Doha: 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.
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 Mohammad Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s first freely contested election seemed a clear signal and Qatar went on to provide $8 billion (Dh29 billion) in assistance to the Egyptian government.
But Mursi’s ousting and the subsequent demonisation 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 it 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.
Qatar’s strategy of backing conservative groups has put it increasingly at odds with many regional and Western players. In Egypt, Mursi 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 fuelled the rise of Al Qaida-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. Already, Qataris have begun shifting their foreign-policy strategy.
Despite its strong support of the Mursi 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 Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani passed control of the country to his son, Shaikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani. Shaikh 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.”
Shaikh 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.
“Increasingly, Qatar’s foreign-policy objective has changed from being one of guaranteeing this small state’s security in a rough neighbourhood 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 Centre 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 centre 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 Kamrava.
Qatar played a critical role arming rebels in Libya and helping them overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. 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. 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 Ahmad 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.”