During the month of May, a tension broke up between a number of the Gulf member states following the statement of the young prince of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, claiming Iran to have “a big power in the stabilisation of the region.” The statement outraged the gulf leading member state, Saudi Arabia and its main ally United Arab Emirates calling on Gulf and Arab countries to boycott Doha. The state of Qatar denied the allegations saying that the state TV had been hacked and false statements posted on it. Regardless of whether the statement was accurately made or falsified, Qatar role and its foreign policy as a member of the “Arabian” Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) remain fascinating to securities. Here are some of my reflection on Qatar’s distinctive policies and behaviour as a micro-state.
Qatar's “pragmatic” Wahhabism
- Qatar’s ruling family al-Thani and the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia adhere to the same ideological creed “Wahhabism”; a puritanical and orthodox form of Sunni Islam. Nevertheless, both countries have had contention since 1995, where Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani, was deposed by his own son, Crown Prince Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani in a bloodless coup, driving the country away from its dependency on Saudi patronage and cutting the apron strings that traditionally tie Gulf states.
No to Saudi Patronage
- The Iraq invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was a tipping point that caused distrust between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf member states. The Saudi,- who often behave and perceived as the big brother in GCC- feared and failed to encounter the Iraqi aggression and protect its small neighbouring member state, Kuwait. This has made Qatar strive to recalculate its relations with Saudis and seek protection beyond the Kingdom’s wing.
- Qatar has been and still concerned over its security dilemma considering that it has the smallest army in the region. The quest to protect the micro-state and it 313,000 native Qataris and survive in a world determined by anarchy and realist views, has been the biggest issue. Therefore, developing a unique foreign policy was a key to resolving the dilemma and to survive in the global order.
“Soft” Foreign Policy
- As part of crafting a unique “soft” foreign policy so that the small state is recognized globally and relatively protected in case of anarchy eruption, Qatar establishes the controversial Al Jazeera satellite channel, brand the state of Qatar as a peace-broker/mediator in a febrile region; hosting conflict belligerents/politicians from (Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Sudan), hosting international cultural exhibits, museums, prestigious education institution, and even winning the race to host world cup 2022.
- Qatar adopted the policy of “Keep your enemies close and your friends’ closer", and vigorous diplomacy was in place, where all actors are welcomed to Doha, including those who are hostile to each other, such as Israelis and Hamas, Saudis and Iranians, Americans and Russians. Qatar's immense wealth facilitates its rulers' vision to ensure "good" relations with everyone. Note that Qatar's citizens are the richest in the world, with a GDP per person of $80,000-plus
- Prior to Arab Spring, Qatar insisted on promoting its self as a neutral and non-aligned country but during the remarkable uprising across the Arab States in 2011, it shifted semi-neutrality to an open support to the increased power of the Muslim Brotherhoods forces across the region. Despite the core ideological differences between the ruling family and the brothers yet Qatar perceive them as potential counter-balance actors to the looming giant next door, Saudi Arabia and as part of the new order in the region. Qatar was frowned on by Gulf leaders for its friendly relations with Muslim Brotherhood. The Qatari state did not shy away from offering exile for many prominent dissidents in Doha and bankrolling Islamists in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Gaza.
- When Saudi Arabia turfed out American troops following the Gulf war of 1991 due fear of backlash by puritans, Qatar seized the opportunity and invited Americans to install the largest American military base in its territory.
Qatar: The Prodigal Son
- Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who has ruled since overthrowing his father in 1995, passed power to his 33-year old son Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in 2013. The young prince sought to smooth ruffled feathers of fellow Gulf leaders and he since adopted a friendly approach, expressed a pragmatic tone and loathed the Brothers(!), alongside its fellow Saudi Arabia and UAE. However, it remains questionable if the state of Qatar is genuine in its stance.
Trump’s recent visit to Saudi seems to impact relations within the Gulf house. KSA and UAE bent on a political realignment of Gulf member states and Qatar will be pushed to the shelves unless it shows compliance with Saudi policies.