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The Strange Power of Qatar

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Hussein Malla/AP Images
Sheikh Hamad, right, and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jaber al-Thani at the Arab Summit, Damascus, March 2008

Even in the Gulf, however, the Qatari position can be difficult to read. In 2006, for example, after Israel’s war in Lebanon, the Qatari emir spoke of Hezbollah’s “victory” over the Israelis and provided millions of dollars to help rebuild four heavily bombed Hezbollah villages. Yet only a few months later Qatar invited Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to the Sixth International Conference on New or Restored Democracies, a UN–sponsored forum—leading to a caustic rebuke from Saudi Arabia. (Livni declined, but later gave the keynote speech at the 2008 Doha Forum on Democracy, Development, and Free Trade.) And in early May of this year, with Gulf troops helping the Sunni leaders of Bahrain enforce the crackdown on mostly Shia protesters, Moqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqi Shia leader and outspoken critic of the Gulf intervention, was a guest of the Qatari emir in Doha.

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera’s English-language service, which was started in 2006, has been praised in the West for its aggressive and comprehensive reporting on the recent revolts—even in the Gulf. (It is now available in several US cities, including Washington, D.C., and New York.) In July, the network produced Shouting in the Dark, a fifty-minute documentary about the uprising in Bahrain whose blunt examination of the crackdown caused the Bahraini government to lodge a formal protest with Qatar. Yet unlike Al Jazeera’s Arabic service (which did not show the documentary), Al Jazeera English is not watched by tens of millions of Arab viewers in the Middle East; its audience is predominantly elite, Western, and international—people who do not pose a direct threat to Qatari or regional stability.

5.

The longer one stays in Doha, the clearer it becomes that its social and political realities are managed with remarkable subtlety. Migrant workers, many of them from South Asia, form the vast majority of the population yet remain nearly invisible: they are housed in labor camps far from the city from which they are bussed in to construction sites before dawn. Even more discreet are the huge American military installations tucked into the desert. In other unobtrusive corners there are now Catholic and Anglican churches, and even a liquor store outside of town, to cater to the growing expatriate population (you need a special license to enter it). Locals, meanwhile, talk of a lively culture of social exchange, which, however, is to be found mainly behind closed doors. (Public gatherings are strictly regulated and rarely occur.) According to tradition, Qatari men will often take part in a majlis, a neighborhood klatch that typically takes place in private homes.

In the end, Sheikh Hamad’s particular genius, it seems, has been to promote Qatar as one of the most sophisticated and open societies in the Arab Gulf, all the while being careful to keep its own closed political and social system—and its status in the Islamic world and among the traditional Gulf monarchies—largely intact. Indeed, for all its activist foreign policy, Qatar’s concerns, like those of other Gulf nations, are essentially parochial: military security, food security, social stability, and an economic system that can be sustained, in a hostile climate, over the very long term—even beyond the era of gas and oil.

From this perspective, Qatar’s involvement in the Arab uprisings, and its remarkable military intervention in Libya, may take on a different cast. “They have been playing a deep game,” Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a specialist in politics and security in the Gulf at the London School of Economics, told me. By taking the lead in Arab world support for the Libyan rebels, he suggested, the emirate has not merely put itself on the side of revolutionaries (and in its direct support for various individual rebel leaders maximized its chances of picking an ultimate winner); it has also allowed Qatar and other Gulf states that have followed suit to show they are responsible members of the international community, while deflecting attention from the Gulf itself. For Qatar, at least, promoting democracy abroad and investing lavishly in a comparatively young population at home have allowed the emir to stay ahead of the changes sweeping through the region, all the while strengthening his hold on power.

—September 27, 2011

Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute

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