You can’t be all things to all people,” the saying goes. Yet the ruling Al Thani family of Qatar has been actively trying to turn this bit of conventional wisdom on its head over the last 15 years.
Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar, assumed power in a bloodless coup against his father in 1995 at the age of 44. Since then, Qatar has elevated its international profile and extended its influence throughout the region by trying to be all things to all people. Doing so—for Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa and his cousin, the Premier and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim—has become a means of legitimizing and securing the Al Thani regime. In other words, the Al Thani use prestige (hayba) as a tool to legitimize the monarchy in the international community and insulate it from external challenges as well as threats at home. In this way the Arab uprisings that brought down four Middle Eastern rulers have thus far largely bypassed Qatar.
In the 21st century, there is both a domestic and international component to legitimacy. Internationally, a regime’s legitimacy is defined by the world’s acceptance and support of its actions in the international system. Qatar is keenly aware of this requirement, and is careful to adhere to what it perceives are the acceptable international norms.
For example, when Moammar Qaddafi began killing citizens in Libya, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa was one of the first Arab leaders to publicly condemn him. The Emir was also a driving force behind the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) calls for the Arab League to publicly support a UN resolution instituting a no-fly zone over Libya. After the resolution was passed, Qatar sent Mirage fighter jets and C-17 transport aircraft to support the NATO air-campaign. In addition to providing extensive financial, humanitarian, and political support to the Libyan opposition, Qatar reportedly also supplied rebel forces with small-arms weapons systems and training.
More recently, Sheikh Hamad appeared on CBS’s 60 Minutes and suggested that Arab troops intervene in Syria to stop President Bashar al-Asad’s bloody crackdown. Tellingly, prior to last spring, Doha had invested heavily in Syria’s economy and built diplomatic bridges to the Asad regime. It also expressed support in early January for the Taliban’s decision to open a political office in Qatar to engage in the peace process in Afghanistan. Qatar provides the forward base of operations for U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM)—responsible for the U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan. Qatar has also been actively involved in mediating a peaceful resolution to the political crisis in Yemen that emerged last spring during the Arab uprisings, and in July 2011 brokered a peace agreement between the government in Sudan and the Liberation and Justice Movement (LJM) of Darfur. All of this is in addition to its efforts to mediate between warring political factions in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
Qatar also attempts to mediate between the GCC and Iran, because many of Qatar’s neighboring conservative Sunni Arab rulers in the Gulf are suspicious of the motives of the revolutionary Shiite regime. Yet, Sheikh Hamad has donated generously to both Hezbollah and Hamas, and provided a comfortable home for some of the region’s leading Islamist figures. Egyptian Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood’s most important religious ideologue, has called Qatar home since 1962. He has also hosted a very popular talk show on the Doha-based al-Jazeera television channel, called Sharia and Life.
This seemingly schizophrenic diplomatic maneuvering is predicated on trying to be all things to all people. What some might describe as Janus-faced diplomacy is really nuanced statecraft from a small state that lacks a large population and a strong military, the conventional measure of state power.
Finally, al-Jazeera, established in 1996 shortly after the current emir deposed his father, has played a crucial role in legitimizing the Al Thani family’s rule internationally. The influential satellite television news channel is the highest profile foreign policy tool of the Al Thani. Al-Jazeera’s content is dynamic and the station projects the image that it is a hard-hitting independent media outlet. This pioneering news coverage of politics in the Arab World—which has since been copied by many, including the Saudi financed rival, al-Arabiyya—has made it a powerful means for generating worldwide prestige for Qatar and raising the small state’s international profile.
The rulers of Qatar project influence abroad first and foremost to maintain security, legitimacy, and prestige at home—with “home” often conceived in the broad sense of encompassing the length of the Gulf littoral, from Kuwait to Oman, referred to in Arabic as the “al-khaleej.” In addition, the regime knows that popular satisfaction at home assists in defining its internal legitimacy. The Al Thani family utilizes three main instruments in order to secure its prestige and its citizenry’s satisfaction: heritage, wealth, and again, al-Jazeera.
Qatar is a mini-state with vast hydrocarbon wealth from oil and natural gas. There are only 225,000 Qatari citizens out of a total population of 1.7 million. Traditional, tribal-based kinship ties bind the citizenry. Approximately 20 percent of the foreign residents are from Arab states, while 27 percent are from India and to a lesser extent, Pakistan. Qatar consists of 4,500 square miles, featuring vast stretches of sand dunes and salt flats (sabkha). It is slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut, and is situated just 25 miles from its historical rival, Bahrain. It shares a land border with Saudi Arabia, and physically protrudes from the Arabian Peninsula like a thumb dipping into the Persian Gulf. The ruling Al Thani family is a descendant of the Bani Tamim tribe with roots in the Nejd region of Saudi Arabia. Qatar also shares the Sunni unitarian Wahhabi (muwahiddun) religious tradition with the Saudis. The historical bonds of shared religious and tribal affinity are extremely important in the Gulf. They are the foundation or building blocks of Al Thani’s popular legitimacy in Qatar.
The ruling family enhances its domestic legitimacy by distributing the state’s vast wealth. And there is money to go around for the Al Thani. In 2010, Qatar experienced 17 percent economic growth, which was expected to climb to 19 percent for 2011. Qatar’s oil reserves of 25.4 billion barrels are modest in comparison to Kuwait’s 96.5 billion, Iraq’s 112 billion, or Saudi Arabia’s 252 billion. However, Qatar possesses the third largest natural gas reserves in the world at 896 trillion cubic feet. Industry observers expect Qatar to be the Saudi Arabia of the liquefied natural gas industry. In 2012, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) expects Doha to post a fiscal surplus of $47 billion. The state’s hydrocarbon revenues support a high quality of life for young Qatari citizens, and Qatar’s small native population has not exposed the ruling family to the demographic youth bulge and joblessness generally associated with the Arab uprisings that took place in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria in 2011.
Moreover, al-Jazeera, lends domestic and regional legitimacy to the regime. Al-Jazeera was the first 24-hour Arabic language satellite television news channel that brought the Arab World independent reporting of major regional events, and it continues to dominate news in the Middle East today.
Al-Jazeera played an enormous role in the success of the Arab uprisings. It was the first to identify and broadcast the video footage of the mass street demonstrations in Tunisia that were posted on Facebook following the self-immolation of Tunisian vendor Mohammad Bouazizi in December 2010. Al-Jazeera’s relentless coverage of the domino-effect taking place in Egypt generated critical momentum and international sympathy, which sustained the protesters during their struggle with the Mubarak regime’s instruments of repression.
However, while al-Jazeera’s coverage was considered groundbreaking during the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya during the spring of 2011, some felt the station pulled its punches when it came to the events in Bahrain and Yemen. In August 2011, after al-Jazeera ran a powerful documentary on the February/March uprising in Bahrain called “Shouting in the Dark,” it was believed the Qatari government, pressured by Saudi Arabia, had al-Jazeera cancel any re-broadcasts of the documentary.
In this way, al-Jazeera illustrates the delicate Al Thani modus operandi, in which the family tries to give everyone a little of what they want in the hope that it will deflect unwanted attention and generate prestige both at home and regionally for the ruling family. It does so by focusing its political coverage on the explosive issues in the Arab World, but steers clear of topics sensitive to the ruling family of Qatar. The regime shrewdly extends its influence and garners prestige while at the same time co-opting potential opponents and shielding itself from criticism.
Pre-Uprising Regional Attention
Despite the regional impact and influence of al-Jazeera on the Arab uprisings, Qatar’s outsized regional influence pre-dates the momentous regional changes that took place last year. Prior to the Arab uprisings, Qatar’s most important breakthrough as a regional player came during its multi-party mediation in Lebanon in May 2008, following two years of escalating street violence in Beirut between Hezbollah and Saad Hariri’s Sunni loyalists. Saudi Arabia and Egypt were said to have been unhappy with the Qatar-brokered Doha Agreement, which did not disarm Hezbollah, and granted it veto power over government decisions in Lebanon. Qatar has also been active in Yemen since the Arab uprisings erupted there in 2011, as well as in Darfur, Sudan.
In recent years Qatar has competed with Saudi Arabia and Egypt for the mediator’s role—and therefore, influence—between the main Palestinian groups, Fatah and Hamas. In October 2006 Qatar played the mediating role, but in 2007 Saudi Arabia and Egypt appeared to shoulder Qatar aside, though ultimately with little success of their own. Qatar has also attempted to mediate in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and as early as 1999 attempted to initiate a channel of communication between Ehud Barak’s government and Yasser Arafat. Qatar has cultivated ties with Hamas, and in 2006 and 2007 attempted to bring Israeli and Hamas officials together at unofficial conferences in Doha. Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal even maintains a villa in Qatar not far from the former Israeli trade mission, which was shut down by Qatari authorities during Israel’s 2009 Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. As a result of the uprising in Syria, Hamas’s political bureau has been looking for a new home. While Qatar and Hamas have close ties, some believe that Qatar would prefer that Hamas station elsewhere in order to avoid American ire. Qatar has close military cooperation with the U.S. and Washington has spent nearly $400 million on military infrastructure construction in Qatar since 2003. Qatar hosts Camp As Sayliyah, which serves as the forward headquarters for CENTCOM, and is also home to the Al Udeid air base, which has served as the logistics, command, and basing hub for the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Unlike neighboring Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain, which felt threatened by the upheaval brought about by the Arab uprisings, Qatar, primarily through al-Jazeera’s pioneering news coverage, confidently embraced the zeitgeist. In return, Qatar received a great deal of complimentary media coverage that has enhanced the international prestige and domestic legitimacy of the Al Thani regime. Also to that end, Qatar won the bid to host soccer’s FIFA World Cup in 2022, and al-Jazeera, on the occasion of its 15-year anniversary, announced it plans to launch three new television channels, including an all-sports network for the Middle East and North Africa.
On the eve of Qatar’s independence in September 1971, the British were preparing to withdraw their military forces from the Gulf after more than 150 years of regional military supremacy. Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani, the current emir’s father, told British officials that he was not worried about the threat of external aggression. The principal danger he foresaw was “internal subversion” and he saw that as being generated from Bahrain rather than from within Qatar. Forty years later, this fundamental tenet of Qatari security has not changed.
Brandon Friedman is a research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Center for Iranian Studies.