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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.

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Prior to the power transfer, Qatar had been taking increasing flak for its support of Islamist groups in Syria. As in any country, a change in leadership offers a chance for Qatar to redefine relationships and political strategies without appearing as if it is reneging on commitments.

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“Just at the moment when Qatar is under criticism for its policies that have maybe put weapons in the hands of Syrian Islamists, at this exact moment we have a new leader who can essentially come to foreign policy with something of a clean slate,” says David Mednicoff, director of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “A new leader can disavow some aspects of his father’s foreign policy without having to step back and play less of a role.”

Sheikh Tamim has already reshuffled the cabinet, replacing several key figures who crafted Qatar’s aggressive foreign policy. Though it is unlikely to abandon its foreign interests, a number of analysts speculate that the country is about to enter a new phase with a more inward focus.

From defense to offense

Long before Qatar could place itself at the center of regional events, it was a forgotten peninsula in the Persian Gulf. Before taking advantage of its oil and gas resources, Qatar was one of the poorest nations in the Gulf, known mostly as a place for pearl fishing. About 70 years since it first began seriously developing its hydrocarbon industry, Qatar has managed to become one of the richest countries in the world.

In 1990, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait made it clear that Qatar, which is slightly smaller than Connecticut, needed a strong foreign policy to protect itself from a fate similar to Kuwait. Its leaders began forming a number of strategic partnerships. Among others, it’s forged close ties to the US. The nation now hosts several key US military bases.

“Increasingly, Qatar’s foreign-policy objective has changed from being one of guaranteeing this small state’s security in a rough neighborhood to projecting power and shaping events as they happen in the Middle East, and becoming a preeminent and strategic player in the Middle East,” says Mehran Kamrava, author of the upcoming book "Qatar: Small State, Big Politics" and a professor and director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Qatar.

The Arab Spring offered Qatar to solidify these gains and position itself at the center of regional politics.

“Qatar made a strategic decision that looking 10 years down the line these guys are relics of history. A historical wave was unfolding across the Arab world, and two years ago Qatar sought to position itself at the crest of the wave,” says Mr. Kamrava.

Qatar played a critical role arming rebels in Libya and helping them overthrow Muammar Qaddafi. In Syria, while Western nations debated whether to arm the opposition, falling into a state of crippling inaction in the face of a massive humanitarian crisis, Qatar took a leading role supporting fighters inside Syria.

Back to runner-up status

Yet, as Qatar became more deeply involved, receiving praise and blame as events played out in the region, the value of an aggressive foreign policy has become less apparent for many citizens. Already, Saudi Arabia appears to be retaking the point position for regional affairs.

Immediately after the military coup in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates announced $8 billion of aid to Cairo. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is quickly becoming the Arab lead for dealing with the Syrian opposition. In elections earlier this month, the Syrian opposition appointed Ahmed Assi al-Jabra, who maintains close ties to Saudi Arabia, a move that is likely to give Saudi Arabia a stronger role. 

Many Qataris now say that while they support their government’s policy abroad, they’d also be pleased to see some of those resources invested into their own infrastructure. In 2022, Qatar is slated to host the World Cup, a major achievement for the country and one that will require significant preparations that may draw the government’s gaze further inward.

“I really expect the next phase for Qatar is to be less involved in the foreign policy,” says Darwish Al-Emadi, director of the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute at Qatar University. “[The Arab Spring] was an opportunity for Qatar to take a leading role…. The question is does it really want to do it for the next 10 years? Probably not.”

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