On Friday last week, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al Thani, who holds the roles of Qatari prime minister and foreign minister, stood with the Duke of York and London Mayor Boris Johnson to watch the inauguration of the Shard. As blue and green lasers, accompanied by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, lit up a London skyline now dominated by the 310m skyscraper, the performance was streamed live around the world.
If the opening of western Europe’s tallest building — presided over by Hamad, whose country’s sovereign wealth fund owns 95 percent of the development — was a demonstration of Qatar’s rapidly growing global visibility and influence, a few days before, in an equally vast, but older building, that influence was being exercised far more discreetly. The building was the UN’s Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, where on June 30, Hamid met US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other foreign ministers to press his country’s case for firmer international action over Syria.
Both scenes underline a phenomenon: the emergence onto the world stage as a considerable diplomatic, cultural and even military player of a tiny state whose huge ambitions to spread influence around the globe are fueled by enormous wealth and devotion to a strict interpretation of the Koran. That ambition is being realized, from the sports stadiums and skyscraper penthouses of Western capitals, to the industrial centers of China and the battlefields of Syria and Libya.
A generation ago, Qatar — whose people are the world’s wealthiest by virtue of its oil and natural gas reserves — barely registered on the global radar. It is a former British protectorate ruled by the Al Thani family since the 19th century; its present emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, seized power in 1995 from his father in a bloodless palace coup. Today, it is difficult to avoid its money and influence.
In London, the Al Thanis’ investment arm, Qatar Holdings and the Qatar Investment Authority, have been on a long shopping spree, spending more than US$20 billion in recent years on purchasing Chelsea Barracks, Harrods and the Olympic Village. Qatar is the largest shareholder in Barclays Bank. Its global investment strategy most recently has seen the statelet aggressively pursue new openings in China.
The Qatar Foundation sponsors the Barcelona soccer club, a reminder that in 10 years’ time it will play host to the World Cup. Then there is the Doha-based al-Jazeera TV, considered the most important Arab news television channel, owned by Qatar through the Qatar Media Corporation — which earlier this month claimed that it had evidence that the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was poisoned with polonium.
The emirate also hosts both the Taliban’s and Hamas’ regional offices, as well as a number of international organizations — Georgetown University and the British Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies — creating a space where the West rubs shoulders with the Islamic world. Indeed, until 2009, Qatar even hosted an Israeli trade center, which closed its doors after the Israeli assault on Gaza.
Since the coming of the Arab spring, Qatar has attempted to position itself at the forefront of the transformation of the region, giving military support to the opposition of late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, as well as backing key players in the country’s fractured post-revolutionary politics through tactics — some diplomats have alleged — that have included weapons shipments.
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.
DAVID AND GOLIATH
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.”
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.
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.
“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.