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

That is as applicable to notable buildings as its support for revolution in the Arab world. Qatar’s strategy was for a long time similar to that of Turkey’s, a “zero problems” foreign policy that focused on increasing its influence by acting as both a crisis mediator and through winning friends. However, in the middle of the Arab spring, which saw other leaders forced to look inward, Qatar, with its relative stability, seized its opportunity to take on a more active role.

ACTIVE ACTIVIST

Speaking three years ago, the Qatari prime minister said: “Our sources of power are our belief in God, our self-confidence and the emir’s clear perception, in which there is no competition with anyone. We want to compete with no one. Our country is small and I repeat this a hundred times.”

While few would argue with Qatar’s declaration of “self-confidence,” it is the last statement that many are increasingly skeptical about, not least since March last year, when the emirate dispatched six Mirage jets to join NATO operations over Libya and military advisers and anti-tank missiles to the rebels.

It was this moment, as Royal United Services Institute deputy director David Roberts wrote in a piece for Foreign Affairs last year, that marked the “qualitative change” in Qatar’s foreign policy from an “activist,” but militarily “unthreatening” stance to active intervention.

Roberts’ explanation for the emergence of Qatar as a key regional actor is intriguing. He said that, following his coup in 1995, the emir was anxious to develop “a positive and liberal image ... with a single goal — to consolidate his regime in a hostile environment where supporters of the old regime inside the ruling family and outside the monarchy [Saudi Arabia] cherished hopes for restoration.”

It was a policy that a year later would see the launch of al-Jazeera.

However, it has been more recent events that have defined Qatar. Despite being an absolute monarchy — although it will hold elections next year for a royal advisory body — the state has seen no contradiction in throwing its weight behind popular movements fighting long-standing autocrats, a position viewed by some in the region with deep skepticism.

“The Arab spring changed everything,” Hamid said. “Among Arab leaders, Qatar was the only one that was ahead of the curve in the Arab spring and willing to take risks.”

Ironically, he said, it was precisely the small and wealthy population, and the lack of pressure for democracy, that allowed it to feel less “existentially” challenged by what was happening around it than its bigger neighbors, not least Saudi Arabia and Iran.

“It saw what was happening and has been aligning itself with the Muslim Brotherhood and Brotherhood-based movements everywhere. It has sided with what it sees as the rising trend,” Kinninmont said.

That support for parties with their roots in the Brotherhood — including Tunisia’s an-Nahda party, whose recent victory Qatar financed, comes despite the fact that the emirate itself embraces the Wahhabi tradition of Islam and has also hosted radicals from that school. This has led to suspicions in some parts that its agenda is religiously driven, although others say that it is less ideological and more opportunistic. However, if Qatar has long learned to be pragmatic — managing to host a huge US base, while still conducting military exercises with its neighbor, Iran — its approach has also been driven by very personal factors, not least in the friction with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Kinninmont said.

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