Daniel Bodirsky The Middle East and North Africa

The Middlemen: Niche Diplomacy in Asia – Qatar

Constrained by geography and low populations, small powers across the globe are rarely noted as the influencers in global politics. With political deadlocks abounding, however, a number of these smaller countries are taking up the task of serving as intermediaries in high-stakes geopolitical games. These states are able to utilize low historically low international profiles to their advantage, promoting themselves as neutral brokers while building relations with both sides. This series will examine and evaluate the diplomatic forays of three of these emerging “middleman” countries – Qatar, Mongolia, and Singapore.

Qatar: A Falling Mediator

The small Gulf sheikhdom of Qatar has spent the last decade cultivating its image as the “go-to” intermediary for Middle-Eastern issues. Boasting an impressive track record – conflict mediation in Lebanon, Sudan, Yemen, Djibouti, and Palestine, it is small wonder that analysts frequently refer to Qatar as “punching above its weight.” In spite of these successes, the Arab Spring has seen Qatar slowly abandoning its hard-won reputation in favour of a more interventionist stance.

Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani, former ruler of Qatar, and chief architect of the country's diplomatic niche.

Doha’s Toolbox

For a country smaller than the Falkland Islands, with a native population smaller than London, Ontario and wedged between regional behemoths Saudi Arabia and Iran, Qatar hardly seemed fated to become a leading diplomatic player. Under the leadership of Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani, Qatar has combined oil money, soft power, and strong bilateral ties with the United States to craft an extremely ambitious foreign policy.

A chief reason for this unique brand of proactive diplomacy is, perhaps unsurprisingly, survival. Since ousting his father in a coup in 1995, Sheik Hamad has fundamentally transformed Qatar. An oil boom and complete overhaul of the Qatari economy brought immense wealth to the country, serving as the principal engine behind its evolution into a regional intermediary. Surrounded by much more conventionally-powerful states, Doha has built its national security strategy around a reputation of being a neutral, reliable mediator.  In doing so, it not only reduces potentially hostile states, but also allows it to further its own interests in strategic areas. As experts have pointed out, for Qatar, diplomacy itself is an end, rather than a means.

Doha employs a number of tools to further its diplomatic forays. The country enjoys a strong relationship with the United States, being the 5th largest recipient of American aid in the Middle-East and host to the US military’s principal naval base in the region. It also makes use of extensive soft power exemplified by the Arab World’s first satellite news station, Doha-based Al Jazeera. The network is regarded as having played a chief role in the Arab Spring, where it capitalized on Qatar’s pre-Arab Spring reputation as a neutral arbiter to report on stories no Western network could access. Qatar’s soft power has been further bolstered in being the hosts of 2022 FIFA World Cup, the first Middle-Eastern country to do so.

Big Trouble in Little Qatar

Since the onset of the Arab Spring in early 2011, Qatar has slowly shed its intermediary role in favour of a more partisan involvement in regional conflicts. Qatari diplomats were essential in garnering Arab League support for the NATO intervention in Libya, as Brussels had hoped to avoid a Kosovo-like situation by building a broad regional coalition. More recently, Qatar has been one of the chief supporters of the opposition in the Syrian conflict. Operating through an extensive arms network, Doha has shipped, among other arms, shoulder-mounted FN-6 anti-air missiles to opposition groups.

Doha’s outsized influence has proven a lightning rod of criticism. Turkish MP Faik Tunay recently blasted the Qataris for their “exaggerated sense of importance”, and proclaimed that the country should return to its “natural size.” This criticism has been leveled from a number of angles. Qatari efforts at reviving the long-stalled Arab Peace Plan – considered one of the more ground-breaking proposals for Arab-Israeli peace – have been dismissed as abandoning the Palestinians. Afghan-Taliban peace talks have been plagued by a number of issues; the opening of an “embassy-like” Taliban office in Doha being a particular sticking point. Qatar’s pivotal cooperation with NATO in Libya attracted considerable criticism, as does its support for the Syrian opposition today. The massive US military presence also erodes the oft-repeated claim that Qatar is a largely neutral body.

Doha’s large-scale support for the Syrian opposition forces at the onset of the conflict is looking increasingly like an ill-fated gamble, given the Assad regime’s recent advances at Qusair and in Aleppo. Material support continues to flow, although the Qatari leadership may sense that too much political capital has been wasted on public condemnations of the Assad regime.

In light of these setbacks, Qatar appears to be scaling back its role as “regional firefighter.” This has had the effect of creating a vacuum in patrons for the Syrian opposition, which is being filled by private hardline financers based elsewhere in the Gulf. This has only increased the speed and scale with which Islamist groups have become the core of anti-government forces. Given the various engagements Qatar now finds itself involved in, it looks increasingly likely that the small country has bitten off more than it can chew.

While Doha may have set out at the onset of the Arab Spring to serve as a moderate, stabilizing force, it is apparent that this is no longer the case. In the wake of Qatar’s involvement in Libya and Syria, years of burnishing diplomatic credentials seem to have evaporated. Where only a few years ago Qatar had little regional baggage, it is increasingly seen as another player in the burgeoning Sunni-Shia conflict. The recent abdication of Sheikh Hamad in favour of his son Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani opens the door to backpedaling on recent engagements. This does not, however, seem too likely. Qatar has tasted the nectar of global prestige. It will be difficult for the new leader to pull away, even if an overextended foreign policy has damaged the country’s credibility as an impartial mediator.

Daniel Bodirsky
Daniel is an Asia-Pacific Research Analyst with the NATO Association of Canada. He is currently an MSc candidate in Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Daniel was previously based in Hanoi, Vietnam, where he wrote freelance for a number of online publications and tutors English. Daniel’s research interests concern security in the Asia-Pacific, specifically the rise of China-balancing coalitions in Southeast Asia and Canadian interests in the region. He is a former Program Editor at the NAOC. Daniel received his BAH from Queen’s University, where he majored in Political Studies with a Minor in World Languages (German, French, Japanese). Contact: danielbodirsky@gmail.com Twitter: @danbodirsky