February 17, 2013

Qatar: A Rising Player in Middle Eastern Affairs


In this article, the Atlantic Community's Nial Mulchincock discusses the growing regional influence of Qatar – a small state which directly supported the overthrow of Libya's Muammar Ghadaffi and is now permitting the Syrian opposition to stage a series of strategy and coordination meetings in Doha.

By Niall Mulchinock for Atlantic-community.org

Since the outbreak of the Arab Spring at the end of 2010, the Emirate of Qatar has been successful in shaping regional responses to political instabilities in North Africa and the Middle East. While the population of Qatar is about 1.9 million, the country holds the world's third-largest natural gas reserves and is strategically positioned between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The country has gained a reputation for being a significant regional power broker because of its involvement in the Libyan and Syrian conflicts. The current emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, has stridently worked to heighten Qatar's position in the Arabian Peninsula since he came to power after deposing his father in a bloodless coup d'état in 1995.

The emir played a major role in the establishment of Al Jazeera in 1996. Headquartered in Doha, Al Jazeera was the Arab-world's first 24-hour news channel. The news channel gained particular prominence from its reporting on the internal situations in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Along with social media organisoutlets, such as Facebook and Twitter, Al Jazeera was exceptional in its exposure of these weak and sclerotic regimes, particularly in Tunisia and Egypt.
As Western countries began to turn against the omnipotent rule of Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, the emir was one of the first Arab leaders to lend his support to the international military coalition to remove Qaddafi from power. Qatari jets took part in the UN-imposed no-fly zone. In addition, Qatar provided the Libyan opposition with military funding. With the takeover of the Qaddafi compound in Tripoli, a Qatari flag was seen flying over one of the buildings, indicating the Libyan opposition's gratitude to their allies in Doha. Today, the Syrian opposition continues to hold the majority of their meetings in the Qatari capital, emphasising Thani's aversion to President Bashar al-Assad's regime in Damascus.

As internal instabilities engulf countries, such as Egypt and Jordan, Qatar is also increasingly trying to gain regional influence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In October 2012, the emir paid a historic visit to Gaza, becoming the first head of state to be received by Hamas since it took power in 2007. During this trip, Thani pledged $400 million to build two housing projects, repair three main roads, and create a prosthetic center among other projects in the Gaza Strip. These initiatives again underline Qatar's success in straddling competing interests in the region. Qatar is able to maintain relations with a regime that is deemed a terrorist organisation by the Unites States while, at the same time, maintaining excellent relations with President Barack Obama and European leaders.

Outside of current regional tensions, the Qatar Foundation, since its establishment in 1995, has become one of the most preeminent educational and scientific institutions in the Arabian Peninsula, establishing a number of outreach initiatives in Europe and North America. In conclusion, while Qatar is unlikely to be affected by internal political instabilities in the Middle East, Qatar has continually tried to influence and shape the altered political environment that has emerged over the past two years.

For additional reading on this topic please see: 
The Rise of Qatar
Qatar and the Arab Spring
Qatar and Europe's Neglect of the Gulf Region
Qatar: Background and US Relations

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