Fri, Jul 13, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Qatar shifts from soft to hard power

As the tiny state exerts influence in more assertive ways, questions arise over the ways in which it is seeking to shape its region

By Peter Beaumont  /  The Observer, LONDON

More recently, it has been accused of funneling arms to Syria’s opposition groups — a claim Hamad denies, despite the fact that Qatar vocally supports the arming of that country’s opposition.

All of which lead to the questions: What does Qatar want from a foreign policy that combines the deployment of soft and increasingly hard power and how did such a small country get to be so important?

That — as The Economist pointed out last year in a profile of “the pygmy with the punch of a giant” — was precisely the question that was asked by ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, when he paid a visit to al-Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha in 2001.

He reportedly said: “All that noise from this little matchbox?”

It is a question that has been framed in so many words by everyone from Arab leaders to Western diplomats struggling to understand not only the complex combination of considerations driving Qatari foreign policy, but also its trajectory.


Analysts who have studied Qatari foreign policy say that, in some respects, the diplomacy of the Al Thani family is interpreted through the very personal filter of the emir, his prime minister and Sandhurst-educated crown prince Tamim, the head of its tiny military.

With a population of less than 2 million — of whom fewer than one in seven is native born — Qatar sits on a flat peninsula that juts out from the coastline of Saudi Arabia, facing Iran across the Gulf. When it ceased being a British protectorate in 1971, it elected not to join the United Arab Emirates.

While Qatar was a founding member of the Gulf Co-operation Council in 1981, which guarantees its sovereignty, its foreign policy has long been focused on forging friendships and alliances to guarantee its independence and security, not least through its hosting of US Central Command since 2002.

“You only have to look at Qatar’s location on the map to see that it is in a rather heavy neighborhood,” said Jane Kinninmont, a Gulf expert at the Chatham House think tank.

“There is a feeling that it needs a lot of allies. So Qatar pursues alliances both with larger countries and smaller ones that it can rely on in places like the UN general assembly,” she added.

It is precisely this, that Brookings Doha Center director of research Shadi Hamid, believes has driven a “creative” foreign policy that has long required Qatar to cultivate friendships.

However, that is not enough to explain Qatar’s emergence as an international player punching far above its weight. Instead, the reality is that it has benefited from a complex combination of events bound together by the powerful personalities of the emir and his prime minister built on the foundation that Qatar should “matter.”

It is precisely over this issue of self-validation that the dots between the Shard and the Olympic village and Qatar’s increasingly assertive diplomacy are joined.

“Fifteen years ago, no one had really heard of Qatar,” Kinninmont said. “Now we know about it not only because of its trophy investments in places like London, but because of its foreign policies. It is very brand conscious and, in part, that is because it seeks to define and brand itself through what it is involved in.”

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