Since the early 1990s, when geopolitical changes forced Qatar to rethink its place in the region, this tiny Gulf state has pursued a dynamic foreign policy that has allowed its strategic influence to exceed far beyond its physical size, David B. Roberts writes in a policy brief for the Project on Middle East Democracy.
Geopolitical changes in the 1990s pushed Qatar to rethink its position in the region, and with the ascension of Emir Hamad to the throne in 1995, this tiny Gulf state began pursuing a dynamic and distinct foreign policy that elevated its visibility on the world stage.
Cultivating relations with both Iran and Israel— much to the chagrin of other Arab states—was an early method for Qatar to differentiate itself from the staid politics of the region. More recently, Qatar has harnessed its huge financial and media resources, significant diplomatic power, and gamut of Islamist connections to become a regional leader in responding to the Arab Spring.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, Qatar has abandoned its previous policy of serving as a neutral mediator in regional conflicts and has led efforts to support protest movements in both Libya and Syria.
Committed to easing tensions between the Sunni and Shi’a sides of the Gulf, Qatar seeks to strike a balance in its policies that antagonizes neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia.
Qatar’s image as a champion for democracy in the region, however, is inconsistent with its lack of democratic credentials, as well as with its relative silence on Bahrain—a country in which Saudi Arabia’s hard line precluded Qatar from playing a more active role.
Qatar’s embrace of all political actors has sometimes rankled the United States, but the U.S. should capitalize on Qatar’s relationships to accurately navigate the changing political landscape in the region while also encouraging Qatar to develop its own democratic credentials.
David Roberts is deputy director of the Qatar office of the Royal United Services Institute for Security and Defense Studies.