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Qatar uses its clout to shape new Middle East

Qatar’s support for Islamists muddles its reputation as neutral broker in Mideast

Gulf News

New York: For years, Qatar has been a reliable US partner in the Middle East — as a host to the largest American military base in the region and as a diplomatic bulwark against Iran.

Two years after the start of the Arab Spring, however, Qatar’s carefully cultivated reputation as a US partner — and as a neutral broker in the region — is increasingly muddled.

With billions of dollars in natural gas and oil revenue, it is bankrolling a new generation of Islamists across the Middle East, raising questions about its vision for the region and whether some of its policies are in direct conflict with US interests. Those questions are complicated by the country’s apparent eagerness to retain influence in the West. Since deposing his father in a bloodless coup in 1995, the country’s emir, Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, has transformed its capital, Doha, from a dusty Gulf backwater into an intellectual and diplomatic centre in the Middle East.

Slightly smaller than Connecticut and with a population of about two million, the country is home to now-global institutions, including the television network Al Jazeera. As part of that effort, the country’s foreign minister, Shaikh Hamad Bin Jasim Al Thani, has combined deep pockets, extensive business investments and a vast conference centre in Doha into a high-charged mediation juggernaut.

The Qataris invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the peace effort in Darfur, Sudan, hosting armed rebels, refugees and tribal leaders in luxury hotels in Doha for talks. In Lebanon, Qatar gained international plaudits for its skillful mediation, which fostered a national government involving pro-Iranian Hezbollah and a pro-Western faction. Qatar has an ambiguous relationship with Iran, signing a military defence agreement with Tehran in 2010 and maintaining close ties with its traditional proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah. More recently, Qatar has served as a check on Iranian influence, backing the military overthrow of its closest ally, Syria, and seeking to replace Tehran as Hamas’s benefactor.

“They want to be seen as a big player, an important player that is respected and willing to bring peace to distant lands,” said Ebrahim Gambari, a former Nigerian diplomat who travelled to Doha more than two dozen times during peace negotiations on Darfur.

“But they are very sensitive to this charge that they only use chequebook diplomacy to get their way.”

Analysts, however, say the country has lost some of its claim as an honest broker through its support for specific players in the Arab Spring. In Libya, for example, Qatar was among the first countries to provide warplanes to a Nato air campaign against Muammar Gaddafi. But it also overplayed its hand after Gaddafi’s fall by supporting favoured Islamist factions over the country’s transitional government.

“They were supporting certain groups in Libya, but, well, these groups did not gain any popular support on the ground... The main faction which was supported by them did not get any seats on the national assembly,” said Ebrahim Dabbashi, Libya’s ambassador to the United Nations.

“I think they the Libyans are very sensitive to foreign interventions in their affairs. I think [the Qataris] understand that now.”

Among Qatar’s top foreign policy objectives has been to support the opposition in Syria, including through the provision of military aid. Some of that aid has reportedly been delivered to Islamist factions. Some of Qatar’s most significant investments have been in establishing outposts of Western universities and think tanks. Among others, the country has partnered with the Brookings Institution, Georgetown University and the Royal United Services Institute to open programmes specialising in science, journalism, education, agriculture and foreign policy.

“An important question is: Why are they doing it and what, if anything, does Qatar get out it?” said Hanna, the Century Foundation expert, who suggested that “vanity and a real search for prestige” might be part of the answer.

As academic institutions, Brookings and the other affiliated organisations retain their intellectual independence, but their positions often echo those of the Qatari government. Scholars at Brookings Doha Centre, for example, have emerged as key backers of US military support for the armed opposition in Syria and as influential voices explaining and defending the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, a chief beneficiary of Qatar’s largesse. Salman Shaikh, the director of Brookings Doha Centre and a former adviser to Qatar’s first lady, said that the centre has no institutional positions and that its analysts and fellows have a “healthy variety of views” on the fate of the region, including critics of military intervention in Syria.

“Just because some of our views happen to coincide with Qatar’s approach or Qatari interest shouldn’t be taken to mean something it doesn’t,” he said. “I’ve not had one conversation where the Qataris have tried to sway me in one particular direction over the last two years,” he said. “That’s not to say they always agree with me. They clearly don’t. But I think, credit to the Qataris that they seem to be sticking with this when others have become more nervous. I think they see this in the long run as a public good.”

— Washington Post