Qatar is billing itself as a new regional power broker in the Middle East, with a rigorous campaign to paint itself as the bastion of revolutionaries. Qatar is positioning itself centrally in the Syria conflict, as well as in the Afghan peace talk and the Middle East Peace Process. The small gulf nation may be seizing an opportunity to claim a prominent role in Middle Eastern affairs, but it may upset its neighbor Saudi Arabia in the process.
Qatar’s star is rising. It has just been named as the wealthiest nation on earth by Forbes magazine, surpassing long-time first-placer Luxembourg with an astounding US$88,000 per capita GDP score. Its bountiful natural gas resources and small native population can account for this, but the country is also rigorously investing in infrastructure that will see it develop further as a trade and business hub. The aim is to eclipse the UAE’s Dubai as the Gulf’s main center of business.
The tiny Gulf nation has been positioning itself to be at the center of some of the region’s biggest issues, including Afghan peace talks and the Middle East Peace Process. The Afghan Taliban are even opening an office in Qatar, and Pakistan’s Prime Minister visited the nation in early February to discuss the possibility of Qatari-brokered talks between interested parties.
Qatar was also instrumental in seeing the long-standing rivalry between Palestinian organizations Fatah and Hamas come to a halt, with a power-sharing accord brokered by the Emir of Qatar signed in early February.
Syria and the Arab League
Qatar and Syria have previously shared good relations. In July of 2011, Qatar abruptly closed its embassy in Damascus and withdrew all its diplomats from the country. This was the beginning of the Qatari campaign to bring down the regime of Bashar al Assad. According to political analyst Karim Sadar, “Qatar’s move looks more like a shrewdly calculated divorce from the Syrian regime than a fleeting spat.” He further states that Qatar “cynically concluded that it is no longer necessary to support the Syria of Bashar al-Assad, because this Syria no longer has the same strategic influence ever since the recent Arab revolts started shifting the power dynamics in the region”.
The influence in question is over the Palestine-Israel conflict, and with the reconciliation between Qatari-backed Hamas and Fatah, the Syrian influence in the conflict waned dramatically. The reopening of the Rafah border also eased the pressure on Hamas-controlled Gaza, and so Qatar no longer needed to rely on Syria’s clout as a go-between in the conflict.
The rift between Syria and Qatar has its roots in the Qatari new channel Al Jazeera. The news agency was reporting very sympathetically with the protestors in the Arab Spring, and the Syrians felt threatened by the news channel, which it branded as portraying “exaggerated and dishonest” stories about Syria.
Qatar was also instrumental in the freezing of Syria’s membership in the Arab League, and has since been central to the Arab League-backed proposal at the UN. According to some analyst, the country even went so far as sweetening the vote against Syria with gas profits to countries who were considering voting for Syria to remain in the League. Robert Fisk, a well known reporter and analyst on Middle Eastern events noted that “Qatar’s power in the Arab world is beginning to look distinctly imperial. With its money and its own air raids, it helped to bring down the Gaddafi regime. Now it is the League’s vanguard against Syria.”
Interestingly, Qatar’s support of revolution and protesting hasn’t extended to Iran. Qatar has a history of being lenient toward Iran and is pressing ahead with joint energy project with the country. It was recently revealed that Qatar, along with the UAE and Oman will import a combined $2billion worth of electricity from the heavily-sanctioned country Iran develops the Forouz B gas fields in the Persian Gulf. This move not only flies in the face of the recent US sanctions against Iran, but highlights that where Qatari interests remain, there is a lesser chance of support for popular uprisings.
The continuing relations with Iran is also in discord with Qatar’s cooling of relations with Syria, as Syria and Iran share close ties. However for Qatar, maintaining ties with Iran is important because of their control over the Strait of Hormuz. Qatar is particularly vulnerable because of its reliance on energy and shipping “Qatar could be among the sovereigns affected most by a closure of the strait,” says Kai Stukenbrock, a Middle East sovereign ratings analyst at Standard & Poor’s.
There have been conflicting reports over the Qatari role in relation to Saudi Arabia. Some analysts see Qatar as cozying up to Saudi Arabia in a bid to strengthen a so-called Sunni bloc in the region, but others see a struggle emerging between the two nations for pre-eminence in the region. In some respects, both analyses are correct.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been congruent in their calls for action on Syria, however they may run into trouble over their differing views on Iran. This is the most likely area of discord between the two nations at present, however if Qatar continues its ‘Imperial’ ambitions in the region, as Fisk put it, then there will be a power struggle with Saudi Arabia. Already the two countries are vying for the spotlight in regards to the Arab League, with the Saudis coming down very strongly at the recent Friends of Syria conference held in Tunisia. The Saudis were vociferous in their calls for arming the Syrian opposition.
While the focus of the two countries is on Syria, there would still be unease on the part of Saudi Arabia over its tiny Gulf neighbor getting too big for its boots.