Tiny Qatar played outsized role as Arab League president. Will it last?

This week, Iraq takes over the Arab League presidency from Qatar, which has ruffled feathers with its surge in leadership. A Russian official famously told Qatar, 'Go back to your size.'

Fadi Al-Assaad/Reuters
Syrians living in Qatar hold prayers for those killed during attacks by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces on the Syrian city of Homs, and in solidarity with Syria’s antigovernment protests.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Tiny Qatar has emerged as one of the most unexpected and lauded stories of the Arab Spring – a gas-rich emirate heralded for "punching above its weight."

While all the traditional heavyweights of the Arab world – Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and even Saudi Arabia – were preoccupied with their own affairs last year, Qatar stepped in to fill the leadership gap. It sent arms to Libyan rebels, supported the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and was the first Arab country to close its embassy in Syria to protest President Bashar al-Assad's brutal crackdown on his people.

It's been a big year for Qatar, which has held the Arab League presidency since last spring. But as it hands that mantle to Iraq this week, real questions have emerged about just how sustainable Qatar's leadership is.

Resentment of its efforts has grown pronounced in Libya and Egypt, and patience for Qatar's bravado is wearing thin in the Gulf, where Saudi Arabia has traditionally held greatest sway.

Perhaps most of all, its departure from neutrality to a more activist foreign agenda could pose challenges ahead.

"They're losing that [neutral] reputation," says Kristian Coates-Ulrichsen, a scholar of Gulf politics at the London School of Economics. "They are playing a very political game, and it could come back to haunt them."

The Switzerland of the Middle East

Qatar was long seen as the Switzerland of the Middle East – a small, neutral country friendly to everyone from Iran to the US Central Command, which it hosts.

The fact that Qatar had good relations with nearly everyone made it invaluable when the Arab Spring began. It also had other assets: cash, ambition, and Al Jazeera, the popular satellite TV network funded by Qatar's emir.

The Qataris saw a new order taking shape in the Middle East, says Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center. They decided, "We want to be part of that change and we want to drive that change," he says.

"Qatar can do an awful lot," says Professor Coates-Ulrichsen. "It can fund and equip an opposition movement in a month, in a way that the West cannot do."

In addition, the entire society organized around the country's ambitions, says Wanda Krause, head of the Gulf Studies program at Qatar University.

Islamic leaders, under the umbrella of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, organized rallies in Doha in support of Libyan and Syrian revolutionaries. Volunteers put in extra hours at the Red Crescent. And Al Jazeera broadcast the uprisings to the world in real time. "You have so many facets working toward a political end," Dr. Krause says.

The strategy seemed to work.

After Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned, Qatar won applause for Al Jazeera's indefatigable broadcasts from Tahrir Square and for Qatari promises to invest $10 billion in Egypt's struggling economy. During the revolution in Libya, Qatari flags flew prominently in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. Rached Ghannouchi, head of the Islamist party Al Nahda, which dominated the first postrevolutionary elections in Tunisia, made his first postelectoral trip to Qatar.

Big powers resent upstart Qatar

But it didn't take long for some in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia to begin questioning whether there was more to Qatar's support than just solidarity. In November, outgoing Libyan Prime Minister Mohammed Jibril accused Doha of selectively funding certain rebel factions.

In Egypt, Coates-Ulrichsen says, Qatar has also played favorites, funding and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha has also postponed its promised investments in the Egyptian economy.

Tunisians have balked at the friendship between Doha and Al Nahda. During minor protests that followed fall elections, liberals demonstrating in Tunis questioned where the Islamist party had gotten the resources to fund its resounding victory. "It's the Gulf," concluded Kais Habibi, a young activist. "It's money from Qatar."

There were also criticisms of doing too little. When protests broke out in Bahrain, just a half-hour away from Doha by air, critics accused Al Jazeera of barely covering them. They said the station was bending to Qatar's rulers, who weren't interested in stirring up trouble in their backyard.

Any meddling – or perceived meddling – by Qatar could easily discredit Qatari efforts, argues Mr. Shaikh. "They could start to get it wrong if, as in the case of Libya, they start to play local politics rather than focus on a broader multilateral effort."

In many ways, a backlash was inevitable – and maybe even corrective. Activist foreign policies are bound to make enemies, Krause says.

Countries opposed to intervention in Syria – particularly Russia – have grown noticeably hostile. In early February, Russia's envoy to the United Nations was reported by France 2 television to have threatened the Qatari foreign minister, telling him (and his country) to "go back to your size."

Arabs have started distancing themselves from Qatar's activism as well. Mr. Ghannouchi of Tunisia, for example, was quick to justify his visit to Doha as a personal matter.

A spokesman for the Syrian opposition consortium, the Syrian National Council, was also dismissive of any association with Qatar last month.

"There's no special relationship," said Ausama Monajed, adviser to the group's secretary-general, by phone. "[Doha] is just a good place to have a meeting."

'Two to three people driving this'

Even if Qatar can manage the politics in the wake of the Arab Spring, questions still remain about its capacity to operate at such a fast clip in the long term.

"There are really two to three people who are really driving this in Qatar," Shaikh says. Institutions are still largely lacking, and the civil service lacks expertise.

In addition, says Coates-Ulrichsen, "the diplomatic corps is way overstretched in trying to catch up with their leaders."

This lack of diplomatic depth has pushed Qatar's focus toward economic assistance, says Hussein Ibish, senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. "Influence based on such a simple resource, excess cash – it's limited in how much it can buy you."

Equally troubling are concerns that competition between Qatar and regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia could heighten in coming months.

Qatar and Saudis: tentative friends

For the moment, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – tentative friends with a long history of competition – seem to be on the same page.

"They have [interests] in common: preserving the stability of the other monarchies, limiting the influence of Iran and its allies, and promoting Islamist alternatives in the postrevolutionary era," Mr. Ibish explains.

That cooperation may vanish once those aims no longer align: What if Qatar and Saudi Arabia, for example, favor different alternatives in Syria, should Mr. Assad be forced out?

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