Its use of wealth is a case study in soft power and the acquisition of influence. Al-Jazeera now wins global accolades for its cutting-edge coverage of the Arab Spring. It has been the only Arab broadcaster to make serious inroads with Western audiences, challenging the stereotype that globalization must mean Westernization. The shirts of Barcelona FC, a team that for years accepted no sponsorship, now boast the logo of Qatar Foundation, an organization headed by the emir’s wife, Sheikha Mozah.
This branding helps the country attract talented people to develop its economy and train its nationals; Qatar Foundation has brought top US universities, such as Georgetown, plus the UK’s University College London, to establish local campuses.
It is also a matter of investing in patriotism. The country is just 42 years old and only finalized its borders in 2001. On the country’s annual National Day, Qataris emblazon their SUVs with pictures of the king, prime minister, crown prince and Sheikha Mozah.
Since politics is highly personalized and power heavily concentrated, Qatar’s Western allies are also heavily invested in the continuation of these specific powerholders. Western allies are confident that Qatar will not face Arab Spring-style protests, the natives having become so wealthy under the current emir. There are dissidents and the country’s effort to position itself as a backer of the Arab Spring and a haven for free speech has taken a knock with the recent life imprisonment of a poet who criticized the emir. However, mass street protests are unlikely.
The UK is particularly close to Qatar, which now supplies around half of the natural gas it uses. This means the UK has a huge stake in Qatar’s political stability, and its main security backer is the US, which has a large air base in Qatar. While Kuwait has historically been wary of Iraq, and Bahrain of Iran, Qatar has looked nervously toward its vast neighbor, Saudi Arabia. The two countries have largely repaired relations, but questions still remain. Qatar also keeps a wary eye on Iran, with which it shares the world’s largest gas field.
However, while Qatar’s behavior is still shaped by the traditional politics of protection, it is now playing more and more of a role outside its borders. Where it was once focused on soft power, mediation and bet-hedging, it is focusing more and more on hard power, interventionism and taking sides.
Its strong backing for the Arab uprisings has gradually turned into an apparent alignment with particular Islamist factions. In Egypt and Tunisia, it has provided economic support for the newly elected governments. It has provided aid and Qatar would argue it is backing popular, legitimate forces. However, opposition groups, particularly liberals and secularists, worry that Gulf money is tipping the delicate political balance in these nascent democracies against them. In Libya, where it sent planes, Qatar’s backing for Islamists has proven particularly unpopular.
Qatar previously demonstrated a great ability to be friends with all sides in the region; while Doha, the capital, was almost a second home for Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, it also hosted a visit by Israeli President Shimon Peres, despite officially not recognizing Israel. A few years ago, Qatari mediation ended a political crisis between Hezbollah and its opponents in Lebanon, helped by the links it had built up with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Today, Qatar is the leading advocate of military intervention against Assad’s regime and is at the forefront of supporting the opposition, whose new coalition was formed in Doha in November last year, confirming that this increasingly confident tiny country is not yet afraid of over-reaching itself.