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Qatar and the Arab Spring

Allen Fromherz
Department of History, Georgia State University

On Oct. 23, 2012 Qatar's head of state made an extraordinary visit to a neglected and sidelined part of the world. The flags of Palestine and Qatar, deep maroon and white, lined the road from the Egyptian border to Gaza's capital. Ismail Haniyeh, the controversial Hamas Prime Minister, was host. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa emerged out of the sleek luxury vehicle and, welcomed by modest crowds, promised hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Gaza. Yet even as he called the cause of the Palestinians a "bleeding wound," he also called on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to resolve their "differences" and "open a new chapter." In many respects the visit was pure theater: the sight of the luxury caravan of the Emir bouncing along the potholed roads of Gaza, swooping in to give hope and promise to a people in desperate straits, was broadcast prominently by world's most famous Arabic language channel, a channel started by the Sheikh himself: Al-Jazeera. This incident clearly improved the image of the rich Gulf state's Emir, both within Qatar and for the wider, Arabic-speaking world. Through his mere presence he seemed to break an international blockade, an effort to sideline Gaza and the radical Hamas government. At the same time, however, he had expectations for Gaza and its leadership to negotiate, to come to the table and level differences with the West Bank, where Fatah is in charge. He also implicitly promised to move Gaza away from Iranian support. But even more important than the bold symbolism of this visit was the Emir's focus on negotiation, not unconditional largess. Seeking clout and leadership as a mediator or "hakam" in Arabic, Qatar has consistently rewarded parties who agree to settle their differences on mutual terms agreed in a way that magnifies Qatar's status. Influential, international media from The Economist to the New York Times even speculated about the possibility that Qatar, once a very marginal player, would now hold the key to negotiating peace. The Gaza visit is only one, dramatic example of Qatar's growing clout in the Middle East. In fact, Qatar's role and prestige has accelerated almost as quickly as its skyrocketing GDP-fueled mainly by one trillion cubic feet of proven natural gas reserves.

Tiny Qatar, despite its small national population, has managed in a few short years to position itself as a de facto leader of the Arab world. The events of the Arab Spring have further accelerated Qatar's rise to prominence. Qatar not only financed the Arab Spring, it actively facilitated many of the most important changes of the past few years. Qatar has maneuvered to prominence through a deft use of four means of intervention. These means of interventions are sometimes deployed simultaneously.

The four main methods of diplomatic engagement include "Riyalpolitik", control of international Arabic language media, traditional negotiation (especially through the indefatigable "HBJ" or Hamad bin Jassim), and, in rare instances, direct intervention. Riyalpolitik, potentially the subtlest form of intervention is also, often, the most effective. Riyalpolitik refers to the ostentatious use of the Qatari currency to support its interests abroad and even to broker peace agreements through monetary guarantees. The next level of diplomatic engagement is through media. Qatar's Al-Jazeera, opened in 1995 shortly after the current emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa overthrew his father, is the world's most respected Arabic-language news channel. It is an effective platform for advancing Qatar's prestige and foreign policy objectives to a popular audience. Al-Jazeera allows Qatar to speak to populations, not simply to state actors. The network often makes news as much as it covers the news. Although careful to maintain an unbiased patina, it has become increasingly clear, especially in coverage of revolutions in Syria, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, that the news channel—as well as less famous, but influential, media fora such as the Qatari Islamonline.net or Qatar's Libya TV—can be used advance the diplomatic objectives of the Emir. The next method of engagement, negotiation and mediation, often hosted by the Emir or the Prime Minister, Hamad bin Jassim (HBJ) himself, provides Qatar an opportunity to develop contacts and prestige on both sides of a conflict. It also shows Qatar as an indispensable player. The Prophet himself was famed for his negotiation and mediation skills. In fact, it was these abilities that secured his success as leader of the early Muslim community in Medina. Mediation and authority are, in many respects, synonymous. The final level of intervention, direct action in conflicts such as Libya, has usually only occurred under the auspices of the US or European militaries. Even though minor in a global sense, Qatar's military tools and willingness to use them without the same domestic constraints as Western nations should not be downplayed. Qatar has been actively arming and supporting the rebels in Syria, and one could imagine a much more aggressive role for Qatar in the conflict with Western support. It is only at this level of engagement, direct military intervention, that Qatar still needs to play by the rules of the world's military superpower: the United States.

In much of the international media the events of the Arab Spring, especially the historic uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, have been depicted as spontaneous expressions of anger and disappointment that reached a boiling point after decades of corruption, repression and dictatorial rule. While domestic conditions were certainly important in sparking the uprising and each revolution was inspired by its own particular situation, this article argues that foreign intervention, particularly from Qatar, has played an important role both in preparing the ground for revolution and sustaining resistance and financing transitions after the overthrow of regimes. Far from playing by the rules of its ostensible ally, the US, Qatar, Sheikh Hamad and HBJ are far more swift and flexible. Importantly, they have not shied away from publically engaging and supporting so-called "Islamist" parties and governments. Indeed, Qatar had been steadily developing contacts and building bridges with such "Islamist" groups well before revolutions began, and this investment has brought major returns especially now that these groups are seizing control.

Qatar's diplomatic strategy is not strictly bilateral. In fact, Qatar's overall effort appears to be transnational: to apply strategic pressure and gain prestige through "soft power". Nevertheless, Qatar's specific involvement in the extraordinary events of the Arab Spring can be best understood by examining its involvement in particular nation-states. As Qatar's support of the status quo in neighboring Bahrain showed in glaring relief, not every revolution is supported. Agitation in the Gulf, it seems, is far too close to home. To illustrate Qatar's newfound potential to shape events far from home, however, this paper will focus on one particularly illustrative case study: the history of Qatar's involvement with Libya.


The news was sensational. In 1983, a terrorist plot had just been uncovered in sleepy Doha. The perpetrators planned to blow up the Sheraton, that icon of the Doha skyline, during a gathering of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Inside were the heads of state of the entire Gulf. The bombing would not only have been a tragedy; it would have been an unforgettable disgrace, a lasting dishonor to Qatar as host. Some seventy Qatari officers were arrested, along with members of Al-Thani ruling family. Sheikh Khalifa initiated a major investigation. It did not take long for this investigation to reveal a "Libyan" plot against the rulers of the Gulf orchestrated by Qaddafi. It took several decades and the overthrow of Sheikh Khalifa by his son Sheikh Hamad for relations with Qaddafi's Libya to begin to normalize, and there have been many interactions between the two countries since that time. In 2003, for example, Qatar was in a position to mediate between Libya, the US, and Britain to end Qaddafi's nuclear program. In 2007 Qatar negotiated the release of Bulgarian nurses who had been accused of infecting the population with HIV, possibly even paying off the Libyan accusers. Qatar may have even played a part in the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi from a Scottish prison. Al-Megrahi was the man accused of the Lockerbie bombing. Qatar and Libya worked jointly to negotiate peace talks between Sudan and Chad after an attack on N'Djamena in 2008. Finally, Sheikh Hamad's wife Sheikha Mozah has a personal connection with Libya, having worked there in her youth.

But the events of 1983 were certainly not forgotten. Even as Qatar engaged with Qaddafi, it financed the independent Libya TV station and subtly encouraged resistance to the regime. After the Arab Spring erupted in Tunisia, however, the true nature of Qatar's relationship with Qaddafi seemed to be laid bare. Qatar quickly moved to consolidate its contacts with the Libyan opposition and moved swiftly against its former peace partner, Qaddafi.

Qatar's involvement in Libya was the most explicit and most successful military adventure for the tiny emirate since Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa's famous victory against Iraq at the battle of Khafji during the First Gulf War. Although often operating under the NATO umbrella, Qatar did not have to be limited by with domestic opinion or fears of "mission creep" in the same way as Europe and the US. Almost immediately, Qatar deployed its first round of riyalpolitik, financing the rebels through the Qatar Investment Authority (Qatar's sovereign wealth fund) with the implied understanding that support at this stage would give Qatar access to Libya's own wealth fund, the LIA, once the assets of the fund were unfrozen. Qatar's businesses and expertise in natural gas and oil exploitation would be in a primary position to exploit Libya's own enormous resources, potentially sidelining Russia.

Qatar then deployed the media. Al-Jazeera and Qatar-based Libya TV as well as numerous online resources financed by Qatar all simultaneously turned their attention toward abuses in Libya, convincingly painting the Qaddafi regime in a way that would justify his overthrow. Despite his tight control of the domestic media market, Qaddafi had no way to fight this media onslaught. Any attempt to appeal to a broader sense of Arab nationalism or to paint potential international intervention as an imperialist plot—the methods that worked in previous decades—were quickly devastated by Qatar's Arabic-language media revealing the "true" nature of Qaddafi's regime. Libya TV, launched by the Libyan opposition that had escaped to Doha, was especially influential. It even broadcast a segment in the language of the Berbers of the Nafusa Mountains, a rebel stronghold. Berber language had been suppressed severely under Qaddafi. The media environment had been primed for the next stages of Qatari involvement: outright military intervention.

Before intervening directly, Qatar first pulled its large store of diplomatic strings and obligations in the Arab world. The Arab League recognized the rebels in March 2011 and offered support of a NATO no-fly zone. Qatar then worked to supply the rebels with equipment and arms including anti-tank missiles and assault rifles. Qatari jets joined NATO and American fighters. Troops from Qatar were even involved on the ground. Special forces of Qatar appeared at the raid of Qaddafi's compound. The overthrow of Qaddafi and the prevention of a massacre at Benghazi were seen as a humanitarian coup in the US and Europe. Most Americans were largely unaware or unfazed by the success of NATO. The Qatari military, in contrast, received a hero's welcome and a hefty raise. Indeed, military parades and all the paraphernalia of nationalism were on display at Qatar's national day. Military victory in pursuit of foreign policy goals and all the benefits that come with such a victory in terms of national pride were now squarely associated with the Emir. Not only had a longstanding, personal, and persistent enemy been overthrown, Qatar had proven its chops as a major player.

Egypt and Syria

Qatar has deployed similar strategies in Egypt and Syria. The Mubarak regime, in fact, had long been wary of Qatar's growing popularity and its self-proclaimed role as a rival for prestige in the Arab League. Al-Ahram newspaper, controlled by Mubarak loyalists, regularly wrote scathing editorials of Qatar and the Gulf Emirs. Egypt had long enjoyed its status as the center of the Arab world—with Cairo as its capital—not only in terms of culture and population but also in terms of political and military influence. Not long ago it was Egyptian Arabic that dominated the Arabic-speaking media, not the standard Arabic of al-Jazeera. But Mubarak could not stand the constant onslaught by his own people, nor the media and financial support of the rebels funneled, to a great extent, through Qatar. Al-Jazeera was the main news source for events in Tahrir Square and the Arab Spring more generally.

Although Qatar has not been able to intervene in Syria with the same directness and ferocity as it did in Libya, it has been an important player behind the scenes, procuring funds and supplies for the rebels. If there is an international decision to intervene Qatar will undoubtedly play a starring role.

Conclusion: Sustainability

In diplomacy, as in warfare, one side can often be undermined or blocked by its own siege works. Even as Qatar has remarkable diplomatic success and has leveraged its wealth in remarkable ways, there are limits. Qatar's lack of involvement in Bahrain and its tacit acknowledgement that the current regime in Saudi Arabia would be better than instability on its border indicates the limits and realities of Qatar's role in the Arab Spring. As the Emir's closest circle continues to separate itself from the wider national population, the risk of social fissures could emerge even in a country with the second highest per capita GDP in the world. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood poses a potential challenge to Qatar especially as President Morsi seeks to reclaim Egypt's mantle as diplomatic leader of the Arab world. The very diplomatic tools that Qatar's ruling elite used against its enemies—new media, soft power, Islamist pressure—could one day be turned around and used against it.

Allen Fromherz (Ph.D., University of St. Andrews, 2006) is Associate Professor of Medieval Mediterranean and Islamic history at Georgia State University. His recent publications include Qatar: A Modern History (Georgetown University Press, 2012), The Almohads: The Rise of an Islamic Empire (I.B. Tauris, 2012), and Ibn Khaldun: Life and Times (Edinburgh University Press, 2011).


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