The Little Emirate that Could

Previous Qatari Emir

By Jacob Zionce.

The ongoing crisis in Egypt has seen the rise of a number of key figures: Morsi, the military, Google searches for the word ‘coup’. However, more attention should be paid to one of the other rising stars this month’s events have highlighted– Qatar.

Qatar had become one of the Morsi administration’s largest donors, supplying $7.5 billion of loans and grants to Egypt since the beginning of the 2011 riots against then-president Hosni Mubarak, with $5 billion coming after Morsi’s June 2012 election. In doing so, the oil-laden Gulf State of approximately 2 million people has attempted to cement its power and influence in a region bereft of political behemoths.

This support for Egypt’s new Islamist leader, of course, has not helped cement Qatar’s standing in the nation since Morsi’s unseating.  While the emirate’s money is still good – Egypt continues to convert deposits from a $1 billion Qatari bond it received in the beginning of July – there are early indicators that the new revolution may lead to future problems between the two nations. Qatar was among the last of the Arab states to send its congratulations to newly-appointed President Adil Mansour, doing so hours after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Kuwait. At the same time, Qatar’s peers in the Gulf were quick to try to replace Qatar as the preeminent patron of Egypt, with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia pledging $3 billion and $2 billion, respectively, in loans and grants, according to Reuter’s sources. Furthermore, Doha’s official statement on the matter made no specific mention of Morsi or the Muslim Brotherhood, showing an uneasiness to admit past a connection to the now-disgraced administration.

Egypt serves as a perfect case study of the fixation the Gulf States have had with soft power in the post-Arab Spring world. The leadership battle has played out between Qatar and the UAE, with the latter being rather wary of the Muslim Brotherhood, and withholding promised aid during Morsi’s year in office. At the same time, Qatar has infringed on Saudi Arabia’s religious and rhetorical stomping grounds, with newly appointed Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani saying that “Qatar will remain the Kaaba of the oppressed,” calling on the imagery of Islam’s holiest site, which is located in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

Egypt, however, is only one playing field in Qatar’s budding diplomatic power struggle. While Qatar has been a sizable benefactor to a number of Arab Spring states, Emir Tamim and his paternal predecessor, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, have most notably been contesting Saudi Arabia to be the primary backer of the Syrian rebels. At the same time, Qatar has delved into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, leading a delegation that proposed a revival of talks between the two camps predicated on the notion of Israel returning to pre-1967 borders with mutually agreed-upon land swaps, a move that US Secretary of State John Kerry called “a very big step forward.” Qatar added to this proposal, however, as its foreign minister proposed reviving the Arab Peace Initiative, a peace plan that had previously been led by then-Crown Prince, and now King, Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Qatar’s state-run media conglomerate Al-Jazeera, has continued its meteoric rise to prominence in reporting news not only in the Arab world, but globally as well.

So is Qatar’s meddling in regional politics just a blip on the map, or a sign of larger things to come? A number of factors need to fall into place for Qatari influence to continue to increase. First, the US would need to remain relatively uninvolved in regional conflicts. Before Secretary Kerry’s June sweep through Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Jordan, America’s leadership in the age-old conflict had stagnated as of late. The US has also notably been slow to arm Syrian rebels, and continues to debate if, and how, to aid the new regime in Cairo. Second, Qatar will need to quickly revamp its relations with the new regime in Egypt.  Whether this involves preferential oil deals, more aid, or another diplomatic option remains unclear, but Doha will need to make up the ground it has lost to Riyadh and others. Third, Qatar will need to usurp traditional roles held by Arab states. For example, becoming the main Arab nation involved in Palestinian affairs will require taking over the role traditionally held by Egypt and Jordan. While Egypt’s internal turbulence may make that switch less of an issue, one could see a taking of the role from Jordan requiring both unwillingness from Amman to come to the negotiating table, and the ongoing and strategic fostering of good relations between Doha and the Palestinian Authority.

Even if Qatar is able to deal with these external challenges, however, there still are important internal elements to consider. With the aforementioned Emir Tamim’s ascension to power comes fears of political turmoil within Qatar. Changeovers are often difficult within authoritarian regimes and, as Simon Henderson pointed out in a recent Foreign Policy article, one would be hard-pressed to find a smooth Qatari transition of power in the last 100 years. Qatar must also deal with the stark reality that regardless of any soft power gains it may make it still does not have the militaristic capabilities to balance against neighbors, particularly in Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps, however, Doha does not need the threat of hard power in its arsenal. The emirate has exerted considerable influence in the region thus far through its deep financial reserves, diplomatic tact, and strategic opportunism. The nation still has quite a ways to go if it hopes to seize the mantle of leadership in the region, yet continuing to involve itself in regional affairs and hoping for the best is probably the best line of action for Qatar. While its limitations may make it difficult to deal with future challenges, Doha can continue to rely on its coffers to put a punch behind its rhetoric. Money cannot solve all of the nation’s problems, but it has, and will, go a long way towards helping Qatar make new friends and garner influence in this strange new Arab world.

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