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Qatar learns money buys cooperation only within its own borders

Billions of dollars into bankrolling revolutions in Libya, Syria, and Egypt, the Qataris are finding that money can't deliver an airtight foreign policy.

By Correspondent / July 28, 2013



Doha, Qatar

As protests swept across the Middle East in 2011, Qatar, one of the region's smallest countries, sought to make itself one of the biggest players. Using its massive wealth to fund dissidents and new governments, it helped reshape the region’s political order.

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But billions of dollars into bankrolling revolutions in Libya, Syria, and Egypt, the Qataris are finding that money can’t buy an airtight foreign policy.

When protests began, the heir apparent to crumbling Middle Eastern dictatorships seemed to Qataris to be conservative Islamists. The election of Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s first freely contested election seemed a clear signal and Qatar went on to provide $8 billion in assistance to the Egyptian government.

But Mr. Morsi's ouster and the subsequent demonization of the Muslim Brotherhood in the last month have forced the Qataris to reconsider their revolutionary investments. It's unlikely that Qatar will scale back its foreign commitments, but amid the ever-shifting Arab political landscape, it’s become apparent that the Persian Gulf nation must reassess its strategy if it’s to remain relevant.

“They are extremely enthusiastic about the way they go about things, and that’s fine, but they are inexperienced. They stepped into the limelight of the region and frankly their toes got burned off a little bit. They overextended, not because of dangerous interests, but because they were a bit naive,” says Michael Stephens, a researcher at Royal United Services Institute in Qatar.

Pragmatism goes awry

Qatar’s strategy of backing conservative groups has put it increasingly at odds with many regional and Western players. In Egypt, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood proved incapable of effectively managing the government and addressing the nation’s economic problems. In Syria, the proliferation of conservative groups fueled the rise of Al Qaeda-linked fighting units.

The decision to back such factions was less ideological than it was pragmatic. Groups like the Muslim Brotherhood seemed to have momentum and a politically viable future in Egypt and Syria.

“The Qataris made a bet early on that the Islamists were the wave of the future, so to speak, and it made sense from a strategic perspective to have good relations with the most influential parties in the region, the Islamists,” says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center.

But then the tide turned against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, catching Qataris and many others off guard.

“It’s a product of a very fluid regional landscape. I think the Qataris now would be well served to diversify their relations in the region, so even if Islamists decline they can have working relations with non-Islamist groups, and liberals, and leftists,” says Mr. Hamid.

Backpedaling

Already, Qataris have begun shifting their foreign-policy strategy. Despite its strong support of the Morsi government, Qatari officials were quick to welcome the coup.

The ability to make a fast split with old policies may be aided by the country’s own recent change in leadership. Just days before Egypt’s military coup Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani passed control of the country to his son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Sheikh Hamad appears to have been in good health and faced no external pressure to transition power to his son, causing many observers to spotlight the peaceful transition of power in a region beset by power struggles and coups.

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