Thursday, November 24, 2011

Pragmatic diplomacy enables Qatar to punch above weight

It is a new development that some Arab states now have to figure Qatar in their calculations, as just two decades ago, the bantam-sized emirate was on the margin of the Middle East's political attentions. Yet in the last 10 years, Qatar has skilfully bolstered its power by blending economic might, nuisance value, political counterpoint, diplomatic hardnosedness, ideological solidarity and an adeptness at filling regional political vacuums.

Qatar's economic prowess is the result, principally, of its natural gas reserves, estimated to be the world's third largest. The primary medium for the state's nuisance value has been the satellite television station Al Jazeera, long a thorn in the side of Arab rulers, especially during the recent months of upheaval in the Arab world. Qatar's talent for political counterpoint has been displayed in its parallel yet contradictory associations, so that the emirate could, for instance, host a major American military base while maintaining friendly relations with Washington's bitterest foes, such as Iran and Hizbollah.

Ideologically, in recent years Qatar, which like Saudi Arabia is Wahhabi, has assisted Islamic movements in the Arab world. After the 2006 Lebanon war, the emirate financed reconstruction in Hizbollah-controlled areas, which was vital to neutralising resentment against the party. Lately, it has funded Islamists in Libya and probably Syria. The emirate has also hosted an Egyptian sheikh, Yusif Al Qaradawi, one of the region's most influential clerics.

Last week, speaking in Doha, Sheikh Yusif urged Egyptian voters to avoid voting for "a secularist, an agnostic, or those who don't accept Allah as their God, Islam as their religion and Mohammed as their Prophet" in Egypt's forthcoming parliamentary elections. That is, assuming these are held on time in light of the recent unrest.

The most significant factor allowing Qatar to punch above its weight has been its ability to adapt to changing circumstances more rapidly than most others. Amid mounting protests earlier this year in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and even Syria after initial uncertainty, the emirate backed protesters, giving Al Jazeera wide latitude to channel Arab sympathies by defining a heroic narrative for anti-regime actions.

Yet Qatar avoids recklessness in its immediate neighbourhood. Despite Al Jazeera's partiality toward Arab uprisings, the emirate did not break ranks with its Gulf partners over Bahrain. In fact, the royal family has tightened its hold over the station, after the departure of Waddah Khanfar, its Palestinian director general. Years of hostility with Saudi Arabia have also been papered over, even if Qatar is taking advantage of the vacuum left by the kingdom as it goes through a political transition that has sometimes diminished its sway.

It is in the relationship with Syria that Qatar has made the most radical about-face. Doha had given the regime in Damascus quite a bit of support in recent years. Qatar's critics would argue that the emirate accorded Syria and its allies such as Hizbollah political cover to reimpose their writ in Beirut after the assassination in February 2005 of Rafiq Hariri. Damascus was blamed for the crime, and reluctantly withdrew its army from Lebanon as a consequence.

But then why has Qatar emerged as one of Syria's fiercest critics in the Arab League and possibly the motive force behind a tougher stance? It probably had to do with the fact that Qatar brokered an agreement in Doha in May 2008 between the conflicting Lebanese factions. A principle of the accord was that Lebanese parties - the implicit focus was on Hizbollah - would not resort to violence to achieve their political aims. However, last January Hizbollah, prompted by Syria, ousted Prime Minister Saad Hariri from office. The move was constitutional, but the party made it clear that if Mr Hariri were brought back, it would resort to violence.

Mr Hariri's removal was a blow to the Doha agreement, but also to Saudi Arabia, Mr Hariri's sponsor. The Qatari prime minister and foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, travelled to Beirut to negotiate a compromise, along with two colleagues. When he was told by Hizbollah that the party still would not accept Mr Hariri's return, he left Beirut thwarted and humiliated, no doubt well aware that Syria had endorsed the repudiation. This effectively undermined Qatar's efforts to play a balancing role in Lebanon.

The rift with Syria was not immediate, but a momentous sign that tempers had changed in Doha came last March. In a sermon there, Sheikh Yusif declared that the "train of Arab revolution" had reached Syria. Officials in Damascus were stunned. The remarks not only implied Qatari acquiescence of what the sheikh had said. Given Sheikh Yusif's Islamist credentials, it hit the Assads in their most vulnerable spot, granting Islamist legitimacy to an uprising that, whatever its broad democratic motives, has effectively pitted the Sunni majority in Syria against a minority Alawite-led regime.

Qatar is likely to continue to play a vanguard role in an Arab world in flux. The emirate's pragmatism, some would say its cynicism, as well as the absence of internal challenges to the emir, make it much easier for the emirate to play all sides simultaneously. In an Arab world riven by paradox, Qatar's paradoxes have allowed it to ride many unruly waves - waves frequently of the emirate's own making.

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