Punching Above Its Weight

Could tiny Qatar send ground forces to Libya?

Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty Images
Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty Images

In recent years, Qatar has become something of a mecca for international conferences, attracting a wide and diverse variety of global events to the small Arab state. It is therefore not surprising to see that this week, shortly before both the Pipeline Integrity Management Forum and the Underground Infrastructure and Deep Foundations Conference, the Libya contact group — the gaggle of countries and international entities set up to provide "political direction" for the war effort — will meet in Doha to discuss the evolving confrontation.

The only surprising thing about Qatar hosting this event is that it does so as one of the key protagonists in the conflict with Libya. Qatar has been unusually vocal for an Arab country of late, eschewing the typically conservative foreign policies of Gulf states. For example, after the international opprobrium died down in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead, which forced Qatar to cut its ties to Israel, it has since tried to re-establish relations with the country, only to be rebuffed. Yet no one expected Qatar to send what probably amounts to the majority of its operational Air Force fighter wing — four French-made Mirage jets — to join in maintaining the no-fly zone over Libya.

So what on Earth is a tiny country the size of Connecticut doing waging war on a much bigger fellow Arab state thousands of miles away? Has Qatar gone crazy?

Hardly. In the minds of Doha’s worldly leadership, Qatar’s intervention makes perfect sense, for three broad reasons.

First, Qatar loves the limelight. Many of its policies over the past decade have been specifically designed to thrust the little-known country onto the international stage to publicize not only Qatar in and of itself, but a particular modern, business-savvy, and erudite brand thereof. The 1990 invasion of Kuwait (another small, rich country surrounded by far larger states) likely convinced Qatar that anonymity is not a desirable quality in the event of such a catastrophe. Any number of subsequent policies — from funding Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite channel, to mediating in Lebanon to winning the 2022 World Cup hosting rights — can be seen through this lens as promoting brand Qatar™.

Before the United Arab Emirates was, as some believe, pressured into deploying a section of its Air Force, Qatar was the sole literal and physical embodiment of tangible Arab support for the Libyan rebels. The Qatari emir drew genuflecting praise from the French, a nod from the British, and a warm thank-you call from U.S. President Barack Obama. Being owed a favor by some of the world’s most powerful states is a good position to be in. As Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, Qatar’s dual-hatted foreign minister and prime minister, noted when a U.S. dignitary thanked him for Qatar’s $100 million gift in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, "We [Qatar] might have our own Katrina [one day]."

Second, and as unfashionable as it may be to say so, there are genuine humanitarian concerns afoot. The elite in Doha, through a smorgasbord of munificent and enlightened policies, such as the "Reach Out to Asia" program and various conflict-management gambits from Yemen to Sudan to the Levant, genuinely appear to try to imbue Qatar’s national policies with an element of humanitarianism, often under the mantra that Arabs should solve Arab problems.

We can’t dismiss a certain element of realpolitik in some of these initiatives, yet one must not forget that Qatar is institutionally set up to allow personal directives from the elite to come to fruition. Were Obama or his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, to try to adopt a similarly risky and surprising foreign policy, it would be institutionally emasculated by the State Department, stripping out risk under the pragmatist rubric of strict self-interest and a bureaucratic aversion to change. This is not to mention serious and abiding domestic, political, economic, and military constraints.

Yet the same does not apply in Qatar to anything like the same degree. When decisions are made at the highest levels, they are resolutely not questioned or altered as they are carried out. Moreover, not only is Qatar militarily secured by the presence of U.S. forces at the enormous al-Udeid Air Base and Camp as-Sayliyah south of Doha, leaving its forces available for such missions, but Qatar’s financial largesse and its relatively apolitical population do not present significant obstacles to foreign adventures. The Qatari elite, therefore, find themselves in the somewhat unique position of being able to turn personal conviction into policy.

Third and crucially, on this occasion a number of unusual international factors coalesced, including Western and — most importantly — Arab support for action. The Arab League’s call for a no-fly zone effectively allowed Qatar to send its Mirage jets. Without this explicit political cover, had Qatar intervened unilaterally, breaking one of the key tenets of international relations — noninterference in the domestic affairs of other states — it would have been deeply isolated and unpopular at a governmental level.

Given that no one thought it remotely likely Qatar would win the right to host the 2022 World Cup or that the country would contribute militarily to the Libya intervention, one must ask: What’s next? What will Qatar do now that seems highly unlikely if not impossible, that breaks regional taboos and traditional conservative tendencies? How about: sending in ground forces?

While the notion of the 8,500man Qatari army charging into Libya is a leap too far, the use of a smaller detachment or Qatar’s elite special-operations forces in a more limited manner is more of a possibility. By either training the rebels in situ, operating with a limited "civilian protection" mandate, or securing the oil fields in the south and east, the oil from which Qatar is already marketing for the rebels, Qatar would further establish itself as a leader in the Arab world. Indeed, Qatar clearly thinks that such a role is currently vacant. Gen. Mubarak al-Khayanin, the Qatari Air Force chief of staff, recently noted that traditional leaders of the region "like Saudi Arabia and Egypt haven’t taken leadership for the last three years" — a comment that no doubt raised a few eyebrows in Riyadh.

The risks involved in such a deployment would be huge, not only in terms of the unprecedented notion of body bags returning to Doha or the difficulties of planning such an operation amid the highly fluid situation on the ground in Libya, but also in terms of how the likely reaction of traditional regional powers to yet another example of Qatar seeking to "rise above its station" could severely complicate intraregional relations.

Still, Qatar is by now used to taking these kinds of risks. And Qatar’s elite are certainly not afraid to enter intractable conflicts with no clear exit strategy; witness Qatar’s repeated mediation efforts in Yemen and Sudan and around the Horn of Africa. The unique blend of attributes that Qatar possesses — a small population, huge natural gas reserves, a hard-power military guarantee from Uncle Sam, and an enlightened, relatively young leadership — means that it is unusually isolated from the traditional torpor and caution that characterizes the rule of many Arab countries. Given a conducive international atmosphere, using its military forces in Libya or elsewhere in a humanitarian context would be — while unusual, risky, and bold — just another potential boost for the brand.

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