The Middle East Channel

The Qatar problem

The Qatar problem

On the face of it, Qatar has been one of the United States’s most valuable allies in the Middle East over the last decade. Qatar hosts a large U.S. Air Force base in the Persian Gulf and has often provided political and financial support for U.S. initiatives in the Middle East. Indeed, Washington has often encouraged Qatari activism to legitimize U.S. diplomacy, including its political support at the Arab League of a potential U.S. strike against Syria.

But Qatar’s role in the United States’s Middle East policy is far more problematic than is commonly recognized. The tiny yet ambitious Gulf emirate has sought to use its immense hydrocarbon wealth to finance and arm civil wars in Libya and Syria, to support Hamas in Gaza, and to mediate disputes in Sudan and Lebanon. Its interest sometimes align with the United States’s — but too often, they do not. The launch of Al-Jazeera America, the news network its government owns, should redirect attention to Doha’s goals and means. 

Qatari activism over the last few years has been a mixed blessing for the United States. Indeed, it has often actively and purposefully undermined U.S. efforts on key problems. In Egypt, for example, Qatar’s lavish and unconditional funding of the Morsi government enabled it to avoid taking the difficult steps that the International Monetary Fund (and the United States) believed were necessary to get the Egyptian economy back on track and to compromise with domestic opponents. In Gaza, Qatar helped undermine U.S. efforts to isolate and delegitimize Hamas by its strong and public embrace of its leadership including through high-level visits to Gaza.

In Libya, U.S. efforts to support the formation of a moderate and inclusive Libyan transitional government capable of effectively governing Libya were constantly thwarted and undermined by an independent Qatari policy. While the United States and its other partners tried to promote the opposition Transitional National Council (TNC) on the world stage, Qatar repeatedly and unhelpfully pushed for a more prominent role for alternative opposition groups that were dependent on Qatar. Qatar also funneled weapons and ammunition to Islamist militias outside of the TNC structure, strengthening the voices of groups opposed to the U.S. vision for post-Qaddafi Libya and undermining the TNC’s ability and legitimacy to establish control. According to a senior Israeli official, "Qatar’s reckless conduct in Libya was disastrous. They supported dangerous Islamist actors." As was often predicted at the time, these practices contributed to Libya’s inability to form an effective central authority and to rein in those militias.

It has been no better in Syria. Qatar emerged after 2011 as arguably the most important external supporter of the Syrian opposition to the Assad regime. Qatar has spent, according to news reports, over $3 billion on aid to the opposition. Qatar has been among the opposition’s primary suppliers of arms and ammunition and may have the most influence of any external actor with the fractious Syrian opposition. Many allies pose difficulties for the United States in the Syria context, but Qatar has proven the greatest obstacle to forging allied unity on Syria policy. As in Libya, the Qataris have used their influence to frustrate the efforts of the United States and others to foster unity within the Syrian opposition that is the prerequisite for a negotiated solution to the war. According to press reports, Qatar’s actions — its tendency to support multiple Islamist factions, its willingness to engage with Jihadist actors, and its refusal to channel aid solely through the Syrian Military Council (SMC) — have exacerbated the divisions within the opposition and contributed to the opposition’s refusal to negotiate. As Middle East analyst Mishaal Al Gergawi puts it in Al-Monitor, "[t]he parties Qatar supports … have carried a sectarian and non-cooperative message, at times implied and at others stated outright." 

All of this is a problem for U.S. policy on Syria. While U.S. policy on Syria has many defects, no U.S. policy could hope to restore stability unless the United States forged consensus with the countries commonly considered its allies in Syria. If U.S. airstrikes or lethal assistance were to hasten the fall of the Assad regime, opposition unity would be essential for stability in post-Assad Syria. The recent decision by the Obama administration to arm the Syrian opposition is intended in part to foster opposition unity and empower moderates. But without the cooperation of key U.S. allies, U.S. lethal assistance will only exacerbate opposition divides as sponsors compete to fund their favorite proxies. Allied unity is necessary to ensure a coherent opposition and a unified opposition, in turn, is necessary to achieve the negotiated solution the United States seeks.

So what are the Qataris trying to do? According to Mehran Kamrava of Georgetown University, Qatar seeks the prestige that comes from playing a role on all of the big issues of the day. But, judging from its pattern of activity of the past few years, Qatari activism is also clearly part of a larger Qatari strategy that has been playing out across the Muslim world. As Brian Katulis explains, Qatar sees the Arab Awakening as an opportunity to spread Qatari influence through the establishment of Islamist governments that look to Qatar (and not to Saudi Arabia or the United States) for support and guidance. It is this dual interest in promoting influence and ideology that informs Qatari foreign policy from Libya to Palestine.

In many places, this strategy has meant fostering a government made up of Muslim Brotherhood (MB) related groups that are beholden to their benefactors in Doha. Qatar’s decision to patronize MB movements, as opposed to alternative factions, is driven by two factors. 

First, Qatar thinks that it can exercise greater control over the MB than other political movements. When the emir took power in the mid-1990s, the MB was a client without a Sunni Arab patron. This enabled Qatar to position itself as a unique and indispensable ally of the MB, with all of the leverage that entailed. In contrast, Salafi movements, for instance, have long enjoyed the patronage of Saudi Arabia. Should Qatar choose to back Salafi groups, it would find itself in a competition for influence with its regional rival, undermining Qatar’s control of its client.

Second, Qatar probably assesses that the MB is the wave of the future in the Middle East, a movement that resonates with pluralities — if not majorities — in many Arab countries, despite its recent setback in Egypt. While Qatar may be able to acquire comparable influence over secular and liberal groups, which also badly need external support, the Qatari leadership likely believes these movements would not afford it much influence abroad. The former emir’s record of supporting MB organizations throughout the region (with Qatar, itself, being the notable exception) and the emirate’s long-standing relationship with the influential MB-affiliated cleric Yusuf Al-Qaradawi have given Qatar an enormous advantage in cultivating alliances with emboldened Islamist groups throughout the Middle East.

Qatari leaders might logically fear that the march of populist movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood, across the Arab world might someday threaten their rule. But, sheltered by its vast wealth, the Qatari government seems confident it can contain the threat posed by potential domestic MB movements in Qatar while supporting the MB abroad.

This Qatari strategy implies that U.S.-Qatari divides are not simply a difference in tactics, as U.S. officials often assert. Nor is Qatar simply filling a U.S. leadership vacuum. As the Libya example demonstrates, Qatar has the capacity to frustrate U.S. goals even when the United States is deeply engaged. Rather, the superficial similarity in U.S. and Qatari goals masks much deeper and more abiding differences about the two countries’ visions for the Middle East. At times, these visions coincide and allow effective cooperation. But when they don’t, Qatar has proven willing to work actively to frustrate important U.S. policy goals.

In Syria, for example, Qatar’s goal of establishing a MB government dependent on Qatar cannot be achieved through a political settlement. The very process of negotiation, particularly one brokered by the United States and Russia, would dilute the influence of the MB within the opposition and require some degree of compromise with elements of the Assad regime. Thus, Qatar’s goals require military victory, first by the opposition forces over the Assad regime and then by Qatar’s political and military proxies over other sponsors’ proxies within the opposition. So, Qatar’s actions have not been aimed at promoting a political solution in Syria, nor have they been aimed at promoting a more coherent opposition.

One of the most conspicuous — and disruptive — manifestations of this approach was Qatar’s overt support for the divisive MB candidate for interim prime minister, Ghassan Hitto, in March. His selection led nine members of the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) to suspend their memberships, undercutting opposition unity, and seemed intended to derail SOC President Moaz Al-Khatib’s initiative to start a dialogue with the regime. Khatib resigned shortly thereafter.

If Qatari involvement in Syria has hindered the prospects for the emergence of a stable, functioning, and representative Syrian opposition, this is not the unintended consequence of a poorly designed or implemented policy. Rather, it is the logical culmination of a strategy that privileges Qatari influence and favored actors over peace in Syria and the stability in the region.

Overall, while Qatar is not necessarily an enemy of the United States, it is certainly not an ally. The usual U.S. government response to such deviationism among partners is to advocate "high-level engagement" to make known U.S. displeasure and to convince the ally of the errors of its ways. But in the Qatari case, engagements at the highest levels on both Libya and Syria (as well as on efforts to get the Qataris to cut off their support to Hamas) have failed to alter Qatari behavior. It is time to recognize this and consider whether the United States needs to reconsider its approach to Qatari activism.

The recent leadership transition in Qatar, in which the emir stepped down in favor of his son, might present some new opportunities for the United States to turn Qatar from its present course. But most analysts agree that there is little indication that the new emir would seek to change Qatari foreign policy. In his maiden speech as emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani seemed to be at pains to demonstrate continuity in foreign policy, vowing to follow his father’s "path" and strongly asserting that Qatar would continue its "independent behavior." Indeed, Tamim is widely regarded as one of the architects of Qatar’s Libya and Syria policy over the past two years, including his country’s patronage of the MB.

The United States should certainly be open to a more cooperative relationship if Tamim agrees to alter the pattern of recent Qatari policy. But it would be imprudent to assume that the new emir will fundamentally change what Qatar views as a successful policy. If the pattern persists, it will be time to accept that U.S.-Qatari differences do not result from failures to communicate. They are differences over goals in Syria and elsewhere. Accordingly, the United States should cease trying to convince the Qataris that their actions are undermining shared goals and accept their objectives in these cases are not the same as those of the United States. Instead, it is a question of changing the cost-benefit calculus that Qatar faces in its Syria policy. This would be very difficult in the case of Qatar because of its wealth, its role in U.S. basing in the Persian Gulf, and its value to the United States on other geopolitical priorities in which U.S. and Qatari interests are more aligned and Qatar is working well with the United States.

In the end, Qatar is neither an enemy nor an ally of the United States. While the United States cannot build a deep strategic relationship with Qatar, this does not mean it should oppose Qatar at every turn. Rather the United States should realize that it will always have a very transactional relationship with Qatar and thus should seek to get the best deal on every transaction. And, the United States does have some cards to play, and should consider if it decides that the new Qatari government intends to continue Qatar’s recent policies.

In the case of Syria, the United States could try to use its influence with Turkey and Jordan to cut off Qatar’s access to the theater. In Jordan, which fears Qatar’s influence on Islamist actors in Syria, this is not a difficult case to make. But in Turkey, the United States may need to point out that Qatar doesn’t have the intelligence apparatus to support a weapons-delivery process that ensures its cargo reaches the intended recipient with any degree of reliability. It would be very surprising if a significant share of Qatari arms didn’t leak to other groups, including the Kurds given their proximity to shipment routes from Turkey. Even if Bashar al-Assad falls, Qatari efforts may ultimately result in a second civil war that will pit secularists versus Islamists and Arabs versus Kurds and risk the dismemberment of Syria — an outcome that Turkey fears might worsen its Kurdish problem. Concurrently, the United States could try to reduce Qatari influence by encouraging Saudi Arabia, which is more supportive of moderate and secular Syrian factions and more aligned with U.S. goals, to use its financial resources to substitute for Qatar, as new reports indicate may already be happening.

In addition to denying Qatar’s access to Syria, the United States could seek to raise the costs for Qatar of continuing on its current course. The United States could exploit the long-standing Qatari-Saudi rivalry and encourage the Saudis to host Qatari dissidents who challenge the legitimacy of the Thani family and even give them a platform on Al-Arabiya, the Saudi satellite television network (a reversal of the Qatari practice of putting Saudi dissidents on Al-Jazeera). Similarly, the U.S. government could suggest that universities and think tanks invite members of collateral branches of the Thani family at odds with the emir and his branch to events in the United States and elsewhere to demonstrate splits, or at least the perception of splits, within the ruling family. On the international front, the United States could consider embarking on a systematic campaign to publicize the deplorable conditions under which over a million migrant laborers work and live in the emirate. Such negative publicity could tarnish Qatar’s reputation as it gets ready to host the 2022 World Cup and plans a bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics.

On a broader level, dealing with Qatar’s negative effect on U.S. Middle East policies would require changing the terms of the U.S.-Qatari bargain. Qatar is deeply unpopular with its more powerful neighbors and has long sheltered its immense wealth behind a U.S. military presence. It depends on the United States to keep open the shipping lanes that allows its gas to get to the market. But the critical role the United States plays in protecting Qatar from its neighbors buys the United States shockingly little influence with the Qatari government. The Qataris seem to understand that the U.S. desire to play the regional hegemon in the Persian Gulf requires bases in Qatar, giving them all the leverage in the bilateral relationship. They are reinforced in this belief by U.S. officials and military officers who tell them that the U.S. military presence in Qatar is critical to U.S. policy even though its importance is declining dramatically as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan.

The United States could stop reassuring Qatar in this way and, to the contrary, convince it that it has other options for protecting U.S. interests in the Gulf. The existence of such options would undoubtedly focus the Qataris on just how important U.S. protection is to their continued vitality in a very difficult neighborhood. Of course, making this case will actually require devising some realistic alternative basing options. But the first step in doing that is acknowledging the price that the United States is currently paying for its reliance on Qatar.

None of this is easy. But at the end of day, U.S. policy on critical Middle East issues like Syria is being held hostage by the contrary agenda of a tiny country that the United States defends militarily. This is massive failure of diplomacy.

Jeremy Shapiro is a visiting fellow with the Foreign Policy program at Brookings. From 2009-2013, he served in the State Department on the Policy Planning Staff and in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs and currently consults for the Policy Planning Staff. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent officials positions of the United States Government.