Peter Goodspeed: Qatar’s foreign policy is filled with contradictions as it maintains ties with the U.S., Israel, Iran and Islamists (NATIONAL POST COMMENT) 02/27/12)
NATIONAL POST Articles-Index-Top
The tiny country of Qatar used the slogan “Expect the Amazing” when
it successfully bid to host soccer’s 2022 World Cup.
It’s a phrase that could summarize the reign of Emir Sheik Hamad bin
Khalifa Al-Thani, who in just 17 years has turned a small Arabian
peninsula of salt and sand flats, once one of the poorest countries
in the Persian Gulf, into the world’s richest country and possibly
the Middle East’s most influential state.
A former British protectorate, which was noted for its declining
pearl fishery when it became independent in 1971, Qatar was once
described by the Lonely Planet Travel Guide as “possibly the most
boring place on Earth.”
Now, according to the World Bank, its 250,000 citizens and 1.5
million foreign workers have the highest per capita income in the
world (US$84,000, twice that of the United States) and an economy
that outstripped China by growing 15.8% last year.
Since 2006, Qatar has been the world’s largest exporter of liquefied
natural gas and the kingdom is transforming its new wealth into
Qatar recently led the Arab League’s expulsion of Syria and, on
Friday, called for the creation of an Arab military force to open
humanitarian corridors to protect civilians in Syria.
Last month, it allowed Afghanistan’s Taliban to open an office in
Doha to facilitate peace talks with the U.S.
And in the spring, it was the first Arab country to recognize the
rebel government in Libya.
The emirate sent six Mirage fighters to Crete to help NATO enforce a
no fly zone over Libya.
It also supplied rebels with the fuel, weapons, cash and the training
they needed to overthrow dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Qatari special
forces provided basic infantry training in the Nafusa Mountains, west
of Tripoli and some helped lead the final assault on Col. Gaddafi’s
compound in the capital.
They were so proud of their achievement, they hung a Qatari flag from
the wreckage of his palace.
“The Qataris have really adopted a kind of adventurous foreign policy
in the last couple of years and shown a willingness to send special
forces to these kind of areas of conflict,” said Andrew McGregor,
senior editor of the Global Terrorism Monitor for the Jamestown
“They’ve used their considerable wealth to supply arms and whatever
else is needed.
“I would be keeping a close eye on what they are doing [in Syria].
They are rapidly emerging as a real power in the Arab League, despite
their size. They are very influential and very wealthy, and they have
shown a willingness to be engaged.”
The Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, sometimes referred to
disparagingly as the “Arab World’s Henry Kissinger,” has steadily
built a reputation for mediation and seeks to be regarded as
an “honest broker” in the Middle East.
“Since the mid-1990s, Qatar has pursued an activist foreign policy,
using its affluence, unthreatening military position and skills as a
mediator to interject itself in conflicts around the Middle East and
beyond,” said David Roberts, deputy director of the Royal United
Services Institute’s Doha Centre.
In recent years, Sheikh Hamad has carefully inserted himself in
conflicts in Libya, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank, Sudan, Syria,
Yemen and Afghanistan.
In 2008, an agreement negotiated in Doha averted another civil war in
Lebanon by establishing a power sharing agreement between the
country’s different factions. Around the same time, Qatar helped
negotiate a short-lived ceasefire in Yemen, mediated a border dispute
between Djibouti and Eritrea, and hosted peace talks between Sudan
and rebel groups in Darfur.
A regional actor with international reach, Sheikh Hamad has pursued a
foreign policy that is ripe with conflicts and contradictions.
Qatar maintains good relations with Iran, while still offering the
U.S. its biggest and most important air base in the Middle East at al-
Udeid, a few kilometres outside Doha.
Unlike most Arab states, Qatar has generally had good relations with
Israel and allowed the Israelis to maintain a commercial office in
Doha until the 2009 Gaza invasion.
At the same time, it has warm relations with Israel’s enemies Hamas
and Hezbollah, and provides safe haven to hardline Islamists from all
over the Arab world.
Leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria fled to Qatar in
the 1960s and 1970s, even though the kingdom’s rulers frown on
organized political Islam and ban all political parties.
Qatar “has a reputation for ‘omni-balancing’ between seemingly
incompatible policies,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Gulf expert
at the London School of Economics.
“Qatar’s rise, seemingly from nowhere, is rooted in deeper political,
economic and security shifts and, in turn, is reconfiguring the
balance of regional power.”
Those changes highlight Sheikh Hamad’s own rise to power and his
reign in Qatar, where his family has ruled since the 19th century.
Raised by a maternal uncle’s family, after his mother died young, the
Emir attended the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, west of
London, graduating in 1971, the year Qatar won its independence and
when its first natural gas field was discovered.
He was made a lieutenant colonel in Qatar’s army and, after his
father deposed an uncle to become emir in 1972, he rapidly rose to
become commander-in-chief of its armed forces.
As crown prince, Sheikh Hamad was gradually given the power to run
the country day-to-day, while his father cultivated a taste for
extravagance and spent most of his time on the French Riviera.
Sheikh Hamad oversaw development of Qatar’s oil and gas industry and
carefully planned an economy that provides Qataris with free
education, health care, housing and utilities — and no taxes.
But when his father returned home briefly in 1995 and arbitrarily
demoted another son from his position as prime minister, Crown Prince
Sheikh Hamad staged a bloodless coup. He informed his father by
telephone while he was holidaying in Switzerland.
The old emir returned to the Gulf the following year, publicly
disowning his son and trying to drum up support for a counter-coup,
but Sheik Hamad snuffed out the plot by freezing billions of dollars
in his father’s overseas bank accounts.
Then, just 44 and the youngest ruler in the Gulf, he set about to
reform and redefine Qatar.
Surrounding himself with young, Western-educated advisors, he drew up
a long-term plan to develop a post-oil knowledge-based economy.
He has allocated 40% of Qatar’s budget between now and 2016 to
massive infrastructure projects, including an $11-billion
international airport, a $5.5-billion deep-water seaport and a $1-
billion transport corridor in Doha, as well as $20-billion in new
He has also invited foreign universities to establish Middle East
campuses in a $100-billion Education City in Doha.
Without an elected parliament to advise him, the Emir has final say
in the disposition of the country’s $70- billion to $100-billion
sovereign wealth fund, which has made it a financial powerhouse
internationally by investing heavily in everything from German
carmakers Porsche and Volkswagen to the Agricultural Bank of China,
Harrods department store in London, a Brazilian bank, Chinese oil
refineries, a Spanish soccer team and a French fashion house.
The Emir’s most influential investment was his creation of the 24-
hour Arab-language Al Jazeera television network in 1996.
Granted a level of editorial independence unheard of in the Arab
world, Al Jazeera is encouraged to report freely and aggressively on
everything but Qatari politics, and is the most watched TV network in
the Middle East.
The broadcaster was widely regarded as one of the driving forces
behind the spread of the Arab Spring.
“Qatar hopes to insert itself as the key mediator between the Muslim
world and the West,” Mr. Roberts said.
“Qatar sees its role as a highly specialized interlocutor between the
two worlds, making — from the West’s point of view — unpalatable but
necessary friendships and alliances with anti-Western leaders.”
Sheikh Hamad Bin Jasem Al-Thani, Qatar’s Prime Minister and a distant
cousin of the Emir, likes to say his country is small and has to be
proactive to protect its interest and avoid being run over by more
“Our policy is to be friendly with everybody,” the Emir
said recently in a television interview. “We are looking for peace.
It doesn’t mean if two parties turn against each other, we have to go
to one party. No, we would like to stick with the two parties.” (©
2012 National Post, a division of Postmedia Network Inc. 02/27/12)
Return to Top
MATERIAL REPRODUCED FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY