Qatar’s Shifting Regional Role

Hundreds of Syrians and other Doha residents protest against President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria in a second day of action in Qatar.
Photo: Omar Chatriwala, Source: Flickr, License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

November 26, 2012
Salman Shaikh

If Qatar’s emergence as a real factor in Middle East and international politics wasn’t already clear before the Syrian opposition’s November conference in Doha, the resulting unified opposition body that was launched in Doha should be a further reminder. Skepticism aside, the negotiations hosted and brokered by Qatar have produced a process by which Syrians might have an opportunity to build a genuine national platform around which Syrians opposed to the regime of Bashar al-Assad can unite. While there is much work left to make the new Syrian National Coalition of Opposition and Revolutionary Forces effective inside Syria, the dysfunctional and unrepresentative Syrian National Council has been cut down to size, while other national figures and, importantly, representatives of the local and civil councils have been incorporated.

Through the exercise of its regional diplomatic clout and (including, realistically, some arm-twisting), Qatar has arranged a marriage of Syria’s fractious opposition. With Saudi and Emirati help, it has fast-tracked recognition of that body in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Arab League, which is now pushing for wider legitimacy and recognition in the international community. The result could allow for a unified Syrian-international front against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, including the hope of more material support to the opposition and, hopefully, a solution in the near term to the Syrian crisis.

Only a few years earlier, of course, Qatar occupied a very different place in the Middle East. Its shifting alignment with regional and international powers positioned Qatar as the region’s premiere mediator. In 2008 Lebanon, for example, Doha was the only player able to speak to all sides – particularly the Saudis, Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the Iranians – and avert an open and rending conflict. Qatar played a similar role in producing a settlement between the Sudanese government and Darfur’s rebels in 2009.

Arab Spring as an opportunity

As is clear in retrospect, however, the Arab Spring represented a turning point in Qatari diplomacy. Since it saw itself insulated from domestic demands for reform by its extreme wealth and tiny population, Qatar recognized the Arab revolutions in 2011 as an opportunity, not a threat. It was nimble enough to reorder its relationships and alliances to adapt to a new Middle East and take sides when it thought it necessary. When the time came, Qatar tossed aside its formerly promising relationship with Syria’s Assad (with the attendant cooling effect on its relations with Iran), while cementing a new regional alliance including Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Qatar’s relations with Saudi Arabia are indicative of this change in its foreign policy. While the relationship between the two neighbors was rocky only a few years ago, the two have now managed to forge a mutual partnership – based, to be sure, on newly aligned interests. While Saudi Arabia remains the big brother, it now listens to Qatar. Qatar, meanwhile, waited for Riyadh to join a regional policy consensus on Syria in late 2011 before launching into a coordinated campaign of pressure on the Assad regime through the GCC, the Arab League, and international institutions. In the case of both Qatar and Turkey, however, this increasing regional clout has come at the expense of their ability to act as regional mediators – between the U.S. and Iran, for instance.

While Qatar arguably played a key role in the Egyptian revolution through the coverage of its state-sponsored Al-Jazeera satellite network, the Libyan uprising represented the first real expression of Qatar’s new regional approach. Qatar again worked closely with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to shape a unified Gulf response to the Libyan fighting, then turned around and helped form an international consensus for intervention in the United Nations Security Council. Doha would no doubt have similarly coordinated with international initiatives on the Syrian issue if not for the revival of Great Power rivalries – particularly between the United States, Russia and China - along the “Syria Fault-line” in the Security Council.

Qatar must now be regarded as an established regional and international actor. It partners with the West but, as can be seen in Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani’s recent visit to Gaza, is also willing to go it alone. Doha’s new political leadership complements its existing weight in the energy sector, which has been central to its cultivation of ties that look to the East, especially with the Asian superpowers India, China, South Korea and Japan, as well as the West. Qatar’s relationships with the consumers of its natural gas are no longer just transactional, they are strategic.

New key actor in global politics

Clearly, there are potential drawbacks to Doha’s growing international prominence. The Qatari policy establishment and population are aware that the country’s newly assertive foreign policy has carried with it risks, both in terms of the Assad regime’s retribution and the risks related to a wider Iran-centered conflagration. Still, Doha’s relationship with the West, and specifically the US-centered security umbrella over the Gulf states, has afforded the country room to move.

Another problematic aspect of this recent assertiveness can be seen in increasing criticism of excessive “meddling” in other states’ domestic politics – in Libya after the fall of Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi, for example. In this regard, Qatar continues to learn key lessons on how to deal with newly democratic and sovereign governments, as well as with their international supporters. The same is true for Qatar’s emerging role as an actor and facilitator of international cooperation and development: It is hosting the UN’s “COP 18”conference on climate change in the coming days and has been the driver of a new UN initiative, “HopeFor,” which will facilitate the use of military assets in providing humanitarian assistance in natural disasters.

Qatar shows no signs of slowing its campaign of regional and global diplomacy. What, then, are its priorities?  Syria is clearly near the top of the list, as is the Palestinian issue – Qatar chairs the Arab League Follow-Up Committee for the Arab Peace Initiative. Both issues represent possible areas of cooperation and coordination with European foreign policy. The Palestinians’ upcoming return to the United Nations to petition for statehood, then, could bring Europe and Arab states together and provide an opportunity to inject a much needed jolt to Palestinian demands for self-determination. Qatar is also obviously playing a key role in supporting the Mediterranean states of the Arab Spring, providing another confluence of Qatari and European interests. This is in addition to mutual trade and investment, an economic partnership that could mitigate Europe’s fiscal challenges. What is by now obvious is that active Qatari diplomacy has become a reality of Middle East and global politics. A rising Qatar is simultaneously a feature of the remade, post-Arab Spring Middle East and a key actor helping to shape it, even if not yet entirely clear to which ends.


Salman Shaikh is the director of the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He previously served as the special assistant to the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process. 


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