Qatar seems to be everywhere these days. “Qatar plays key role in securing release of US journalist,” “Qatar denies funding ISIS,” Qatar is said to have instructed Hamas not to give in to Egyptians and Israeli demands in Cairo, Qatar’s sheikh Hassan Bin Jabor al-Thani has just won a race in his al-Adaa’am 96 Spirit Catamaran on the Lake of the Ozarks, German minister “regrets” saying Qatar was involved with Islamic extremism.
Just yesterday it was reported that famed architect Zaha Hadid is suing The New York Review of Books over an article that implied she is “showing no concern” over deaths of migrant workers in the construction of 2022 World Cup venues in Doha.
How did we come to live in a world where the Qataris resemble the all-powerful “spacing guild” in the science- fiction novel Dune? What implications does its rise as a regional power have and what historic precedents is it building on? The “rise of Qatar” narrative is not a new one. Middle East expert Jonathan Spyer, in an article for Tower Magazine this month, looked at Qatar’s support for Hamas and its role in the Gaza war. He concluded that “Qatar is able to play an outsized role because the West, and most importantly the United States, permits it to do so.” He noted how it has built a “strategic partnership with the Muslim Brotherhood movement, of which Hamas is an offshoot,” and that Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the movement’s high-profile preacher, “is a resident of the Qatari capital.”
To understand the rise of Qatar and its implications we need to look at how it came to play the role that it does. Gaining independence in 1971, the foundations of the modern state were laid by Khalida bin Hamad al-Thani. By the 1990s its population of a meager 100,000 had quadrupled to 500,000 and would reach 2 million by 2012. Its GDP increased ten fold from 1990.
Although Qatar itself has a minuscule military, an influx of US military might and a strategic partnership was a game changer. It was also clearly part of a larger strategy of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who overthrew his father in 1995 in a bloodless coup when his father was abroad. Hamad, born in 1952, is a graduate of the British Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and was deeply involved in Qatar’s ministry of defense and armed forces.
In the 1980s he took the reins of Qatar’s economy and from 1992 was effectively running the country.
In the aftermath of the First Gulf War in 1991, Qatar and the US inaugurated close military ties, with the US constructing several military bases there. The multi-billion dollar base at Ubeid, which has the longest runway in the Gulf region, can support up to 120 planes at a time according to reports. US military infrastructure projects increased dramatically after 9/11 and the Iraq war. The transfer of US military assets and CENTCOM command from Saudi Arabia, particularly air force assets that had been at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, constituted a strategic re-positioning of the US in the Middle East. A $11 billion deal to upgrade Qatar’s army was signed with the US on July 15th.
Many initiatives that put Qatar on the global map stem from decisions made in the 1990s. In 1996 the kingdom founded Al Jazeera with a $137 million cash infusion, and the company was run by a relative of the emir. In 1995 the country set aside funding for the Qatar Foundation for education, science and community development.
Among this organization’s influential programs was the Doha Debates, inaugurated in 2004 and broadcast by the BBC. Ostensibly the debates are a forum for free speech, in a country trying to show itself off as liberalizing and modern. Toward that end it constructed an “education city” near Doha, consisting of 14 square kilometers of educational and cultural institutions, including branches of six US universities. The country also decided to make itself a sporting hub, winning rights to host the World Cup and recruiting athletes abroad for its Olympic teams in the late 1990s.
More recently, Qatar’s involvement in Middle East affairs has accelerated dramatically. In December of 2010 when an uprising broke out in Tunisia that became the “Arab Spring,” Qatar jumped at the opportunity. It helped fund movements in Libya and Tunisia and played a leading role in encouraging other Arab regimes to back the rebellion in Syria. But in March 2011 when rebellion and demands for democracy spread to the Shi’ite majority in Bahrain (the country is run by Sunnis), Bahrain and the Gulf Cooperation Council sent in troops to put down the citizens’ uprising. “The duty of the Qatari troops participating in the Peninsula Shield force is to contribute toward restoring order and security,” Qatar Army Col. Abdullah al-Hajri said at the time.
It was always clear therefore that Qatar’s “soft power” offensive, its keen use of multi-media and its supposed support for liberal and free speech abroad did not blend well with its domestic policy. For example, Arab Qataris only make up around 15 percent of the country’s population, and generally speaking only they receive citizenship.
Qatar’s relations with Israel have similarly changed over time. Israel maintained a small trade office there since Shimon Peres paid a visit to the country in 1996. Tzipi Livni also visited in 2008. But the country expelled the Israelis in 2009. In 2012 the emir visited Gaza and lavishly pledged $400 million in aid.
In June 2013, Emir Hamad abdicated the thrown in favor of his son Sheikh Tamim. However Tamim has faced many struggles related to the country’s outsized influence in the region. In March of 2014 Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain withdrew their envoys from Qatar.
This was a big blow from the Gulf Cooperation Council, targeting Qatar for what they claimed was “interfering” in the affairs of other Arab states. Former Qatari ambassador to the UN Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa told Al Jazeera, “the whole issue is about [Egyptian President Abdel Fattah] Sisi. These countries, they are supporting a coup d’etat where thousands of Egyptians are being killed in front of the whole world. And they want Qatar to support such a policy.”
What we see is that Qatar overplayed its hand in the past decade. It had done well recruiting architects, cultural events, universities, sporting championships. It had transformed itself into a world leader in business, sponsoring sports teams and getting its message across through its lavish funding of Al Jazeera and other projects.
But its meddling in Middle Eastern politics has gone awry, in the same way that other regional Arab leaders of the past century found themselves frustrated. There is a fine balance of power in the Middle East, and those who rock the boat don’t always benefit. With the revolutions in Egypt and Syria and the US invasion of Iraq, the main centers of historic Arab culture and power, Baghdad-Damascus- Cairo, were deeply harmed. The Gulf could step into the vacuum and Qatar sought to lead that effort. In a sense it sought to fill the shoes of Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s and Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. The 1990s were a period of seeming stability in the Arab world, with the traditional dictators ensconced in their palaces, from a weakened Saddam to Gaddafi, Mubarak and Assad.
Qatar played a role in destroying all these potentates: it hosted the US bases that crushed Saddam in 2003, it supported the Muslim Brothers and Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, it encouraged the rebels in Libya and sought to transform the Syrian civil war into a Sunni jihad.
But Qatar’s outsized role comes up against the balancing factor of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, the home of the holy sites, has sought not to ruffle feathers in the region, but rather to preserve a certain balance. The Saudi king supported the rise of Sisi and hosted him on a mini-pilgrimage or umrah on August 11. One of the strange outcomes of Qatar’s alliance with Sunni radicals is that the Saudis are now perceived as “moderates” in the region.
Qatar’s bid to become a new Nasserist regional hegemon in the Middle East was probably never going to work, given its tiny size, but its role will continue for years to come. Its enemies won’t welcome its overthrow because that would cast the whole of the Gulf into chaos, and after all, they want the Qatari-supported jihadists to stem the Iranian threat to the region, which after the internal Arab rivalries is always in the background.