For outside observers, the Arab Awakening continues to be something to behold, many rejoice in the revolutions, even wishing they could take part in the uprisings, to share elation in Egypt and Tunisia, to revel in victory in Libya, to take solace with Bahrainis, Syrians and Yemenis. For many, watching the events in Libya drag slowly over a 6 month period created a sense of urgency—a desire to personally intervene. For the random outlier, this might have meant a “bored” UCLA student buying a one way ticket to Cairo, crossing the Libyan border, and then joining the rebels in Benghazi (memorable quote: “Please don’t tell my parents I’m here.”).
Yet for Qatar, this meant a chance to flex its long-nascent muscle and assert itself as a dominant figure in Middle Eastern politics.
For a country that suffers from the unfortunate problem of having its existence constantly in question (a colleague once pointed out that she’s never met an actual Qatari), the tiny Gulf country has been able to shrug off its perception of being weak and introverted. Existential nitpickings aside, Qatar has capitalized on the instability and uncertainty of the Arab revolutions in a manner unforeseen by many experts, and has used this initiative to consolidate a type of, regional-swagger. World Cup bid aside, here are three actions the Qataris have taken in the past year and what they stand to mean for the Middle East.
1. Libya. Many noted that the Libyan rebels were in fact aided by a wide range of external sources, from rumors of British spec-ops in Benghazi to the barrage NATO strikes on Gadhafi strongholds. Yet what many don’t know is that Qatar was the first to send military aid to the rebels, the first to donate 6 fighter jets to NATO, and the first to train the rebels—at one point flying around 100 rebels from the Nafusa Mountains to Qatar and back for advanced military training. Indeed, according to one Washington Post article, Qatar was: “more effective than any other nation. They just didn’t boast about it.” Qatar was the first nation to recognize the National Transition Council, and when that Council eventually spawns into the new Libyan government, Qatar will stand to gain a great deal of favor from the Libyan government, including lucrative reconstruction contracts and exclusive commercial rights.
2. Palestine. Qatar recently voiced its support for the Palestinian plan of unilateral declaration of statehood at the UN this fall. Similarly, Qatar also recently voiced its support of Hamas, hosting the group’s leaders in Doha this August. Those two policies, seemingly at odds due to Fatah’s close proximity to the UN plan, are in fact part of a two-prong approach to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Qatar has been anything but timid in dealing with Israel, severing diplomatic relations outright after Operation Cast Lead, and taking vocal stands on issues Israel considers threatening (read: the Flotilla raid, Rafah border, etc). This abrasive persistence led Israel to recall its ambassador from Doha in March and begin the process of shutting down diplomatic relations. As the looming prospect of the UN declaration nears and diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey deteriorate (again), expect Qatar to exert itself even more on behalf of the Palestinians.
3. The Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC). Recently it was announced—without much fanfare—that the headquarters for the OIC’s Islamic Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ICCI) would be moved from Karachi to Doha. The move was announced in the wake of several high-profile attacks on embassies in the Karachi district, yet the reasons for the move are more esoteric than mere “security concerns.” Qatar, a nation with the highest wealth of any country per capita, is in the middle of a boom in commerce and industry. Not only are its citizens the wealthiest in the world, on average, its projected economic growth through 2014 is around 10% per year, its unemployment is around .2%, and its export capability for oil and liquid natural gas is at 77 million tons per year, placing it firmly on top as the world’s leader in gas exports. This move represents a strategic geo-political thought emerging in the OIC, and is a reflection of the vast economic, political, and religious influence Qatar is amassing.
There’s a pattern emerging here. For a nation of just 300,000 actual Qataris (I’m giving them the benefit of the existential doubt) and roughly a million foreigners and expats, Qatar can afford to have a focus on foreign over domestic policy, particularly when nearly everyone has a job and the largest export that isn’t a liquid or gas is the number one news service in the region, Al Jazeera. That Qatar has chosen seemingly neo-Nasserist policies in the wake of staunchly nationalist Arab revolutions is the perplexing part. How does a country appealing to the greater Islamic community in the OIC and the granddaddy of all Arab causes, the Palestinians, consolidate broad range pan-Islamic universalism with revolutions deeply entrenched in each country’s independence? Qatar has shown it can galvanize Libyan rebels and embolden Hamas leaders; can it also serve as a diplomatic intermediary? In other words, can Qatar strike unity amongst Arab and Islamic nations by adopting these causes—despite the fierce nationalism of the Arab Awakening—and still hold on to its ever growing influence? All these questions, and more, will be on the forefront of many observers’ minds as Qatar rises.
Grant Rumley is a Consultant in the Washington DC area. You can reach him on Twitter @gm_rumley.