Qatar’s Geopolitical Gamble: How the Gulf State May Have Overreached

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Egyptian protesters burn the Qatari flag in Tahrir Square in Cairo on Jan. 27, 2013

Nearly three weeks after Egypt’s military forced the country’s President Mohamed Morsi out of office and jailed him and officials of his Muslim Brotherhood party, the explosive reaction on Cairo’s streets has brought death and turmoil— and in another country more than 1,200 miles away, an uneasy sense of loss. Qatar, the tiny gas-rich peninsula in the Persian Gulf, had poured nearly $5 billion into Morsi’s government in its one short year in office, propping up Egypt’s teetering economy, and investing — or so it thought — in a lasting relationship with the Arab world’s most populous nation.

It was not to be. In just the latest blow to Qatar’s influence peddling, the emirate has lost a key ally, and with it, its clout. Back in 2011, Qatar seemed a crucial player, willing to invest its immense wealth in the revolutions sweeping the region, and its global clout to persuade the Arab League and the U.N. to back an international bombing campaign against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in Libya. Protesters in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt carried Qatar’s maroon-and-white flags in tribute, and banners reading “Thank you al-Jazeera,” since the Qatar-owned news network had trumpeted their cause.

Two and a half years on, the contrast is stark. Protesters have regularly burned Qatar’s flag alight in Tahrir Square, enraged by its strong support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and earlier this month, the Egyptian military rounded up 28 of the channel’s staff in Cairo and hounded its correspondent from a press conference, claiming that al-Jazeera endangered Egypt’s national security.

With thousands of pro-Morsi demonstrators still on the streets, analysts in Doha now think the blow to Qatar from events in Egypt could jolt the government into rethinking its interventions. Those have included not only arming and funding Libya’s revolution, but also sending millions in aid to Hamas in Gaza, funneling weapons to Syrian rebels and attempting to broker talks between the U.S. and representatives of the Afghan Taliban. “Qatar’s foreign interventions will be cut back. They overreached,” says Michael Stephens, a researcher in Doha, Qatar’s gleaming capital, for the Royal United Services Institute, a British security think tank. Stephens cites as one example the devastating attack on a U.S. compound in Benghazi last September, which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. The assault was the work of militia fighters whom some claim Qatar had financed and armed, an accusation Qatar has denied. Last month, protesters in Benghazi burned the Qatari flag, saying the Qataris were backing extremist Salafist groups. “They [Qatar] allied themselves with questionable people,” Stephens told me in Doha. “They didn’t fully understand the ramifications of what they were doing.”

With billions of its petrodollars to gamble on the region’s conflicts, Qatar is clearly under no budgetary constraints. But the same can be said for its oil-rich neighbors — and in Egypt, the bitter political battle is shaping up as a contest for influence between old rivals in the Gulf. Since the Egyptian military forced Morsi out of power and installed an interim government nearly three weeks ago, money has poured in from the Gulf states. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have jointly committed about $12 billion, dwarfing Qatar’s $5 billion aid package to the Muslim Brotherhood last year, and making the U.S.’s yearly $1.5 billion to Egypt’s military look suddenly insignificant. That could mean dwindling clout for the U.S., especially as Washington has not intervened in the biggest conflict in the region, Syria, says Shadi Hamid, research director for the Brookings Institution in Doha. “The [Obama] Administration has very little interest in playing a big role in the region,” he says. “Their threats are no longer credible.” By contrast, Hamid says, “the fact that the Saudis, UAE and Kuwaitis have committed $12 billion means they will have most leverage going forward. They want influence with the new political order.”

The first signs of a potential shift in Qatari policy came on June 24, when Qatar’s Emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, handed over power to his son Sheik Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, 33, in an act that stunned people in other Gulf countries, whose leaders invariably hold on to power for life. Hamad had named Tamim his heir apparent in 2003, and last month said he thought it was time for Tamim and a new generation to “shoulder the responsibility with their dynamic potential and creative thoughts.”

Qataris have hailed the transition as seamless. Traveling around Doha last week in torpid midsummer heat, I heard several officials boast that the only shift was that they had swapped the old and new Emirs’ photographs on the wall, so that Tamim now occupies the more important left position.

But the change could involve more than a shift in decor. Analysts in Doha believe Tamim could downscale Qatar’s heavy involvement in Middle East conflicts, pointing as evidence to his first speech as Emir, when he said, “We as Arabs refuse to divide Arab societies on a sectarian basis” — an apparent reference to the criticism that Qatar’s interventions have intensified Shi‘ite-Sunni violence in several parts of the region. Judging from reports, the Qataris have been reliable supporters of more radical Sunni factions across the Arab world — at least until now. On his third day on the job, the new young Emir dismissed his father’s veteran Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, who was also Qatar’s Foreign Minister and a member of the ruling clan, and had been the key interlocutor with the U.S. in critical conflicts around Africa and the Middle East.

For Qataris, the change could be welcome. In unguarded moments, some say that foreign conflicts are less important to them than what is happening at home, and that after years of rocketing growth, Qatar needs to focus on streamlining its way of doing business, in a country where most decisions are made by a handful of men. “With Sheik Tamim being our age, he might better represent our generation,” says Khelifa Al-Misnad, 33, who obtained a law degree at the University of Texas at Austin and now runs a law firm in Doha. “It is new blood, new energy, new vision.”

Qatar is already scrambling to build about $200 billion worth of railway lines, ports, hotels and stadiums during the next nine years, in time for the 2022 World Cup, which the Connecticut-size peninsula won the right to hold in 2010. To many Qataris, that massive undertaking takes precedence over funding foreign revolutions. “Like any transition period, the focus will be inward,” says Hamid. “The new Foreign Minister will have to strengthen relations in the region and the world. It’s only natural that in the interim Qatar will step back.”

That retreat may prove costly for the rebellion in Syria. President Bashar Assad’s forces have consolidated gains in recent months, as rebel groups fracture into deadly rivalries and as the U.S. and Britain stall on sending weapons to the rebels. Qatar’s sheiks, who broke ties with Assad soon after the war erupted in 2011, are crucial backers of Syria’s opposition and rebel fighters, supplying millions in aid to refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, and arming rebel commanders. As TIME documented in May, Qatar was behind a pipeline conveying heavy weaponry to the rebels from Gaddafi’s looted arsenals in Libya. The New York Times reported in June that four Qatari cargo planes had stopped in Libya earlier this year, three in Tripoli and one in Benghazi, before traveling to Qatar’s military base, and then on to Turkey. Effectively, the planes were collecting stores of weapons to drop off with the rebel commanders.

Such support is crucial — and Syria’s opposition is keen to lock it in, now that Qatar has a new ruler. After Tamim’s coronation last month, Syria’s opposition ambassador to Qatar, Nizar al-Hrakey (Qatar expelled Assad’s envoy in 2011) stood in line at the royal palace to offer his congratulations. But the real purpose was to plead for him to keep his father’s Syrian policy in place. “We had a few moments together when we spoke, I wished him well and told him I hoped for continuation,” al-Hrakey said, sitting in his air-conditioned office in a villa in Doha’s diplomatic district, which opened last February as the official Syrian embassy. Al-Hrakey said Qatar’s Emir “reassured me that they would help Syrian people,” and that the new Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiyah had told him “that he would support Syria until the fall of the regime.”

To the surprise of many, though, the embattled Assad regime has now outlasted the rule of Qatar’s recently retired Emir. The planeloads of weapons and millions of dollars sent from this tiny state are a sign, perhaps, that Doha bit off more than it can chew.