With Muammar Qaddafi perhaps on his last legs, Libyan rebel leaders are looking for $5 billion to rebuild a country wracked by nearly half a year of civil war. It’s hardly surprising that the first international aid conference is scheduled for Qatar, since no Arab leader has provided more assistance to the rebels than that country’s 59-year-old emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani.
As one of the first countries to recognize the National Transitional Council, Qatar supplied the rebels with arms, uniforms, and $400 million in aid, while also helping the rebels sell their oil. Not least, Qatar provided invaluable moral support with its exhaustive coverage of the rebels on the Al Jazeera TV network, the emir’s powerful public diplomacy wing.
In exchange for its help, Doha, the world’s premier exporter of lique-fied natural gas, will likely seek a role in developing Libya’s natural gas resources. But even if Qaddafi beats the odds and somehow manages to hunker down for a time, the Qataris have already won what they sought in backing the rebels: prestige and influence. While the Arab Spring has overturned the Middle East status quo and the new order has yet to be born, money, diplomacy, and cunning have already helped establish Qatar as a rising regional power. The question is, what does Doha want?
No one has enjoyed the fruits of the Arab Spring more than Qatar. The competing outside powers—the United States and its Iranian adversary—both sport mixed records over the last half a year: Washington lost two allies, Tunisia and most significantly Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, while on the other side of the ledger Iran’s client Syria may well succumb to an opposition movement that shows no sign of tiring. But Doha, balancing relationships with both Washington and Tehran, has gone from strength to strength.
First there was Egypt, a longtime target of Al Jazeera, which prides itself on the role it played in bringing down Mubarak. And yet, when the Shia-majority opposition took to the streets in Bahrain, Al Jazeera remained silent. With Qatar keeping to the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council consensus, Bahrain has weathered the storm and put down its opposition.
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is having a much harder time of it, partly because Al Jazeera is shining its spotlights on him and inviting opposition figures to air their grievances with his bloody regime. While some regional observers speculated that the emir turned against his friend and ally Assad after the Syrians blasted Al Jazeera’s famous tele-preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi for coming out in favor of the uprising, other Qatar-watchers think it’s unlikely Qaradawi led the way. “Probably Qaradawi’s position was an indication of where Qatar already was,” says Robert Malley, head of the International Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa section. “Qatar’s stance on Syria was reflective of a mood already pervasive around the region.”
Malley notes that Qatari policy was different before the Arab Spring. “Previously Doha tried to exercise influence by mediating conflicts. In Lebanon, they had relations with Hezbollah as well as their March 14 opponents. They tried to mediate between Hamas and Israel as well as Fatah. But they found, not surprisingly, that it’s very difficult to maintain good relations with parties at loggerheads. With the Arab Spring, the Qataris decided they would take sides.”
This new posture has already won Doha some enmity around the region. Qaddafi reportedly dispatched a team to Tunis to bomb the Qatari embassy there, and Doha’s embassy in Damascus was attacked by Assad loyalists, after which Qatar closed its compound and withdrew its ambassador. And now it seems that Qatar’s unlikeliest bilateral relationship is about to be suspended. Doha hosted an Israeli interests office until 2009, when, in the wake of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, Arab and Muslim pressure compelled the Qataris to send home the head of the delegation. But even then Doha was keen on maintaining relations with Israel—even with Qatar’s continued funding of Hamas, and Al Jazeera’s relentless anti-Israel incitement. A report last week in the Israeli press explained that an incensed Jerusalem is breaking off all relations with Doha and will no longer give permits to Al Jazeera journalists.
The fact is that outside the Libyan rebels, elements of the Syrian opposition, and the Islamist component of the Egyptian revolution, Qatar has few real friends. It’s true that there was little daylight between the United States and Europe on Libya, which seems to be the case so far regarding Syria policy as well, but the State Department is said to be deeply suspicious of Qatar, since it is usually trying to undermine Saudi Arabia and by extension the United States. And yet as Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, notes, “the rise of Qatari influence coincides with Saudi decline.”
The same might be said about the rest of the region, for as the Arab Spring has made evident, the Arab political system is moribund. Even before Egypt unraveled in the wake of Mubarak’s downfall, the regime was static and loath to exercise the sort of positive influence that might have put it in conflict with radical actors like Iran and Syria. The Saudis are comatose, a ruling order whose chief concern is succession, and the king, crown prince, and his likely successor are all ailing. Riyadh has expressed its displeasure with the Obama administration, but as botched Saudi strategy in Iraq and Lebanon shows, the notion that the Saudi establishment is capable of crafting a coherent foreign policy is a fantasy.
For several years now, as Abrams notes, “it is the non-Arab powers [of the region] that seem to have been calling the shots, the Persians, the Turks, and the Jews.” However, the Libyan and Syrian conflicts have shown the limits of Turkish influence in the Arabic-speaking Middle East, while Israel has wisely stayed out of the conversation. Iran is a different matter.
Last week the emir of Qatar traveled to Iran to meet with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Presumably the main topic of conversation was Syria. Assad’s survival is a vital strategic interest for the Iranians, who need the Syrian border with Lebanon to supply Hezbollah with arms. If the Qataris are feeling their oats after helping to corner Qaddafi, the large gas field that Qatar shares with Iran still probably gives Tehran enough leverage to neutralize Doha and keep it from playing the same role in Syria that it did in Libya by arming and funding anti-Qaddafi rebels.
Qatar filled a vacuum in Libya. Unlike Syria, a life-and-death matter for Iran, Libya was no one’s core interest, seemingly mattering most to the Europeans with whom the Qataris aligned themselves. In a manner of speaking, Qatar is a vacuum power, a tiny country of 1.5 million that is running circles around the rest of the Arabs simply because there is someone in Doha who answers the phone. And that’s all Qatar wants—to stay on everyone’s speed dial.
Nimble and decisive, Qatar isn’t the first to play the role of regional spoiler, but few have pulled it off so successfully, and none before Doha has enjoyed the open field that the Arab Spring made available. Still, Qatar has no grand vision for the region, no politics or ideology to speak of, neither democracy nor radicalism, both of which might work against the ruling Al-Thani family’s favor.
It’s no coincidence that Qatar fought so hard to host the 2022 World Cup, since spectacle is what Doha is all about. They’ve managed to pick all the Arab Spring’s winners, which is to say that, if you want to understand where the Middle East is heading, it is important to watch what the Qataris are doing. For better and for worse, the new regional order is taking shape around them.