Qatar, a tiny desert nation no larger than Connecticut, is emerging as one of the most influential countries in the Arab world. Showcasing its enviable oil and gas wealth, Qatar’s government has engaged in a global shopping spree, buying up everything from skyscrapers in London to paintings by modern masters. It will host the 2022 football World Cup and has recently built some world-class museums. It is the gulf nation’s foreign policy ambitions, however, that have attracted the most attention. Qatar has positioned itself at the heart of politics in the Middle East, acting as both a mediator and military supporter of opposition forces from Libya to Syria. Most recently its Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, paid a visit to Gaza, reaffirming his country’s support of the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
TIME’s Middle East bureau chief Aryn Baker reported this week on Qatar’s disproportionate influence in Arab politics, its foreign policy goals and what problems it faces internally for the magazine. TIME spoke with Baker to get the story behind the story.
Qatar has the highest ratio of migrants to citizens in the world. How has that affected its internal politics?
In addition to the labor class you have an elite, educated migrant population who have come for good, interesting and well-paid jobs. No one wants to jeopardize that; they don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them. So people are loath to speak negatively about the government. Many people I spoke to didn’t want to talk on the record, and there’s a fear of offending either the government of their employer. That’s why I say there is not much in the way of a political class, as few of the expatriates want to rock the boat as it is their job at stake. With the labor class, their treatment in Qatar is marginally better than elsewhere in the Gulf, but that is not to say they are treated well.
There is another big problem that no one really discusses, which is the lack of political and diplomatic representation. Qatar has a very small ruling family that is basically the Emir, his second wife Sheikha Moza, the Crown Prince, the Prime Minister and a few others. Legislative elections are coming up next year, though no one knows how representative they will be. Politics in Qatar is a very tightly knit circle of perhaps half a dozen people with decision-making powers. It is not entirely clear how sustainable this is, and what it means for the country’s future. At the moment the fact that the Qatari Prime Minister is also the Foreign Minister—that they can’t even find two people to fill two essential posts—is an indication of how shallow their leadership pool must be.
Is there no clear opposition or mainstream critical voice speaking against this small elite?
Some newspaper editors will speak their mind, and people will speak generally about basic gripes. They ask questions about why, for example the government is spending so much on the FIFA World Cup football championships in 2022 when Qatar doesn’t even have a decent team, or why so much money is spent on bringing world class universities to Doha when most of the student body is not Qatari. There are also some religious hardliners who argue that expatriate women are wearing inappropriate clothing and the like, but there is nothing like the Arab Spring here. There is a saying here, that if you are Qatari, you make too much money to overthrow the King.
Qatar recently hosted the UN climate change conference, but it has the world’s highest per capita carbon emissions and makes its money selling oil and gas. Why did it want to host this conference?
I think their leadership is evolving in how they are thinking about this. I went there recently for a story on how it is aiming to ensure food security in the next decade and a half, to try and not import as much food as they currently do, which is tied in with issues of global warming. Qatar will be threatened by global warming like everyone else; the rising tides will have a serious impact, so too will the economics of a diminishing carbon resource. But they are thinking, and acting on the issue. They have made a serious commitment to solar–they are planning a two-gigawatt solar farm to fuel desalinization for agricultural use. But the problem is that solar has historically been developed with northern climates in mind, like Germany, the U.S., and Japan. The solar technology has to be radically reengineered in order to handle the heat and dust conditions that you see in the Gulf. Paradoxically, more sun and heat does not necessarily mean more energy with solar panels; it actually makes them less effective. So Qatar has invested in a solar testing facility with Chevron to develop the best solar panel system for use in the Gulf.
(MORE: Can Qatar Learn to Feed Itself?)
Some commentators have suggested that Qatar’s foreign policy in the Middle East suggests that they want to ensure that the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power in several countries across the region.
In some ways it is a fair critique, and they are not denying it. I think they think the Muslim Brotherhood is here to stay and they want to be on the winning side. They did not overtly support them before the revolution in Egypt, which has ultimately brought the Brotherhood to power there; it was sort of a reactionary thing. From my reporting in Syria, I found that although you could say all sorts of bad things about the Islamist groups there, they are much more disciplined than the secular groups who in some cases are looting, killing and raping citizens and regime supporters alike. A lot of Syrians have told me that they prefer the Islamists because of this. I think for the same reason the Qataris favor the Muslim Brotherhood—they are an entity they know and can work with – they’re predictable and disciplined and they have been around for a long time.
What’s the likelihood of a Qatar usurping or becoming the next Saudi Arabia in terms of its wealth and influence regionally?
Saudi Arabia’s power is waning in terms of political might. They have a lot of political fires to put out at home and Qatar is certainly stepping into the void left by them. However, power is not just about money. Qatar may have the highest per capita GDP in the world but its economy is nowhere near as powerful as Saudi Arabia’s. They just don’t have enough people. Saudi Arabia is still very important in terms of consumption power.