Roman KOT – Independent analyst and researcher
«The time has come to go by the suggestion calling for Arab-international forces to be sent to Syria», said Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani during the 137th meeting of the Ministerial Council of the Arab League which convened on March 10. Qatar lacks the independent potential to take a key role in the intervention, but calls for it are voiced on a regular basis by the leaders of the country relatively small in terms of the population and territory.
Qatar tends to maintain a fairly high profile on the international stage. Brookings Doha Center director Salman Shaikh cites as an example the fact that in May, 2011 the country brokered a peace deal in Darfur where the government forces were clashing with insurgents. In May, 2008, Doha was instrumental in bringing about an agreement which marked the end of a protracted standoff in Lebanon and paved the way for the presidential elections in the country. Qatar similarly contributed mediation to the internal conflicts in Yemen, Somalia, and Chad, as well as to the Djiboutian–Eritrean border dispute. An array of factors prop up Doha's ambition to handle geopolitical complexities:
1. Qatar's gas export revenues are surging (the sales of natural gas from Qatar have grown by 500% since the early 1990ies).
2. Al Jazeera, Qatar's global broadcaster, provides powerful propaganda support for the foreign policies pursued by Doha.
3. Qatar hosts two US military bases1 and, overall, enjoys a strong political partnership with Washington.
At the moment the economic growth posted by Qatar is among the world's highest. According to Earnst&Young, the annual increase in Qatar's GDP averaged 13% in 2000-2012 and held on at the healthy 9.5% level even at the peak of the global crisis. Notably, Qatar is a world champion with the highest per capita income and investments. All of the impressive macroeconomic readings are sustained by Qatar's natural gas export. In a bid to put to work the geographic centrality of the country, its energy minister Abdullah al-Attiyah switched a large part of the national energy sector to natural gas liquefaction, and as of today Qatar runs the world's biggest fleet of LNG tankers. The strategy helped decouple Qatar from gas transit countries, while its LNG output rose from 13 million tons in 2003 to 75 million tons in 2011.
Along with natural gas holdings, mass media are a pillar of Qatar's emerging regional leadership. The emirate is home to Al Jazeera, an information heavyweight with the audience estimated at 50 million as of 2011. Established by David and Jean Friedman in 1995, it was at the early phase patronized by Sheikh Hamad bin Thamir Al Thani who had recently seized power in Qatar. Al Thani poured a handsome $150m into the media outlet, plus, in a lucky coincidence, Al Jazeera was able to absorb nearly the whole former BBC Arabic language TV station which used to exist in the form of a joint venture with Saudi Arabia's Orbit Communications Company and fell apart due to disagreements with the Saudi authorities. Al Jazeera owes much of its acclaim to the focus on Arab affairs and to risky live reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Al Jazeera had become a big gun in the information warfare by the time the Arab Sprig commenced. Sheik Ahmad bin Jasem bin Muhammad Al-Thani, a Qatari businessman and member of the royal family, took charge of the company when its original chief Wadah Khanfar resigned and the ruling dynasty gained direct control over the outlet.
In addition to contacts with the African Union leadership, in the early 2000 Qatar started to connect to various Middle Eastern opposition groups, occasionally sheltering political refugees from their ranks. Qatar is known to be a sponsor of Hamas, whose emissaries it sent to feed armaments to rebels in Libya. Doha also seeks to persistently influence the situation in Yemen, offering mediation to the country and, as a parallel process, infusing financial resources into the protest movement.
At the moment, Qatar's official international agenda features democracy and liberalization, which is a somewhat paradoxical position for a country where the political system happens to be absolute monarchy and the dominant school of thought is a Wahhabi brand of Islam also found as the official ideology in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.
The civil war unleashed in Libya is to a considerable extent attributable to Qatar's efforts. The emirate provided financial support to the rebels and even covered part of the costs of the NATO air raids against Libya to help sustain the intensity of bombings.
It is an indispensable trait of Middle Eastern societies that the advent of democracy in the respective countries imminently translates into the Islamists' rise to power. Libya's National Transitional Council has on board several individuals with the reputations of protégées of the Qatar ruling dynasty, one of them being Mahmoud Jibril, the former Libyan interim premier linked to Doha via the Jtrack company and Al Jazeera.
Qatar is reinforcing its political positions in the countries immediately neighboring it. The moderately Islamist Justice Party won 80 of the 395 seats in the Tunisian parliament, and in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood in concert with Al-Nur, a Salafist party, currently holds 152 of the 270 seats in the lower chamber of the national legislature. With the «moderate» image of the above political forces on public display, Qatar which actually assists the West and the international grands in destabilizing the region need not feel embarrassed about dealing with Islamists as acceptable partners.
In October, 2011, N. Sarkozy secretly met with the emir of Qatar to ask him, from the name of NATO, to agree to tighter coordination in Libya with the National Transitional Council. Doha could not bluntly brush off the suggestion considering that the US is the guarantor of Qatar's security (the personnel at the two US military bases in the country compares in numbers to a third of its own army) but will hardy take it too seriously. First, the relationship between the West and Qatar, the supplier with a 43% share on the European LNG market, is by all means a two-way traffic. Secondly, neither the West nor Qatar can afford to put their friendship to a test as a potential deadline for Syria may be drawing closer.
Struggling for greater sway over Maghreb and Levant, Qatar entered a race with with Washington's other Wahhabi ally – the Saudi Arabia. The visible difference in the approaches adopted by the two players is that Qatar's elite is open to contacts with any forces regardless of their ideological leanings, while the Saudi Arabia mostly engages with extremist groups sharing its ideological perceptions. Doha, for example, maintains a steady relationship with Algeria, a country fairly similar to Syria politically. The emir of Qatar does not shy away from regularly visiting Algeria which also attracts massive investments from Qatar. The above may be a feasible explanation behind Algeria's relative stability contrasted by the slide of Libya into Muslim radicalism skilfully managed by the West and its Middle Eastern satellites.
On the whole, Qatar's foreign policy reflects a plan to convert the country into a regional center of power with the backing from its Western partners. The design must be credited with certain realism considering the combination of the financial resources Doha is building based on natural gas export and the aggressive potential of Qatar's ideological mix of Wahhabi Islam and pan-Arabism. Doha seems to have sensed a novel model of expansion blending a generally pro-Western orientation with rigid traditionalism in the form of reliance on fundamentalist groups or even openly terrorist organizations. A seizable benefit of this line of conduct for Qatar is that it guarantees to the country's investors the admission to the Arab and African markets where they successfully rival the EU and China.
1. Six B-1B bombers are deployed at the Al-Ubayyid base. The site's aerial photos available in the media also show numbers of other types of planes including the C-17 and C-130 transports, the KC-135 and KC-10 aerial refueling aircrafts, the P-3 Orion anti-submarine and maritime surveillance aircrafts, and the E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar Systems (http://www.vz.ru/news/2012/2/2/558460.html)