Twenty months after Qatar was subjected to a punishing boycott by several of its neighbors, the tiny emirate is returning to the global stage. Having made a remarkable economic recovery, it is now striving to repeat this success in the political theater with a wave of diplomatic activity in regional trouble spots.
By getting involved in the Middle East’s crisis zones, Qatar is presenting itself as a beacon of moderation, a country with the skill and resources to help bridge Arab and Western interests. Yet cynics will suggest that Qatar has additional reasons for these policies. As Saudi Arabia, the country which led the boycott, reels from a spate of international condemnation, Doha has the ideal opportunity to usurp its arch-rival as the West’s go-to-partner in the Arab world.
Qatar has certainly never been shy about coming forward on the international stage. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, foreign policy observers even joked that the country ranked alongside the U.S. as the most powerful country in the world. Some suggest that Qatar’s commitment to Wahhabism, a branch of Islam which emphasizes duty and commitment, impels its people to assume leadership in global affairs. Yet others may point to the country’s wealth, which has fueled an ambitious foreign investment strategy designed to secure its fortune in a post-fossil fuels future.
Whatever the reasons, Qatar’s bullish international strategy has sometimes provoked regional disputes. Its enthusiastic support for the movements of the Arab Spring, and the willingness of state-funded broadcaster Al-Jazeera to criticize regional regimes, provided a convenient pretext for the Saudi-led blockade. In June 2017, Riyadh reacted to Qatar’s candor by accusing its Gulf neighbor of financing terrorism – charges Doha denies.
During the first year of the blockade, Qatar turned inward to focus on shoring up its economy. It repatriated billions of dollars and boosted its industrial and agriculture programs, while wooing foreign investors by loosening visa entry rules for foreigners. Now, however, it’s turning its attention back to international affairs through a raft of high-profile projects. As well as announcing major investments in Gaza and Lebanon, Qatari officials have hosted peace talks between U.S. and the Taliban in an effort to finally bring the Afghan conflict to an end.
The diplomatic flurry is certainly well-timed. Qatar’s economy has recovered strongly from the boycott – so strongly, in fact, that Doha says the blockade has actually bolstered its economy. Meanwhile, international concern about Doha’s support for Islamist radicals has faded. US President Trump, having once voiced support for Riyadh’s allegations, has performed a complete volte-face and now praises Qatar for its role in fighting extremism.
In contrast, Saudi Arabia’s reputation has been severely dented. The country’s airstrikes in Yemen have resulted in scores of civilian deaths, and the global fallout has been magnified by the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi embassy. As the relationship between Washington and Riyadh continues to sour, Qatar may feel now is the ideal time to marginalize its much-larger neighbor.
This would certainly explain why Doha is particularly keen to establish itself as a reliable international player, a far cry from the maverick it has been portrayed as in the past. Qatar, for example, is trying to maintain dialogues with both sides in Gaza: as well as pledging a $20 million aid package, backed by the UN, for humanitarian projects in the Palestinian community, Qatari officials have discussed with Israel the possibility of building a new airport on Gazan soil, under the supervision of Doha.
Qatar has long been accused of supporting the Gaza-based militant group Hamas, and indeed has harboredseveral of the group’s senior figures. Yet now it is positioning itself as a more neutral player, capable of bringing both sides together. In neighboring Lebanon, Qatar has adopted a similar tactic. Having long been criticized for its ties to Hezbollah, Qatar has repositioned itself in support of Beirut’s official administration by buying up $500 million of Lebanese bonds, shoring up an economy riddled with debt and hamstrung by months of political gridlock.
This gesture poses a clear challenge to Saudi Arabia, traditionally seen as Beirut’s chief international champion. The Kingdom may have promised full support in the wake of Qatar’s investment, but it has hitherto hung back from Lebanon’s crisis; Riyadh has discouraged its nationals from visiting the country, and even detained the Lebanese prime minister in 2017. Although Lebanon commands a fraction of the international media attention afforded to Gaza, it has provided an ideal opportunity to Qatar to step into the fray and provide assistance to a struggling nation.
But the U.S.-Taliban talks have provided Doha with its biggest triumph of all. After all, they were originally supposed to take place in Riyadh, but the Taliban leadership pulled out, due to Saudi insistence that the Afghan government be included, and requested
For Qatar, the talks have provided the opportunity to pitch itself as a trustworthy actor to the U.S. and its Western partners, and a neutral venue for international discussions. As it strives to establish itself as a global financial hub, a place where the world’s business community can come to do business, Qatar’s ability to host political deal-makers can only help.
Amid all these triumphs, Qatar would be advised to tread carefully. After all, it is still punching well above its weight in a region where its rivals are on the offensive. But so far, it is playing the perfect political game. The Saudis, meanwhile, need to act fast to ensure they aren’t the ones cast into the international wilderness.