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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”