Qatar, home to only 225,000 natives and 1.7 million foreign workers, has emerged as an influential regional actor in recent years. Emir Shaikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani has ruled Qatar since 1995, when he replaced his father in a bloodless palace coup, and has pursued an ambitious foreign policy for his statelet.
Natural resource wealth, ownership of Al Jazeera, and a carefully constructed web of foreign alliances have allowed Doha to project itself throughout the Middle East.
The nature of Qatar’s foreign policy is the subject of some debate. Certain analysts contend that Qatar conducts a foreign policy uninfluenced by any ideology and that its only concerns relate to geopolitical gains. Doha, they say, lacks a regional vision and is not guided by any loyalties or principles. However, others posit that Qatar’s foreign policy is guided by a form of Sunni Islamist ideology and actively seeks to empower its followers throughout the Muslim world.
The truth may lie somewhere in between. But as Qatar continues its delicate balancing act, it is increasingly evident that Doha’s interests will not always align with those of Washington.
With an economy driven by oil and gas exports, Qatar has a vital national interest in maintaining stability in the Persian Gulf as its exports must travel through the Strait of Hormuz to reach Qatar’s top export partners—Japan, South Korea, India, and Singapore. Given Qatar’s tiny population and small military (the second smallest in the Middle East), Doha has relied to a large extent on foreign cooperation and support to safeguard security interests.
Since the first Gulf War, Qatar has been a close military ally of the United States and currently hosts the headquarters of U.S. Central Command. But Doha also maintains close ties with Tehran. In March 2010, Qatar and Iran signed a security agreement “to combat terrorism and promote security cooperation,” and Qatar was the only member of the United Nations Security Council to vote against UNSC resolution 1696, which condemned Iran for its nuclear activities in 2006.
Although relations between Qatar and its only bordering neighbor, Saudi Arabia, have been troubled for decades, diplomatic initiatives in 2007 and 2008 led to a rapprochement in Qatari-Saudi relations. And prior to Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown in Syria, Qatar and Syria enjoyed deep political and economic ties. Although Qatar and Israel have never had official diplomatic relations, Israel had a trade center in Doha until Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009. Commercial ties with Israel, moreover, did not prevent Qatar from developing amicable relations with Hamas and various Lebanese factions, including Hezbollah.
Qatar’s delicate balancing act and ample resource wealth have enabled its leaders to portray their country as a legitimate and impartial peace broker with the resources to finance extensive peace negotiations. In 2006, Qatar’s leaders began to mediate talks between warring Palestinian factions in Gaza following the 2006 parliamentary elections. Qatar’s biggest diplomatic success was its sponsorship of negotiations in Doha that ended the violence between Hezbollah and other Lebanese factions shortly after sectarian violence exploded throughout Lebanon in early 2008.
Still, analysts including Barak Barfi and Blake Houshell suggest that Qatar’s foreign policy may be unsustainable due to inherent limits given Qatar’s size and the political realities of the region where it exists. Doha’s ties with Tehran and others have been a thorn in relations with Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states, as well as with United States—in 2009, for example, Senator John Kerry declared that “Qatar … cannot continue to be an American ally on Monday that sends money to Hamas on Tuesday.”
Likewise, Qatar’s support for the Syrian opposition and efforts to isolate and weaken the Assad regime has brought tension to its relationship with Iran. Certain developments, such as a U.S. strike on Iranian nuclear sites or the spillover of violence in Syria into other states, may compel Qatar to pick a side.
Independent News Source or Qatari Weapon?
The heavy hand that Arab governments have traditionally played in censoring the media, as well as the dearth of media independence, has given many on the Arab street much cynicism about available news sources. However, since the Qatari government launched Al Jazeera in 1996, the satellite channel has served as a reliable news source for millions of Arabs.
Although unfavorable coverage of Doha itself is rare, Al Jazeera’s critical coverage abroad has often shaken authoritarian regimes to their core. As University of Iowa Professor Ahmed E. Souaiaia notes, throughout recent years “the Tunisian, Moroccan, Egyptian, Libyan, and Syrian [governments] shut down Al Jazeera offices in reaction to what they deemed ‘libelous,’ ‘slanderous,’ and ‘poisonous’ news stories. The Arab regimes’ hostility toward Al Jazeera only increased its popularity among the Arab masses.”