Setbacks to dampen, but not end, Qatar’s role as power broker

Qatar is expected to spend less on armed support, or big emergency loans to favored states, and put its resources into long-term international development aid

By Regan Doherty, Amena Bakr and William Maclean  /  Reuters, DOHA and DUBAI, United Arab Emirates

Tue, Jul 30, 2013 - Page 9

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.

Qatar was focused on helping all the region’s peoples and did not favor one party over another, he said.

“Just as the United States continued to support Egypt while the Muslim Brotherhood was in power, so did we. It is for the Egyptian people to determine who will lead their country,” he added.

The accession of Sheikh Tamim stirred speculation that he might adopt a less Islamist-friendly approach now that the main implementer of foreign policy, the energetic and influential Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, is no longer Qatari foreign minister or prime minister.

Sheikh Hamad lost his jobs in a Cabinet reshuffle after Tamim took power, replaced by Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani, a much less well-known military man who previously served as Qatari deputy minister of the interior.

The idea that Qatar might scale back its alliance with Islamists gained further ground after Sheikh Tamim’s June 26 accession speech. Although he said the country would not “take direction,” his 15-minute address focused on domestic issues and made no mention of the Syrian conflict.

However, on Tuesday last week, Qatar issued a statement of concern about the continued detention of Morsi, becoming the only Gulf Arab state to voice sympathy openly for the ousted Islamist.

To followers of Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim’s long tenure as foreign minister, this maverick stance looked familiar.

In another sign Qatar has not lost its taste for regional dealmaking, the head of Syria’s opposition coalition is expected in Doha soon to coordinate aid supplies.

For now, Qatar would continue to seek grassroots support around the Arab world, but it would do so in a more low-key manner, Nuseibeh said.

“The style will be quieter,” he added.

Analysts says this might mean less spending on armed support, or big emergency loans or grants to favored states, and greater resources spent on long-term international development aid.

Gauging opinion in a conservative society that guards its privacy is not easy, but there are signs that Qataris would not be disappointed by a less activist foreign policy.

A source close to the ruling family said many of Qatar’s citizens expected it would eventually play a quieter role in foreign affairs.

“The average person just wants to lead a quiet life. Qatar is a small country and we had no business getting ourselves roped into all of this outside activity,” the source said.

Doha has enough to keep it busy at home. It is spending US$150 billion before the World Cup building a new airport, seaport and roads, plus carrying out an urban makeover, all under great risk of incurring worldwide embarrassment if the projects are not finished on time.