 (Hawser, 2012). This move demonstrated the country’s growing desire for regional and global political influence and its readiness to shift its foreign policy from neutrality and mediation to interventionism. Unfortunately, this interventionist approach poses the risk of jeopardizing the very economic and political factors that facilitated the country’s rise to regional and global dominance.

Analysis of Qatar’s Changing Foreign Policy

Qatar as a Mediator

            During the last decade, Qatar has started positioning itself as a mediator in various conflicts affecting the Middle East. Some of the countries where Qatar made significant gains through mediation efforts include Sudan, Lebanon, and Yemen (Kamrava, 2011). This is a unique achievement for a small country like Qatar, whose native population is less than 350,000 and the total population is about 2 million people(Hawser, 2012). The country’s vast resources have greatly contributed to this mediatory success. Moreover, the personal commitment of Qatar’s leaders has been as important as the country’s perceived neutrality in enabling it to help reduce tensions.

            In the conflicts affecting Sudan, Lebanon, and Yemen, Qatar has been able to push for a reduction in tensions as opposed to securing a lasting resolution of the conflicts. This shortcoming may be attributed to the country’s limited capabilities in terms of power projection (Kamrava, 2011). Moreover, Qatar has not yet reached a point where it can put in place the necessary administrative structures and resource mobilization processes across the Middle East to enable it to project its power before, during, and after diplomatic mediation processes.

The Middle East is world-renowned for its intra-sectarian conflicts and cross-border conflicts. This is the context within which Qatar’s mediation efforts in the region should be understood. In the Sudan conflict, which started in 2008 in the Darfur region, fighting between disparate groups led to many deaths, destruction of property, and the fleeing of refugees into neighboring countries. Qatari negotiators managed to secure the goodwill of the people of Darfur by gathering as much on-the-ground information as possible. They also made a calculated move to seek the support of various international agencies for their mediation efforts. This culminated in the commencement of negotiations in Qatar and the signing of various memoranda of understanding between the warring rebel groups in Darfur.

            In the political crisis that started in Lebanon in November 2007, Qatar’s efforts earned the country a major diplomatic coup because it was able to not only bring Hezbollah and the March 14 Movement on the negotiating table but also to make them agree on who would be picked as the next president for the country. Despite this success, the mediation efforts drew attention to Qatar’s shortcomings in terms of shaping the behavior of disputants on the ground. For example, it was evident that Iran and Syria had a tremendous influence on Hezbollah at the local level. The situation in Yemen was radically different. The Huthi rebellion started in 2004 but Qatar became involved in mediation in May 2007. Qatar’s mediation efforts brought nothing more than short-lived optimism despite the signing of the Doha Agreement and the country’s pledge for reconstruction aid worth $300-$500 million (Kamrava, 2011).

            During these three mediation efforts, Qatar’s chief negotiators demonstrated personal involvement, negotiation skills, and independence. The country made an important functional contribution but lacked institutional capacity to achieve optimal gains. It also lacked the capability to infuse massive investments to influence the behavior of disputants long after the finalization of round-table negotiations. According to Kamrava (2011), Qatar’s successes are inherent in its mediation efforts rather than in conflict resolution. Failure in the realm of conflict resolution arose because of limited opportunities and resources, which made it difficult for Qatar to follow through with a sustained level of political commitment. Moreover, the country lacked presence at the local level where actual enforcement of agreements would take place. To enforce agreements effectively, Qatar would require the sustained projection of power locally through diverse strategies aimed at shaping the actions of all disputants.

Critique of Qatar’s Foreign Policy

            An in-depth review of Qatar’s foreign policy shows that it seeks to strike a delicate balance between the country’s pursuit of internal stability and its claim to regional and international political influence (Khatib, 2013). This is a difficult challenge that ends up creating an impression of incoherence on the part of the country’s foreign policy. On the one hand, there are serious weaknesses in Qatar’s internal governance structure. On the other hand, the country is enthusiastically seeking to project its political strengths to the world through mediation efforts and hearty support for humanitarian assistance programs.

            Today, Qatar’s foreign policy is based on a two-pronged approach involving mediation and direct action. Mediation is demonstrated by its intervention to resolve political crises affecting Sudan, Yemen, and Lebanon while direct action is demonstrated by the country’s role in the Libyan and Syrian crises. This approach shows a lack of coherence and even contradiction of sorts on the part of Qatar’s foreign policy. For instance, during the Arab Spring, which led to the Libyan and Syrian crises, the image that Qatar portrayed did not match its actions. Its support for opposition groups in both countries threatened its position as a neutral mediator in political conflicts affecting the Middle East. Moreover, the stance may have increased the country’s vulnerability to the effects of political instability in the region.

Qatar’s Foreign Policy Objectives

            A dominant element of Qatari foreign policy is the tendency to change allegiance frequently with a view to maintaining autonomy (Roberts, 2012). This trend may be traced to the history of the country, which describes the extreme levels of hostility that the Qatari Peninsula faced from various Arab tribes. To survive in this kind of environment, Qatari Sheiks had to keep withdrawing their support from one tribe and conferring it to another in efforts to maintain the state’s relevance and autonomy. Aspects of this traditional political philosophy are inherent in the contemporary foreign policy objectives of Qatar.

            For a long time, Qatar has remained an underdeveloped state surrounded by more powerful neighbors. To secure its security, the state has had to seek alliances with its more powerful neighbors. The seriousness of this situation is reflected in the fact that most of the issues that define the country’s foreign policy are closely related to security interests. This also explains why Qatar at one time depended heavily on the assistance of Britain in conducting its foreign policy. After Qatar refused to become a part of the United Arab Emirates, it turned to Saudi Arabia for assistance primarily on security issues. Qatar’s affiliation with Saudi Arabia explains why its foreign policy decisions closely resembled those of other Middle East countries.

            During the early 1990s, Qatar changed tact to adopt unconventional foreign policy decisions. A radical change of foreign policy came with the bloodless coup that brought Emir Hamad Bin Khalifah to power. Since then, the country’s foreign policy started reflecting an attempt at carving out a niche in order to attract foreign direct investment. It seemed rather unusual for Qatar to improve relations with Iran and Israel. These improved relations brought about numerous economic benefits, including access to Tehran’s piped water and the sale of Qatari oil to Israel. The changing foreign policy was also reflected in the agreements the country entered into with the United States in 1992, which culminated in the establishment of a large American military base in Qatar.

            During this era of foreign policy change, deteriorating relations with Saudi Arabia provided the impetus for Qatar’s efforts to improve relations with other countries internationally. Yet the country’s quest for improved international relations existed even during the 1970s when Saudi Arabia was the de facto protector of Qatar. Again, this reflects Qatar’s unease about the geopolitical environment in which it is situated as well as the country’s ever-growing desire to use diverse foreign policy options to promote its security interests. This unease may have been compounded when Saudi Arabia’s vulnerabilities were exposed during the Operation Desert Storm; it became evident that Saudi Arabia was incapable of protecting itself. Thus, Qatar felt that it could not entrust its security needs to such a vulnerable country.

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            Today’s foreign policy in Doha is a continuation of the unconventional trend that started during the 1990s (Cooper & Momani, 2011). The country is increasingly diversifying the economy in an effort to brand itself as a popular business destination, thus locking it in competition with the UAE. Qatar has been attempting to carve out a niche in order to attract foreign direct investment and compete completely effectively with its Middle East neighbors (Peterson, 2006).

            A major enabler of the new foreign policy is financial strength. Using its financial strength, Qatar has endeavored to create the image of a neutral mediator in regional conflicts, thereby positioning itself as an international actor with a difference (Roberts, 2012). To illustrate these efforts, one should look at mediation activities and humanitarian assistance Qatar has continued to engage in recently. Similarly, various cultural and economic initiatives that Qatar continues to support reflects its changing image. One example is the use of Al-Jazeera to showcase a cultural revolution in the Middle East, and another one is the use of cultural festivals and sporting events to portray the country’s image in a positive light within the international arena (Roberts, 2012).

            Diversification into liquefied natural gas (LNG) may also be viewed as a shrewd foreign policy move that was aimed at making Qatar indispensable in international relations. Today, the country supplies LNG to key markets, including the UK, India, China, and Japan. These trade links create a situation where it is in the national interest of these importing countries for peace and stability to prevail in Qatar. The ends that this strategy seeks to achieve are similar to those being sought through the principle of reciprocity, whereby the country expects the states it has assisted with humanitarian aid to reciprocate in the event that it faces a similar natural disaster or political crisis in future. Other than security concerns, Qatar faces the problem of food insecurity. This may explain its commitment to peace in Sudan, a large country that serves as an important breadbasket in Africa.

            Finally, Qatar’s most recent foreign policy decisions reflect the end of the era of neutrality. In 2011, Qatar recognized the legitimacy of rebels in Libya and even went ahead to offer them massive support. It trained them, supplied them with fuel and ammunition, and helped them trade in oil in the international market. A similar kind of assistance was provided to Syrian rebels. By taking a partial position in the Libyan and Syrian conflicts, Qatar jeopardized its hard-earned status of an impartial mediator. This may be considered a foreign policy mistake because it diminishes the country’s role as a mediator by portraying it as merely one of the numerous protagonists that have become an integral part of the security problem in the Middle East.

In this shift in foreign policy, Qatar is simply conforming to its historical practice of supporting perceived winners (Roberts, 2012). One may argue that the groups that Qatar supported in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria were simply poised for political victory, thereby providing justification for the country’s foreign policy position. Nevertheless, it is difficult to stipulate the benefits that Qatar derived through its actions in Syria and Libya. This lack of clarity has led to claims that Qatar’s foreign policy lacks coherence in terms of its contribution to the overall political strategy in the country (Khatib, 2013).

Emerging Regional Political Power

During its emergence as a regional power, Qatar has taken foreign policy stances that somewhat contradict those of its powerful neighbors such as Saudi Arabia. For example, during the Egyptian political crisis of 2013, Qatar made somewhat covert diplomatic moves that stood in sharp contrast to those of its neighbors, who are confronting some of the political Islam movements operating in the region (Abdullah, 2014b).

On the one hand, Qatar continues to promote an open-door policy that creates opportunities for dialogue and soft-power diplomacy. On the other hand, it often adopts stances that put it on a collision path with some of its neighboring countries. For instance, disagreements on policy issues led Bahrain, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia to withdraw their ambassadors from Qatar in 2014 (Abdullah, 2014a). When Gulf Cooperation Council member states disagree over regional issues in such a big way, attention easily shifts to the role that Qatar can play to contribute to the furtherance of regional interests. Moreover, the country’s ability to use soft and hard power to influence regional policies demonstrate the dynamics of geopolitics in the Middle East and the role that Qatar is playing in it.

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One way in which Qatar has rubbed its neighbors the wrong way is by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that is considered a terrorist group in UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. According to Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood is a formative force that will continue to influence the Arab world in the foreseeable future (Abdullah, 2014b). Qatar’s position is that the Muslim Brotherhood, which has a strong following in Egypt, Bahrain, and Kuwait, should be included in the Arab world’s political arena. Qatar has taken this stance at a time when Gulf countries are keen to end their disagreements in order to face the common security threat being posed by the Islamic State. It seems that Qatar’s current stance on key issues affecting the region is aimed at drawing attention to its foreign policy objectives by highlighting issues that are open for adjustment and those that will always remain fixed despite the emergence of geopolitical changes in the Middle East.

Conclusion

            Qatar’s rapidly growing economy and geopolitical position continue to play a major role in the country’s evolving foreign policy. It is located in a region that faces political instability thereby making it vulnerable to geopolitical tensions. To address this problem, Qatar has sought to its wealth to align its geopolitical position with its security interests. Moreover, the country is also seeking to protect its economic interests by using its financial power to play a greater role in various geopolitical events affecting the region. During the last decade, Qatar started positioning itself as a mediator in various conflicts affecting the Middle East. More recently, it has adopted a policy of direct action and interventionism. Unfortunately, the interventionist approach poses the risk of jeopardizing the very economic and political factors that facilitated the country’s rise to regional and global dominance.

An in-depth review of Qatar’s foreign policy shows that it seeks to strike a delicate balance between internal stability and regional political dominance. This may explain Qatar’s move to build its foreign policy based on a two-pronged approach involving mediation and direct action. This foreign policy reflects a dominant trait in Qatari foreign policy, whereby the country keeps switching allegiances with a view to maintaining autonomy. Following successful efforts towards diversification into liquefied natural gas (LNG), Qatar is finally ready to change its foreign policy towards intervention. This explains the country’s present open-door policy as well as demonstrated willingness to use hard power to influence regional policies. Success in this geopolitical move will create a scenario where Qatar acquires the capability to display the sustained projection of power locally through diverse strategies with a view to shaping the actions of disputants in various political crises affecting the Middle East.

 

References

Abdullah, J. (2014a). Motives and Consequences of ambassador Withdrawals from Doha. Doha: Al Jazeera Centre for Studies.

Abdullah, J. (2014b). Qatari Foreign Policy: Fine-Tuning or Redirection? Doha: Al Jazeera Centre for Studies.

Cooper, A. & Momani, B. (2011). Qatar and Expanded Contours of Small State Diplomacy. The International Spectator: Italian Journal of International Affairs, 46(3), 113-128.

Dargin, J. (2007). Qatar’s Natural Gas: The Foreign-Policy Driver. Middle East Policy,14(3) 136–142.

Hawser, A. (2012). Report: Qatar Faces Geopolitical Risk. Global Finance Magazine, December 6, 2012: Online.

Kamrava, M. (2011). Mediation and Qatari Foreign Policy. Middle East Journal, 65(4), 539-556.

Khatib, L. (2013). Qatar’s foreign policy: The limits of pragmatism. International Affairs, 89(2), 417-431.

Peterson, J. (2006). Qatar and the World: Branding for a Micro-State. Middle East Journal,60(4), 732-748.

Roberts, D. (2012). Understanding Qatar’s Foreign Policy Objectives. Mediterranean Politics, 17(2), 233-239.

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