Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a Research Fellow and Deputy Director of the Kuwait Programme on Development, Governance and Globalisation in the Gulf States, London School of Economics and Political Science.
Resume: The new leadership in Doha is entering a “post-Arab Spring” regional landscape that is almost diametrically opposed to the propitious convergence of Qatari interests and the revolutionary upheaval in North Africa in 2011.
During the first two years of the Arab Spring, Qatar’s regional posture went into “overdrive,” initially in Libya and subsequently in Syria. The country took advantage of the unique niche which it had spent years crafting in order to play an astoundingly high-profile and increasingly controversial role in the uprisings. Initially, it displayed unprecedented regional leadership bordering on outright activism in responding to crises across the Arab world. This greater self-confidence reflected multiple factors, including (relative) domestic stability and a progressive form of governance, as well as the ability to take and execute decisions quickly and the aforementioned experience in mediation. As a result, at the onset of the Arab Spring protests across the Middle East and North Africa, Qatar boasted a distinctive combination of characteristics rare in the Arab world, including regionally and internationally recognized legitimacy, a relatively progressive stance towards governance, an ability to make swift policy decisions, and extensive experience in mediation. All of these factors positioned Qatar to assume an extraordinarily visible and interventionist role during the Arab Spring upheaval.
This article explains when and why this outwardly-radical shift in policy occurred. It argues that, after an initial period of caution in January 2011, unconstrained by an elderly or incapacitated leadership and possessed with abundant sources of ‘soft power’ leverage, the outbreak of mass protests in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in early-2011 provided an opportunity for Qatar’s leaders to reaffirm their distinctive model of political and economic development in a seemingly-altruistic, initially-benign, and highly-visible manner. Qatari officials quickly recognized the changing contours of the Arab Spring and pragmatically readjusted their policy-responses. The lack of domestic constraints on decision-making enabled officials, led by the then Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani and then Prime Minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani, to reposition Qatar (somewhat improbably) as a champion of the popular uprisings in North Africa and, later, as a key external player in the Syrian civil war. Yet, the article ends by noting that the rolling back of the Arab Spring in Egypt in July 2013 presents an immediate and deep challenge to the young new Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, who took office only a week before the stunning reversal of Egypt’s revolutionary gains.
EMBRACING CHANGE: QATAR AND ISLAMISM
Prior to 2011, Qatari regional and foreign policy had been characterized by an emphasis on diplomatic mediation. High-profile efforts to reach negotiated settlements in Lebanon, Yemen, Sudan, and elsewhere in the Arab and Islamic world earned Qatar the sobriquet “the non-stop mediator.” Qatar’s actions earned the country a growing reputation as a relatively impartial, honest broker that lacked the historical baggage of regional heavyweights Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The most convincing explanation of Qatari regional and peace-making efforts lay in a multifaceted strategy of political and economic liberalization, state-branding, and pursuit of an independent foreign policy. Such a strategy was an attempt to overcome Qatar’s small-state “security dilemma” through projecting itself as an impartial yet influential partner for contrasting regional and international partners, and offering the country more ‘space’ in the international arena that such a small state normally would have – attracting foreign investment, business, and tourism.
While Qatar’s high-visibility actions during the Arab Spring, described in this section, may at first appear as a break from the above-mentioned strategy, one can view the recent change of course as prompted by a radical change in circumstances, rather than representative of a more fundamental change in policy. Qatari actions constituted “a continuation of its active and growing foreign policy over the past decade” as noted by Palestinian academic Khaled Hroub. What was different was that regional developments in 2011, coupled with the fortuitous absence of any likelihood of concerted domestic unrest in Qatar itself, accorded Qatari policy-making the space to become more assertive and comprehensive in scope. By acting in such a forceful manner towards countries and regime-types deemed ‘dispensable’ (unlike the fellow ruling Al-Khalifa family in neighboring Bahrain), the Emir and Prime Minister also sought to lessen Qatar’s vulnerability to any criticism of its lack of political liberalization at home.
Qatari responses to the Arab Spring did not emerge suddenly as if from a vacuum; rather, they represented the continuation of deeper policy trends that predated 2011. The delicate balancing of ostensibly competing forces that formed a hallmark of Qatar’s post-1995 foreign policy was very much in evidence after 2011. Doha positioned itself as the West’s ally in the Arab world in pushing for humanitarian intervention in Libya and political settlement in Yemen while simultaneously supporting Islamist movements across the region. Similarly, the decision to throw their weight behind regional Islamists – frequently affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and its regional offshoots – also represented the culmination of longer-term developments. These were the Qatari government’s practice of offering refuge to Islamists and political dissidents from across the Arab and Islamic world (with Yusuf al-Qaradawi both the longest-standing and most famous example), and the pragmatism in Qatari regional policy-calculations. These factors converged in Qatar’s close relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Guido Steinberg, an expert in political Islamism, notes that in 2011 “Doha recognized that the Islamists would become the next big power in North African and Middle Eastern politics, and so increased its efforts to close ranks with them” as “a community of exiled Muslim Brothers gradually formed around al-Qaradawi.” Although Qatar subscribes officially to Wahhabism and adheres to the Hanbali School of Islamic Law, whose emphasis on political obedience of subjects to their ruler differs radically from the populist and activist nature of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, close ties nevertheless built up between them. These had historical depth stemming from the influx of members of the Muslim Brotherhood fleeing persecution from nationalist and socialist movements in Nasser’s Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s and from Syria after Hafiz Al-Assad’s massacre of the group in Hama in 1982. As in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, many of the newcomers worked as teachers and civil servants and were instrumental in shaping the political views of a generation of youth across the Gulf.
In the 1990s, the deepening of ties with the Muslim Brotherhood distinguished Qatar from the stance of neighboring GCC states. By contrast with the domestication of Muslim Brotherhood movements in Kuwait (and to a lesser extent in Saudi Arabia), Qatar extended and diversified its ties with the regional branches of the movement while keeping a firm lid on any activities at home. While al-Qaradawi and others were given a vocal platform on Al Jazeera after its formation in 1996, they and other Brotherhood exiles were accommodated in Doha on the tacit understanding that they refrained from intervening in or commenting on local issues. This established a clear distinction between the domestic and regional spheres of activity and what activities were permissible and what were not. As Bernard Haykel notes, “Qatar has done a better job of managing the energies of the Brotherhood and channeling these towards the outside world.”
The outcome of Qatar’s outreach to Islamist figures was close connections with many of the opposition leaders who prepared to play leading roles in the revolutionary upheaval in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. The popular uprisings initially were spurred by universal demands for political and economic freedoms, human dignity, and social justice more than specifically Islamist goals or objectives. However, political Islamists’ greater organizing capacity meant they were disproportionately able to take advantage of the electoral and participatory opportunities that unfolded. This gave Qatar two forms of leverage in states undergoing Arab Spring unrest: individual connections through the Doha-based exiles who returned to their countries of origin, and institutional influence as the Muslim Brotherhood emerged as a powerful player in the political transitions.LACK OF DOMESTIC CONSTRAINTS
In addition to feeling far more comfortable than most neighboring states with the direction of political transition in the Arab world, the Qatari leadership also benefited from the relative freedom of maneuver it enjoyed domestically. Almost uniquely in the Middle East and North Africa, the resources-demands equation in Qatar was so favorable in 2011 as to rule out any prospect of local economic or meaningful political discontent. With astonishing per capita levels of GDP among Qatari nationals exceeding $440,000, such levels of extreme wealth provided powerful insulation from the spread of Arab Spring unrest. It also led inevitably to a degree of political apathy and a stifling of democratic aspiration as few Qataris felt inclined to rock the boat by challenging the status quo; the results of an annual Arab Youth Survey found that the proportion of respondents who ranked democracy as important halved from 68 percent in 2008 to just 33 percent in 2010. Once again, there was a clear contrast even with neighboring states such as the UAE, where the proportion of respondents who stated that democracy was important rose substantially from 58 percent in 2008 to 75 percent in 2011.
Broadly similar findings were reported by the World Values Survey administered in Qatar (for the first and so far only time) in December 2010 by the Social and Economic Survey Research Unit of Qatar University. On the very eve of the Arab Spring, the trigger point of which occurred halfway through the survey collection, the largest sampling of a nationally-representative frame ever taken in Qatar revealed that almost two-third of respondents (64%) ranked “economic growth” as their top national priority for the coming decade. This far exceeded those calling for ‘more participation’ (16%) or even ‘strong defense’ (15%). Moreover, respondents expressed far higher trust in state institutions (police, army, courts, and government institutions) than counterparts in other Arab countries, with fully 75% and 74% respectively reporting satisfaction with the police and army as compared to figures of about 30% for Morocco. Such elevated levels of public confidence notably did not extend to international institutions, with only 8% expressing belief in the work of the United Nations. Analyzing the findings, Justin Gengler of SESRI and Mark Tessler of the University of Michigan observed that civic engagement and associational life in Qatar “rather than undermining traditional society and the prevailing regime is simply an extension of them, with those most involved being those who benefit from it the most – and who thus would stand to lose most from any revision of the political status quo.”
The foregoing is not to say that public dissent does not exist in Qatar. Circles of Qatari intellectuals and academics have started to question the speed and direction of national development strategies of the breakneck era of economic growth. Particular concern has focused on the demographic imbalance that has transformed Qatari nationals into an ever-decreasing minority group of the total population. Additional unease has also emerged over rising financial pressures and infrastructural bottlenecks resulting from the arrival of so many new workers to staff the massive investment projects ahead of the 2022 World Cup. Over 130,000 people arrived to work in Qatar between January and May 2013 alone, placing great strain on public and social services and a housing system that saw only 10,000 additional units come on to the market during the same period. The prevailing sense of unease was reflected in comments made to the Gulf States Newsletter by former Justice Minister Najeeb al-Nuaimi that “Qatar had been spending too much for five years and had left internal matters in a bad way. If they had continued until 2016 we would have been finished, Qatar would have collapsed…Qatar has a lot of bonds to pay by 2016 and if we don’t pay we’ll end up like Dubai in 2008.”
Nevertheless, the outbreak of the Arab Spring in late-December 2010 and early-January 2011 found Qatar in a fortuitous position. Flush with the success of the 2022 World Cup bid and with its international recognition soaring, the emirate and its leadership seized on the opportunity to mark Qatar as distinct from the troubles afflicting the wider region. With little prospect of being affected by the contagious spread of the socio-economic unrest and with the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt focusing initially on universal values of social justice, human dignity, and political and economic freedom, there was – at least initially – much to gain for making a high-visibility stand against authoritarian misrule in North Africa, Syria, and Yemen. Moreover, the opportunity cost of doing so was low at first, as Qatari expressions of declaratory and material support for opposition movements elsewhere were unlikely to rebound domestically, while they also played into Qatari efforts to be taken credibly as a responsible participant on the regional and international stage.
ALIGNMENT OF VALUES
The lack of domestic constraints on domestic decision-making thus intersected with the shifting dynamics of regional events. In its early stages, the Arab Spring presented little if any direct threat to Qatar or its interests abroad. Gaddafi’s mercurial regime in Libya constituted a safe platform on which to make a high-profile stand against tyrannical misrule and dictatorship. In addition, the stripping of international legitimacy away from Assad’s Syria offered a similar opportunity for Qatar. In both cases, the shift from mediation in conflict-affected environments to the advocacy of intervention was presented as a natural step-up in the scale of Qatari diplomacy, taking advantage of the same advantages – elite-level top-down decision-making and the ability to mobilize all facets of state capitalism – to achieve its objectives. Furthermore, it presaged a realignment of Qatar’s objectives with “global values” in a way that resonated powerfully with the international community of observers and analysts.
The uprisings that swept across North Africa in the spring of 2011 initially were rooted in mass demands for political freedoms, social justice, and human dignity. These universal norms took precedence over narrower forms of identity politics in the narratives of protest that so gripped the public imagination. Amid growing international recognition that the international embrace of autocratic leaders had for decades failed the peoples of the Arab world, a space opened up for advocates of a new approach to regional engagement. Moreover, ten years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan had laid bare the failure of Western-led attempts to reshape regional and international politics by force. On a deeper level, the wider events of 2011, encompassing mass protests against austerity measures in southern Europe and the rise of the Occupy movement in North America, marked a breakdown both in the Washington Consensus and the Washington Security Doctrine. Their inability to prevent economic and financial meltdown and military quagmire contributed to the shift in emphasis of global power, politics, and policy-making, as emerging economies led the way out of the financial crisis and demanded a greater say in reformulating the structures of international institutions and global governance.
Qatari leaders therefore inserted themselves into the maelstrom of changing regional dynamics and international politics. Their relatively unique position enabled the then-Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani and then-Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani to take the leading role in responding to the events of the Arab Spring. The failures of hard-power projection listed above meant the door was open for proponents of soft power of the sort that Qatar had spent years accruing in the 2000s. With globalization redrawing the very notion of ‘power’ and the channels through which it is transmitted, Qatar, and to a lesser extent the United Arab Emirates were able to demonstrate how small states could play a role in international affairs out of all proportion to their size. The rising utility of ‘soft power’ and sovereign wealth and investment in the arena of international relations tapped into Qatar’s strengths.All the key elements of Qatar’s regional policy came together in and after February 2011. What was new about the policy responses to Libya and later Syria was the decision to combine the range of soft-power tools with military hard-power in support of regional goals. This new calibration underpinned the otherwise little-publicized shift in Qatar’s approach from diplomatic mediation towards an activist and interventionist foreign policy.
Qatar’s actions can thus be viewed as consistent with its state-branding and independent foreign policy strategies, but representing a reaction to a new set of realities in the Middle East. For a few months in 2011, the Arab Spring seemed to represent a pivotal moment in relations between the West and the Arab world as the uprisings challenged stereotypes of the region in Western mind-sets. During its early stages, it also offered political, economic, and security-related advantages for nations and leaders that were far-sighted enough to “come out on top.” The leadership shown by Qatar and – particularly in Libya – its use of a mixture of hard- and soft-power tools proved popular with Western powers in the international community, which viewed the country as their link to facilitating intervention in the Arab world, particularly with regard to peace-making and democratization. Such recognition sealed Qatar’s decade-long emergence as an international actor, and overcame lingering negative perceptions that had complicated the George W. Bush administration’s relationship with Doha.
Hence, the convergence of Qatari and Western responses to the Arab Spring in early-2011 was consistent with Qatar’s desire to carve a position as an independent interlocutor between the Western world and the Middle East. Especially in Libya, the chance of working with Western powers to bring about the end of the Gaddafi regime offered a key opportunity for Qatar to implement the role that it had carefully crafted for itself. Qatar later played a crucial role in maintaining Western-Arab relations during the early phase of the Syria crisis, when it rallied the Arab League to action when the UN Security Council efforts stalled, while ensuring that diplomatic channels and prospects for multilateral action between the two bodies were kept firmly open. Their success in establishing Qatar as a central Western-Arab interlocutor was evident in initial Western praise for the country. French defense minister Gerard Longuet echoed the sentiments of many as he gushed (in reference to Qatari involvement in the Libyan No-Fly Zone) that “this is the first time that there is such a level of understanding between Europe and the Arab world.”
Even higher praise came from President Obama at the end of a meeting with Emir Sheikh Hamad in the White House in April 2011, as he commented publicly that “We would not have been able, I think, to shape the kind of broad-based international coalition that includes not only our NATO members but also includes Arab states, without the Emir’s leadership.” Tellingly, however, Obama struck a very different tone that same evening in unguarded remarks to a private donors’ dinner in Chicago. Not realizing that he was speaking on an open microphone, the President summarized the Emir thus:
“Pretty influential guy. He is a big booster, big promoter of democracy all throughout the Middle East. Reform, reform, reform – you’re seeing it all on Al Jazeera. Now, he himself is not reforming significantly. There’s no big move towards democracy in Qatar. Part of the reason is that the per capita income of Qatar is $145,000 a year. That will dampen a lot of conflict.”
The apparent success of the Libyan “adventure” led to a high watermark of Qatari influence in late-2011, which seemed to constitute the capstone on the country’s remarkable coming of age in international affairs. However, as the Syrian intervention failed to prevent a slide into violent civil war and evidence of the full extent of Qatar’s shadowy involvement in Libya became more widely known, a regional backlash against Qatari policies gathered pace. This has implications for Qatar’s reputation as a diplomatic mediator of its loss of impartiality, the mounting regional and even international skepticism of Doha’s motivations, and the the unraveling of the series of risky gambles such as the decision to back the Muslim Brotherhood in North Africa and elsewhere. Above all, as Lina Khatib has argued recently, is the danger that “the lack of a coherent strategy in its foreign policy makes Qatar susceptible to international and domestic sources of instability – going against one of the main drivers behind Qatar’s foreign policy,” that is maintaining its own security and stability.
Qatar’s new leadership confronted just this scenario after taking power on 25 June 2013. The defenestration of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Cairo the following week plunged Doha into crisis-limitation mode and forced the young new Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, to distance himself from the contentious policies of his father and, more pertinently, from those of Hamad bin Jassem. After having backed the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Cairo with generous financial assistance, Qatar notably was absent from the $12 billion in financial and fuel aid packages that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates extended to the interim government that replaced President Morsi in July. After having so publicly aligned Qatari support with groups that since have either been discredited or marginalized, the new leadership in Doha is entering a “post-Arab Spring” regional landscape that is almost diametrically opposed to the propitious convergence of Qatari interests and the revolutionary upheaval in North Africa in 2011.