Qatar is one of the most active regional players in the Middle East and North Africa, writes Lina Khatib, pushing warring factions in several conflicts to reach settlements, and providing humanitarian assistance to win hearts and minds.
“Through this multipronged foreign policy, Qatar has been playing a dual role of ‘everybody’s friend’ while keeping within the lines of ‘good neighbor’ conventions in the Gulf, namely vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia,” she writes on the Fletcher School’s Reinventing Peace blog.
Qatar was also the lead Arab state in the international intervention against the Qaddafi regime in 2011, Khatib notes:
While some have been surprised by Qatar’s quick embrace of revolution instead of mediation in Libya, this “change” is not a dramatic one. Qatar’s playing the role of mediator happened during a time when the Middle East saw the prominence of authoritarian regimes that appeared durable. As soon as the rules of the game changed with the Arab Spring, Qatar had to quickly adapt its methods to stay ahead of the political game. One could see the origins of this adaptation in the uprisings in Egypt and Syria: in both cases, Qatar was initially hesitant in declaring a position against the prevailing regimes of Mubarak and Assad, particularly because of Qatari rapprochement with the Mubarak regime in late 2010 and with the Assad regime, but as soon as it realized that the uprisings in those countries were likely to topple those leaders, its public stance (and with it, coverage on al-Jazeera) changed.
The emirate’s reputation for punching above its weight as the little state that could is also based on its extensive support for the region’s Islamists groups.
For instance, “Qatar’s involvement in Libya also builds on its long relationship with (and subsequent perceived loyalty by) some Libyan Islamists,” notes Khatib, the head of the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law:
Since the 1990s, Qatar has hosted a number of Libyan Islamists, mainly from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group…….In an interview with al-Jazeera on September 7, 2011, the Emir of Qatar said “he believed radical Islamists whose views were forged under tyrannical governments could embrace participatory politics if the promise of real democracy and justice of this year’s Arab revolts is fulfilled. If so, the Qatari ruler said, ‘I believe you will see this extremism transform into civilian life and civil society’”.
“Examining Qatari foreign policy reveals a trend that points to a delicate balance that Qatar is trying to maintain: internal and regional (Gulf) stability while claiming wider political influence. Yet this is not without risks,” Khatib notes:
While reaching out to multiple parties can serve to assert Qatar’s position as a leading regional actor, maintain supported groups’ loyalty, tone down extremism, and keep insecurity at bay, it has also meant that the country risks overextending its network of co-opted and supported political actors. Already its desire to influence multiple actors, especially emerging leaders, has led to further engagement with potentially volatile parties like some Islamist rebels in Libya and in Syria.