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By Mohammad Aslam


The Montréal Review, June 2011




Can this tiny Gulf satellite state, or more appropriately - satellite with a state, really be the major player it so desires?

The country's leadership is fond of mixing with others they think are up to the snuff. By this of course, we mean claimants for the centre stage in regional decision making. In Middle Eastern diplomacy, without a thick skin perhaps regional politics and intervention isn't the type of foreign policy one should espouse.

But ever since the launch of its world renowned Pan-Arab satellite television channel 'Al-Jazeera', complete with its controversial reporting and debates - at times with polemics that are far from objective, Qatar has been thrust onto the world stage.

In recent weeks, and aside from its winning right to host the 2022 soccer world cup, Qatar's interjection into regional events have become the target of wagging tongues and leering glances.  Along with France, it became the only country to publically recognize the Libyan National Transitional Council (the main opposition fighting the rule of Colonel Gaddafi) as the legitimate authority in that country.  Even better, it has become the bastion of providing funds and political support for their campaign.

For a country which is collectively the home of the U.S. Central Command in the region, builds and then breaks ties with Israel and antagonizes some of its Gulf neighbors like Saudi Arabia by successfully mediating in the disputes in client countries like Lebanon; the Qatari leadership seems relatively sanguine about the whole affair.

Mediation, economics, forums, sports and international relations seem like supplements for higher aspirations of influence.  After all, it is considering being the first Arab country to send planes in order to enforce the no-fly zone over Libya. On the other hand, it has allowed groups which the United States considers 'terrorist' like Hamas and Hezbollah to attend meeting and conferences in Doha, providing funds and negotiating settlements with their leaders.

Just what exactly does it think its playing at?

In short, and despite its relatively small size, Qatar is a state bent on regional and international recognition - perhaps even a quasi Switzerland of the turbulent Middle-East.  For this to see light it requires one thing more than all else: Publicity.

When you make use of national oil and Gas revenues to fulfill popular domestic desires, you keep your own constituency pleased. To reach out for international recognition, they promote conferences for trade and commerce inviting investors with a lure of being the next Dubai. To dispel fears of catching the virus of regional instability, it stretches its hand and financial muscle to make peace between its feuding Arab brothers; Qatar is a country not wanting to disappoint.

Nevertheless humanitarian concerns are at the forefront of Qatari desires, for in recent years wherever there has been a conflict in the region it seems that Qatar has been drawn to resolve it like a moth to a flame.

The Palestinian territories, Darfur, Lebanon and even Sahara have fingerprints of Qatari mediation. Despite its now vehement antagonism towards Libya, at the height of the trial of six Bulgarian nurses put on trial in 1998 for allegedly infecting over 400 Libyan children with HIV, Qatar was one of the main mediators in resolving the conflict and bringing about stipulations for compensation to the victims and their families.  They were all eventually released.

But despite Qatari adventures of neutrality and peace-building, another cynical analysis might allude to them soon having mud flung at them. Perhaps they will brush it off, as for publicity aspirants like Qatar- bad publicity is better than no publicity.  The lack of political accountability in this tiny state coupled with reports of human rights abuses on foreign workers certainly needs to be addressed.

It's no secret the Qatar is run by an absolute monarch. In a volatile region awash with 'people power', its leadership cannot be immune from cries for democracy despite its oil and gas wealth keeping people afloat.  Just as the Saudi leadership to confirm that.

In the realm of foreign policy, the hypothesis is simple to conclude. When you are a conduit for pleasing all parties in the Middle East, you're asking for trouble. To break bread with America and Israel's sworn enemies in Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah - whilst at the same time sleeping in the knowledge that U.S. bases are at your hospitality, the Qatari leadership maybe diluting its own independence.

If you couple this with the type of fallout Al-Jazeera has instigated with its neighborly Arab brethren, at times concentrating on distorting the truth rather than building bridges, soon the confidence in which the many strands of its foreign policy is practiced, maybe blunted.

It does not require creative imagination to calculate that confidence comes from protection. If the U.S. moves its bases tomorrow, if the Arab spring grinds to a halt and Qatar is left to its own devices, it may no longer be the darling little swan amongst the many aspiring ducks of the Persian Gulf for long.


Mohammad Aslam is a PhD candidate in Political Violence at the Department of Middle-East & Mediterranean Studies, King's College London.


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