Qatar’s Foreign Policy in Review
By Gaelle Tawk & Ramy Jabbour
No one would expect a country with a size of just 11,586 sq km and 186 times smaller than its closest neighbor, Saudi Arabia, to be as influential and prominent in the international scene as Qatar. The small Emirate boasts the highest GDP per capita in the world, and has played an active role in international issues. Qatar’s rise to prominence began in 1995, after a bloodless coup saw Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani seize power from his father, Khalifa Bin Hamad Al Thani, to become the Emir of Qatar. Since then Qatar’s international status has been accelerated by the country’s natural gas wealth and its eagerness to participate in international affairs, particularly in the Middle East.
Qatar has taken a multifaceted approach to its strategy, focusing on economic and political liberalization, the pursuit of an independent foreign policy, and an extensive public diplomacy effort. Peacekeeping and mediation had initially been the centerpieces of Qatari foreign policy, which garnered them support from Western state-actors, and their state-run media outlet, Al Jazeera, has given them significant influence over the Middle Eastern narrative. However, Qatar shifted its foreign policy from neutrality and mediation in Middle Eastern conflicts before the Arab Spring, to outright financial and political support to factions it saw as future potential allies at the onset of the revolutions, most notably Islamist groups. Doha’s shift and increasing prominence has led to strained relationships with the GCC countries, especially the UAE, KSA and Bahrain.
The coup in 1995 saw Qatar move away from Saudi Arabia’s sphere of influence and saw the country building relations with Iran, Turkey, Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the West. Though this has sometimes worked in favor of the small emirate, recent changes in leadership in many of these countries has forced Qatar to reassess both its shift from neutrality to intervention, and its shift away from Saudi sphere of influence . Indeed, Qatar’s involvement in foreign conflicts has produced friction with both Iran, who has publicly criticized and threatened Qatar for its support of the Syrian opposition, and Saudi Arabia who, along with other GCC states, has imposed sanctions on the emirate and enforced a blockade on it in response to its deviation from GCC foreign policy standards to counter Iran and to follow KSA’ priorities. The question remains: how long can Qatar continue to follow its controversial foreign policy agenda while maintaining stability? This paper will look at Qatar’s domestic reality, its historical relations with the monarchies of the Gulf, and its strategic interests, in order to explain the country’s foreign policy trends and their consequences.
History of Qatar: Political & Family Feuds
“Kaaba of the Dispossessed” was an important phrase used by the historical Qatari leader, Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani (reigned from 1878 to 1913), to describe the historical role played by Qatar. Al-Thani used this term to highlight Qatar’s role as a host for banished regional leaders, fleeing criminals, and exiled political figures. Qatar’s continued observance of this policy has caused friction with its Gulf neighbors (mainly KSA), as it now hosts tens of controversial religious and political figures, and allows them to work against their governments using Qatari territory and resources. The platform which Qatar has created for these controversial figures takes on many forms, most prominent of which is Al-Jazeera, which provides them with a media outlet capable of reaching up to 220 million people.
Throughout history and to this day, Qatar has had difficult relations with both Bahrain and the UAE. Al Khalifa monarchs of Bahrain maintained control over Zubarah and other parts of Qatar until the late nineteenth century, when they were forced out by the British following an attempt to capture the current Qatari capital of Doha. Qatar’s ruling al-Thani tribe only gained full control over Zubarah in 1957, again following British intervention to stop Al Khalifa’s attempts at asserting Bahraini sovereignty over the area. On the Emirati side, Abu Dhabi has often intervened in Qatari royal politics, backing different branches of the Thani clan. The Qatari Emir, Sheikh Ahmad, who had proposed creating a greater federation of Arab Emirates and ruled from his villa in Switzerland, was ousted in 1972 while on a hunting trip in Iran by his cousin Sheikh Khalifa. Sheikh Ahmad ended up in Dubai and married the daughter of the city state’s emir.
UAE has since taken sides in Al Thani conflicts for years by allowing Hamad’s father to stay on their territory where he plotted counter-coups, all of which failed.
The turning point in the relations between Qatar and the Gulf states rose after Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, seized power from his father in a bloodless palace coup in June of 1995. Gulf leaders did not welcome Emir Hamad’s accession and saw it as a threat to the stability of the Gulf monarchies. Saudi Arabia was accused of being implicated in two counter-coup attempts in February 1996 and in 2005. The Qatari government withdrew the citizenships of up to 5,000 members of the Bani Murra tribe (historically located on the Saudi-Qatari border), accusing the tribe’s members of participating in the counter-coup attempt. The feud between the leaders of the Gulf is continuously expressed through familial relations. The KSA and UAE have both hosted members of the Al-Thani family who oppose the current emir and his followers, and in 2017 twenty Al-Thani members held a meeting in Qatar publicly criticizing current emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani, Hamad’s son and ruler since 2013, and stating that “Qatar would soon return to its Gulf origins” . Their constant meddling in each other’s political and familial affairs puts strain on GCC relations as these conflicts are not simply solved and can be detrimental to monarchical governments, which can be toppled with internal coups more easily than democratic governments. Democratic governments are based on an elected body of representatives with set terms, specific functions, and a checks-and-balances system, which make coups generally unnecessary and more damaging than beneficial for the party staging the coup. Monarchical systems, on the other hand, are based on the ruling monarch’s lineage, whose governance could theoretically last forever. This fact causes other family members who are not decedents of the ruling monarch to feel resentful of this monopoly of power and thus want to stage a coup in order to reach power. This is made easier by two things: firstly, the population does not feel involved in the political scene and may more readily accept a coup, secondly, the small nature of monarchical governments and the family feuds which often underline it mean coups require less time and effort to execute.
Qatar & Islamism
Qatar follows the same Wahhabi branch of Islam as Saudi Arabia, however, its practice of Wahhabism is somewhat more moderate than its neighbor’s. This divergence has drawn criticism from the Al-Saud family, as both the Al-Thani and Al-Saud families claim to have kinship ties with Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism, each asserting that their version of this branch of Salafism is superior and more correct. Qatar really claims a Wahhabism of the sea. It’s a more open and flexible notion of Wahhabism than that only of the desert. 
Qatar also maintains relations with the several branches of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) which angers KSA and UAE, who both perceive the Muslim Brotherhood to be a threat to their established monarchies. The nature of the relation between Qatar and the Ikhwan is multifaceted and based on Doha’s historical need for religious teachers not associated with Saudi’s Wahhabi teachings.
This relationship began in the early 1960s, when a large influx of Ikhwani scholars entered Qatar’s educational sector. The Ikhwan provided Qatar with an alternative to both pan-Arab thinkers and Saudi clerics. In 1962, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, arguably the Ikhwan’s most prominent imam, had also found refuge in Qatar, and eventually got his own show on Al Jazeera in the late 90’s called “Sharia and Law”. This show angered many Arab leaders, as their regimes were being attacked and criticized in front an audience of millions. To make matters worse, Qaradawi was spreading the Ikhwan’s Islamic teachings across the Arab world, which was the cause of much concern in Saudi Arabia. However, Qatar never allowed the Ikhwan to have a strong foothold in the country; Ikhwani institutions remain relatively small in the Emirate, as state control has been able to effectively limit the group’s influence over Qatari society. In reality, Qatar saw in the Ikhwan a potential ally and tool in the emirate’s plan to reshape the region according to its own interests. The strong relationship between the Qataris, the Ikhwan and different Islamist groups has provided Doha with greater influence in conflicts in Syria, Sudan, Gaza and Afghanistan and has allowed Qatar to play a much larger role than would have been possible had the small emirate conformed with GCC policy trends. Moreover, the Arab Spring saw the Muslim Brotherhood gain power and popularity, something Qatar immediately capitalized on in Egypt, Libya, and Syria by supporting these long-standing allies, and providing them with the tools necessary to come into and remain in power.
Qatar’s Mediation Era
After Emir Hamad’s coup in 1995, Qatar adopted a strong foreign policy aimed at maintaining the country’s security and stability, and securing its interests. Qatar’s foreign policy was also influenced by the country’s desire to play a more impactful role in regional issues and pave for itself a diplomacy strategy independent of its GCC neighbors. This foreign policy directive took the form of mediation and neutrality up until 2011. This was facilitated by Qatar’s ability to make quick decisions and remain consistent in its policies, as decision making is highly central, remaining in the hands of the Emir, the Prime Minister, and the Foreign Minister, all of whom are part of the ruling family. Qatar maintained a policy of neutrality in all regional conflicts, especially when it came those involving Iran, Saudi Arabia, and their proxies. This is due to the importance of maintaining stable and positive relations with both countries, seeing as Qatar’s wealth is tied to the gas field shared with Iran, and Doha’s identity and economy were tied to the GCC. And so, starting in 2005 Qatar became a major mediator, playing a role in Sudan, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and even Afghanistan, leading analysts to dub Qatar “the non-stop mediator”. However, Qatar’s mediations were highly criticized and mostly unsuccessful in achieving long-lasting peace and cooperation. Doha’s lack of success was attributed to its focus on power-based mediation and its lack of a proper foreign affairs department. Qatar’s interventions relied heavily on its capacity to use its vast wealth to offer incentives for conflicting parties to come to an agreement. This encouraged parties to focus on short-term gains rather than addressing the root-causes of the conflict, leading to a constant state of conflict management, instead of a more sustainable and beneficial conflict transformation. The centralized nature of Qatari decision making and insufficient follow-up mechanisms also played a major role in the failure of Qatar-mediated agreements, as was the case in Lebanon in 2008. Nonetheless, Qatar’s mediations still put the country on the map and garnered some form of legitimacy from the international community as a neutral mediator and important player in the Middle East.
Qatar’s Natural Gas: A Foreign-Policy Driver
Rising oil prices in the 1970s enabled the emir to provide a vast array of social programs. The fall in oil prices in 1982 and 1983 caused the social contract between the state and Qatari citizens to begin to fray. After years of government budget surpluses, oil production hit a plateau that caused Qatar to plunge into a seemingly endless deficit. Additionally, the so-called “tanker war” between Iran and Iraq which had strongly affected the Gulf countries, prompted Qatar to realize that it could no longer operate under the shadow of Saudi Arabia’s leadership. Doha realized that the US and the EU may be its only protector, especially when the United States invoked Operation Earnest Will to protect Gulf oil tankers from Iranian and Iraqi attack. Moreover, Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm unequivocally showed that Saudi Arabia could not protect itself and relied on the US as a guarantor. Qatar was seeking in the early 1990s to export its gas supplies by pipe to Bahrain, and Kuwait to the UAE and Oman. But Saudi Arabia was delaying and preventing the project. This was a blow to the emerging Qatari gas industry and forced Qatar to look further afield and delve into liquefied natural gas (LNG).” With the help of foreign expertise, Qatar developed the North Field and initiated LNG production, which in 1939, became its main source of income. Qatar shares the North Field, the world’s largest natural gas field, with Iran, which puts Qatar in a difficult position when asked by its fellow GCC countries to cut down ties with Tehran, seeing as it needs good relations with the latter in order to secure its LNG production, and thus secure its wealth and its ability to influence the region.
The Arab Spring: A Major Breakthrough
The Arab Spring brought with it a major shift in power in the Middle East, and an opportunity for Qatar to play the regional role it has always wanted to play. However, Qatar knew that it could not play this role by maintaining its neutral position, and so in 2011 Doha makes a major alteration in foreign policy, becoming an active supporter of opposition groups throughout the Middle East. Qatar’s involvement in the Arab Spring began in Libya, where it played a major role in toppling Gaddafi’s regime. The country sided with the rebels and aided them through financial, military and logistical support. Qatar is estimated to have spent $2 billion dollars in supporting the Libyan rebels, and its media outlet, Al-Jazeera, is credited with being the voice of the Arab Spring, covering protests and struggles in Libya, Egypt, and all over the Middle East.
In reality, Qatar’s policy of neutrality came at a moment when leaders in the Arab world were predominately long-standing, authoritarian dictators, however, when signs that this leadership was about to come under threat, Qatar wanted to play an active role in how this new leadership would be shaped. This was evident in the case of Libya, where even after Gaddafi’s fall, Qatar remained involved in the country’s economic, political, and military affairs. And also evident in Egypt, where Qatar used Al-Jazeera to undermine Hosni Mubarak’s government even before the Arab Spring and paid the Ikhwan $8 billion to support their short-lived government in 2012. These Qatari initiatives were meant to establish governments in the region that would be sympathetic to Qatar and aligned with its interests, thus allowing Qatar more influence in the region.
Doha also played a major role in the Syrian civil war, funding the opposition and brokering the formation of an umbrella organization for all Syrian opposition groups in 2012, called the “National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces”, in Doha after a year and a half of pressure by the international community on the Syrian opposition to unite.
However, in typical contradictory fashion, Qatar publicly supported the GCC in crushing protests initiated by the Shia-majority population in Bahrain, who were rising against the ruling Sunni monarchy, however, it did not send troops to aid in the GCC intervention. This can perhaps be seen as indicative of the fact that Qatar fears an increased Iranian influence in the Arab Peninsula, as well as its need to stay aligned, at least partially, with GCC interests.
Qatar’s relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, its constant antagonism of GCC countries and the regimes they support have all led to the isolation of Qatar by the GCC. This tension culminated in 2014, when GCC-Qatari relations took a turn for the worse after Doha was accused of not implementing an agreement among Gulf States not to interfere in each other’s internal affairs, this led the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt (dubbed the Quartet) to withdraw their ambassadors in an effort to force Qatar to change its foreign policy. Attempts at a rapprochement concluded in Qatar agreeing to a list of demands by the GCC asking it to withdraw its support of the Muslim Brotherhood, to expel all current Ikhwan members from Qatar, stop granting citizenship to GCC exiles, stop all media outlets it supports directly or indirectly from criticizing GCC governments, and cede its support of Houthis in Yemen (something Qatar denies ever doing).
Nevertheless, Qatar’s signature did not lead to compliance with the demands, as Qatar continued to follow its previous foreign policy path with no apparent changes having been made. However, a new and powerful leadership in Saudi Arabia, as well as a change in administration and foreign policy in the US, led to heightened tensions between Iran, their allies and various other regional actors.
Thus, in April of 2017, the quartet released a list of 13 demands for Qatar to comply with; the demands were similar to the ones made in 2014, however, they were more demanding and more urgent. The most extreme demands involved Qatar severing all diplomatic and military ties with Iran, retaining only economic relations in accordance with The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), severing all ties to “terrorist organizations”, shutting down Al Jazeera and all Qatari-sponsored media outlets, and immediately terminating the Turkish military presence in Qatar and putting an end to any joint military cooperation with Turkey inside the country.
The severity of these new demands led analysts to suggest that the goal of these demands was not rapprochement between Qatar and the quartet, but in fact were intended to make Qatar a vassal state subordinate to the GCC and their foreign policy trend. Qatar failed to agree to the demands within the 10-day period set by the Quartet, which pushed the latter to implement a land, air, and sea blockade on Qatar. These measures were expected to discipline Qatar and align it with the Quartet’s interests, however, the result was the exact opposite. Qatar’s isolation from the Quartet pushed Qatar to pursue its own policies more freely, and has brought an air of patriotism and defiance to Qatari society, who now feel more inclined to push for self-sufficiency than ever before. Qatar has also put major effort into strengthening ties with the West, spending $1.5 billion dollars on think tanks, PR, and cultural and economic projects. This has tipped the scale in Qatar’s favor as the American leadership feels more frustrated by Riyadh’s missteps, namely its somewhat extreme corruption crackdown, the growing humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and its detention of the Lebanese Prime Minister. In a show of defiance, not only did Qatar not cut diplomatic ties with Iran or stop military cooperation with Turkey, it in fact restored full diplomatic relations with Tehran, and welcomed 5000 new Turkish troops onto Qatari soil.
The outcome of this Qatari-Quartet divide has yet to culminate. The immediate consequences of the blockade saw Qatari economic growth slow down by almost 2%, and inflation rising. Qatar’s economic relations with the GCC are vital to Qatar’s exports, airline, and banking sector, all of which were hit considerably by the blockade. However, Qatar’s economy recuperated rapidly due to Doha strengthening its economic ties with East Asian countries like China and Malaysia, and expanding trade with regional countries, like Turkey and Iran. Experts expect Qatar’s economy to continue to grow, however, they believe that the blockade’s damaging impact on Qatar’s food prices, trade balance, and banking sector will not cease until a solution between the Quartet and Qatar is reached. For now Qatar is not facing any serious threat to its economic or political stability and is in fact enjoying being seen as a victim in the West due to its strong PR efforts. However, increasing pressure by the GCC over the years, and especially the recent blockade has caused Qatar to reassess its priorities and reconsider its foreign policy trend. Qatar now takes more flexible approaches than it used to during the early years of the Arab Spring, has reduced its criticism of the Egyptian leadership, and has minimized its regional role, simply remaining an interlocutor in Syria and Iraq between the West and different factions that cannot be engaged directly by Western or regional governments.
What Now for This Small Emirate?
Qatar’s case proves that it is not easy for a small country to play a bigger role than what is expected of it; following an independent foreign policy, trying to shape the region according to its own interests and vision, and attempting to balance between two regional powers, has caused Qatar to come under great scrutiny and attack. However, Qatar’s unique foreign policy tactics have put this small emirate in the centerstage on many regional issues, such as Libya and Syria, and has allowed the emirate to stand tall in the face of regional giant Saudi Arabia, by turning itself into a major heavyweight ally for the West and hosting the largest US military base in the Middle East, and maintaining strong military cooperation with Turkey. Qatar’s foreign policy may seem contradictory to many, as having positive relations with opposing factions seems to be counterintuitive. However, this has made Qatar an indispensable player in many regional issues, being able to put two opposing factions on the table with each other and reaching a compromise.
In order to project Qatar’s foreign policy trajectory there are several factors that should be closely monitored. Qatar’s isolation by the Quartet has brought the country closer to Iran and Turkey, and further away from the GCC. This allows Tehran to possibly create a counter alliance to the GCC, and more impactfully hurt GCC interests. If the Quartet does not ease its policies towards Qatar and does not attempt some form of sustainable rapprochement Qatar might fall deeper into Iranian influence and threaten Gulf stability, however, the US might be able to play a role in this issue. Trump’s close friendship with Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS), via his son-in-law Jared Kushner have certainly improved the relations between the two countries, however, this does not herald a deterioration in the relationship between Qatar and the USA. The US foreign policy is based on a specific checks and balances strategy between the different actors in the system; and so Qatar will have to meet US policy priorities by adhering to a counter-terrorism plan, and having a clearer, more antagonistic, position towards Iran especially after Washington’s withdrawal from the JCPOA. Seeing as US-Qatari relations remain a priority to Qatar, it is interesting to see how far Qatar will go in its relations with Iran, and whether the US will be able to play a role in GCC-Qatari relations. On another note, the Quartet has recently understood that it cannot intervene militarily in Qatar, or orchestrate a coup against the Emir. Qatar’s relations with the US, Turkey, and Iran provide Qatar with international legitimacy and support and can potentially immunize it against such a threat. Qatar’s foreign policy trends have helped the country garner support and sympathy from the international community, and has protected this country from the detriments of being a small state in a turbulent region. While once characterized by neutrality and mediation, Qatar’s foreign policy shifted to become interventionist in the early years of the Arab Spring, and now, after mounting pressure from regional and international players to play less of a role in the Middle East, Qatar’s foreign policy seems to be based on keeping a low profile. With leaders of major powers around the world becoming more hardline and nationalistic, and foreign policies becoming more zero-sum, Qatar’s size is becoming more and more of a burden and an impediment to this emirate’s efforts in becoming a regional player. How Qatar will deal with these pressures and cope in these turbulent times in order to maintain and expand its influence in the region is yet to be seen. Will the small emirate falter and cave under the international pressure, or will it continue to expand its influence and play a major role in the Middle East in the years to come?
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 Ibid 2
 Ibid 1
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 As American troops have been under pressure to move out of Saudi Arabia, Qatar has welcomed them and serves as a permanent U.S. base. This gesture has been conducted against the wishes of many in the region, but it further illustrates the lengths to which Qatar will go to exercise its independence. See “Global Security: Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar” http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/facility/udeid.htm.
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