Qatar may tone down its pushy foreign policy, chastened by setbacks in Syria and Egypt, but it is likely to keep supporting Arab Spring revolts and bankrolling Islamist influence, albeit a little more quietly.
The tiny state provided much of the armed muscle behind the Arab rebellions, while its aid for Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt alarmed neighboring Gulf monarchies, who see the Islamist movement as a threat to their own hereditary authority.
Under a long-standing policy of international self-promotion, Qatar earlier mediated in disputes from Somalia to Lebanon and became the enfant terrible of the Gulf Arab dynasties by using its al-Jazeera television station to attack authoritarian rule beyond its borders and promote Islamist views.
However, rebel defeats in Syria, the ousting of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi on July 3 and a failure to host planned Afghan peace talks last month exposed Doha’s dreams of becoming a heavyweight international power broker as overly hasty.
Critics say the wealthy gas exporter got its comeuppance and must now be more circumspect abroad, defer to regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia and focus on priorities at home, such as building projects before it hosts soccer’s 2022 World Cup.
Last month’s accession of a young emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, after the abdication of his father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, gives Qatar an opportunity to make a fresh start, the argument goes.
However, people who know Qatar do not expect any U-turns.
“They might like to change policy, but they are not in a position to do so, at least immediately,” said Ghanem Nuseibeh, an expert on Gulf Arab politics at Cornerstone Global Associates, a UK-based risk management consultancy.
Under Tamim’s father, Qatar lent Egypt more than US$7 billion during Morsi’s year in power, which ended when the Egyptian Army detained him.
Doha placed a bet on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement and for the Qatari state “it is very difficult to go back now, even if some of their advisers would like them to,” Nuseibeh said.
“Dropping the Muslim Brotherhood would obliterate their popularity with the pro-Brotherhood camp in the Arab world. They have taken a gamble and they hope that it might pay off at some point in the future,” he added.
Torbjorn Soltvedt, principal analyst at Maplecroft, a political risk consultancy based in London, said Qatar “will likely scale back its adventurous foreign policy, but I wouldn’t expect them to abandon it altogether.”
“It will still be important for them to maintain an independent policy, to distinguish themselves from Saudi Arabia,” Soltvedt said.
Asked about the future course of diplomacy, a Qatari official said there would be little change, adding the country needed to pursue “domestic and foreign policies in parallel to each other” to continue serving its national interest.
He also suggested Qatar would continue military help for rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“With over 100,000 killed and about 2 million refugees, we believe the Syrian people are in dire need of support to defend themselves from the vicious and barbaric assaults of the regime,” he said.
The official emphasized that shipments of any weapons to the Syrian people ought to be coordinated with the international community.