In Box

The Qatar Bubble

Can this tiny, rich emirate really solve the Middle East's thorniest political conflicts?

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Sultan Al Qassemi, the Emirati commentator and prolific tweeter, jokes that he tries to post one article every day on the rise of Qatar, the tiny Gulf sheikhdom at the heart of the Arab Spring. There’s a formula, he says. Nearly all articles express the same points: Qatar is rich, small, hosting the 2022 soccer World Cup, underwriting the pan-Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera, and cheering on protesters across the Arab world — yet it’s hardly democratic at home.

Often the headlines venture into rank hyperbole: The Economist called Qatar a “Pygmy with the punch of a giant,” while the New York Review of Books hailed its “strange power.” Various outlets have dubbed the country’s ambitious emir, 60-year-old Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the “Arab Henry Kissinger.” Last year, in an off-mic moment with political donors, U.S. President Barack Obama called him a “pretty influential guy.”

There’s no question the Qatari royals have parlayed their small country’s extraordinary wealth into outsized if utterly unlikely clout, whizzing from one conflict zone to another and inviting dissidents and diplomats to the capital, Doha, to kibitz, negotiate, and plot against one another — usually at the Sheraton, the pyramid-shaped, 1980s-era hotel overlooking the city’s palm-lined corniche. (Think Star Wars bar scene for the Persian Gulf crowd, with French paratroopers strolling by as djellaba-clad Darfuri rebels and Western oil executives sip tea in the hotel’s towering lobby.) Over the past decade, secured by one of the most massive U.S. air bases in the world, Qatar has inserted itself into conflicts in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, positioning the emirate as a disinterested mediator, trusted — or at least tolerated — by all parties.

It helps that there’s little to worry about at home. Qatar is the richest country on the planet, with its 250,000 or so native citizens floating comfortably on a per capita income estimated at well over $400,000 a year. Another million and a half guest workers from all over the world toil at its mammoth construction projects and copious megamalls, while a smaller cadre of Arab and Western expats files the paperwork and keeps the trains running on time. Opinion polls find that Qataris evince little interest in political reform, and no wonder: Aside from having to live in dowdy Doha — a dusty, sweltering inferno half the year — they’ve got it pretty good.

Until 2011, the emir seemed largely content with his role as a mediator, though Al Jazeera’s critical coverage of politics (everywhere outside Qatar and the Gulf, of course) sometimes riled his fellow Arab autocrats. And his influence had certainly grown as leaders of the region’s traditional powers, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, slipped into their dotage. But Sheikh Hamad’s ambitions ballooned even more last year as his popular satellite channel became an unabashed cheerleader for the uprisings in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen (though not neighboring Bahrain), while the minuscule Qatari military joined the fight against Libyan tyrant Muammar al-Qaddafi. Even the mighty United States started looking to Qatar for help in bringing the Arab League along with its transformational agenda — quite the turn of events given that Washington had long seen Qatar primarily as the backer of Al Jazeera, with its anti-American vitriol and al Qaeda snuff films.

This was heady stuff for a tiny “thumb” sticking out from the Arabian Peninsula, as Qaddafi once described Qatar. The country is, after all, not much more than a city-state the size of Connecticut, surrounded by some very heavily armed neighbors. In seeking to fill a vacuum — and ignoring his own vulnerabilities — had the emir finally gone too far?

FOR MOST OF its short history, Qatar has been an afterthought of an afterthought in global politics, an impoverished backwater that had often fallen prey to the schemes of stronger powers, from the British struggle with the Ottoman Turks for control of the Persian Gulf in the 19th century to the rise of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia next door in the early 20th. Like many leaders of small states, the Al Thani ruling family possesses a certain knack for survival, sometimes appeasing Qatar’s larger neighbors, at other times irritating them and inviting outside protection, as Qatar did when it built the gigantic, billion-dollar al-Udeid air base in 1996, anticipating the closure of U.S. facilities in Saudi Arabia — before the emirate even had an air force of its own.

The discovery of oil in 1940 allowed the Al Thani family to forge a collection of squabbling tribes and pearl fishermen into a small — and wildly rich — state. But it wasn’t until 1995, when Sheikh Hamad ousted his father in a bloodless coup, that Qatar began building its little patch of desert into a force in the region and beyond. Under him, Qatar has become an expansionary power, a sort of latter-day Venice — only its strength lies not in trade or maritime prowess but in the flow of natural gas. In this, Qatar has been more than merely lucky, making big, bold bets on the rise of liquefied natural gas and reinvesting profits in massive infrastructure projects at home and high-profile assets abroad like Harrods in London and the French soccer club Paris Saint-Germain. Eventually, the government hopes the interest on Qatar’s $85 billion sovereign wealth fund alone will be able to fund its operations in perpetuity.

All that gas money has turned Doha into an unlikely entrepôt of political intrigue, a sort of Turtle Bay on the Persian Gulf. I lived in Qatar for a little more than a year, until last December, and the city offered a front-row seat as the Arab Spring unfolded — masterminded, it sometimes seemed, from Doha. In October, I went to Souq Waqif, the Disneyfied market along the city’s corniche, to attend a victory party Qatar was throwing for Libyan expats. The souq was festooned with banners celebrating the recent rebel triumph over Qaddafi, who had just been summarily executed and then grotesquely displayed in a strip-mall meat locker. The highlight of the party — a sort of mosh pit filled with Libyans dancing to the revolutionary anthem “Raise Your Head High, You’re a Free Libyan” — proved too much for the authorities, and it was broken up in favor of a traditional Qatari sword dance.

For months, Doha had teemed with Libyan exiles, not so secretly funded by Qatar, which put up the rebel leaders at expensive hotels and bankrolled their satellite channel. Qatari cargo jets ferried tens of millions of dollars’ worth of humanitarian supplies, weapons, and special-operations troops to rebel headquarters in Benghazi on regular flights; nearly the entire Qatari air force helped enforce NATO’s no-fly zone. In August, when Libyan rebel fighters stormed Qaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya complex, they raised a Qatari flag in appreciation. Asked in an Al Jazeera interview just how much Qatar spent on the Libyan revolution, the prime minister simply said, “It’s a lot. It cost us a lot.”

Qatar insisted its only interest in Libya was freedom for the Libyan people. But a nationalist backlash over perceived Qatari meddling in Libyan affairs soon ensued. Abdel Rahman Shalgham, Qaddafi’s former U.N. ambassador whose dramatic defection helped seal the dictator’s fate, appeared on television to denounce Qatar as an alien, malign force. “Qatar might have delusions of leading the region,” he said. “I absolutely do not accept their presence at all.” Qatar’s secular allies were soon forced out of the interim government, while its main Islamist proxy in Libya, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, was detained and humiliated at Tripoli’s airport by rival militiamen. One year on, it’s hard to see what Qatar gained from its North African adventure.

If Libya represented the apotheosis of Qatari power, Syria represents its limits. More than a year since their revolution began, Syrians are still braving bullets to protest the rule of President Bashar al-Assad — and firing back with a few of their own. So far, all outside attempts to end the conflict peacefully have failed, including repeated Qatari-led efforts to come up with a diplomatic solution. If Assad survives, Doha will have aggravated the Syrian regime’s biggest supporter — Iran — with which Qatar shares the world’s largest gas field and maintains officially friendly ties, to little end.

Meanwhile, even opposition Syrians complain that Al Jazeera’s coverage of the conflict has become unprofessional — maudlin, biased, and often untrustworthy. Ali Hashem, a highly regarded Al Jazeera reporter, resigned in March, alleging that his reporting on armed fighters had been squelched in favor of the official narrative of a peaceful uprising. And with a member of the Qatari royal family now directly in charge after the ouster of longtime head Wadah Khanfar, the satellite network’s credibility and independence are now widely questioned.

SYRIA IS NO exception. For all the media attention, few of Qatar’s diplomatic initiatives have actually borne fruit. Lebanon’s 2008 political settlement, brokered in Qatar, looks like a rare success story, but the others remain question marks. In May 2011, Qatar walked away from its peacemaking efforts in Yemen, while Bahrain that same month brushed aside a Qatari offer to mediate its internal conflict. Doha has volunteered to house the Taliban-U.S. peace talks aimed at resolving the decade-long war in Afghanistan, but the Taliban have yet to open their office there and the U.S. Congress spiked a prisoner-swap deal that might have built confidence for further negotiations. The Darfur agreement, negotiated at the Sheraton over the course of more than a year, didn’t even include all the warring parties. Qatar’s promising efforts to wean Hamas away from Iran haven’t earned it any goodwill from its neighbors, either: A recent meeting of Arab leaders in Riyadh, focused on Iran, pointedly excluded Sheikh Hamad, distrusted for his warm(ish) ties to Tehran.

Nor is Qatar’s cash cow — natural gas — by any means secure. A global supply glut has sent prices plunging. Australia is projected to surpass Qatar in the production of liquefied natural gas by 2020, and the shale-gas revolution in the United States and Eastern Europe (not to mention out-of-the-way places like Mozambique and potential new players like Libya) threatens to extend the bear market far into the future.

As for the World Cup, perhaps the crown jewel in Qatar’s ascension to the global big-boy party, it is far from clear that Doha will be basking in soccer glory a decade from now. Not only are questions being raised about the viability of hosting a tournament in temperatures that reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, the limited availability of alcohol, and Qatar’s risky, heat-busting stadium designs, but FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, may soon launch an investigation into allegations that Qatari officials bribed their way to victory in the selection process. In any case, Qatar needs to import millions of tons of raw building materials — including, of all things, sand from Saudi Arabia — to make the World Cup a success. That will give the Saudis, with their retrograde foreign policy and their long history of meddling in Qatari politics, leverage for years to come.

So let’s hold the accolades for Qatar. There’s a reason most city-states throughout history have avoided provoking their larger neighbors — sooner or later, they strike back. And isn’t being incredibly rich good enough?

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