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

“The emir spent a lot of time cultivating al-Assad as an ally. The feeling was that they could explain and he would listen, but al-Assad didn’t want to listen,” Kinninmont added.

The change of tack in Qatar’s policy from acting as mediator in a series of crises, including between the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels as well as in Darfur, to a more interventionist stance has not been without its risks.

In the immediate aftermath of the revolution in Libya, Western diplomats in Tripoli complained bitterly about Qatari interference. Qatar’s activism on behalf of Syria’s opposition and the suspicion that it has been involved in channeling arms to its members has drawn criticism both public and private.

It has led some to speculate that Qatar will not be able to sustain its influence. It has been remarked that, while it has benefited from the distraction of neighbors like Saudi Arabia at the start of the Arab spring, the long-term consequence of Qatar’s actions in the last year-and-a-half — not least its support for Sunni Islamist movements — may be drawing it closer to Riyadh in the increasingly apparent sectarian divisions thrown up by the Arab spring, not least the conflict in Syria.

Equally challenging for Qatar is that its newly assertive policies may be in danger of undermining the careful network of friendships it has worked so long and hard to develop, making new enemies.

Even among Libyan revolutionaries who benefited from Qatari military assistance, there has been grumbling. Among those who have spoken out is Libyan General Khalifa Hiftar, who while welcoming Qatari “aid [that] comes through the front door ... if it comes through the window to certain people [and] bypassing official channels, we don’t want Qatar.”

“Everything comes at a price. Opposition to Qatar has risen. There is the risk of blowback for the emirate, but they know that that goes with the territory,” Hamid said.

Then small Qatar might well discover, as others have before, that the realities of hard power trump the expensive and subtle business of soft power — laser light shows and gleaming towers included.

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