Qatar and the Horn

Sunday, 12 December 2010 14:02

Al-Jazeera has helped the country to punch more than its weight. However it is the new foreign policy profile of Qatar that is seen as sweeping and dangerous.

The Menacing Role of Qatar

Qatar became so closely identified with the art of supporting dark horses in the Horn of Africa. While Saudi Arabia supports Fatah in the Palestinian Administration, Qatar and by extension Iran supports Hamas. When the latter support Hezbollah in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia supports the successive governments in Beirut. In Somalia, the Saudis lean towards the Transitional Government of Somalia/TFG/, on the other hand Qatar supports, of course through Eritrea, the hard-line Islamic insurgents: Al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam. Is there a pattern in the conduct of Qatari foreign relations in the Horn of African sub-region? Why is Qatar doing this? Can there be any historical explanation to it? If so what is the thought process of the Qatari leadership? Is it due to wild ambitions to play a regional role or a mere product of ones wrong self image?

Any attempt to understand Qatari behavior and position on Horn of African issues must begin with the tentative and end with the abstract. It is difficult to convey a clear message and provide coherent analysis. We lack the historical perspective to judge. Yet, it looks like close to the complicated game in the Middle East. Clouding our perspective, among other things, is a combination of two quite different realities-on the one hand the close relations with Iran and Islamist resistance groups, and, on the other, the alliance with the US. Qatari meddling in the Horn of African situation is the result of what is probably the least ambiguous case of the misreading of its position in the broader region, particularly the Gulf. The first time I began to write about this was some five years back, and I am still bemused by the subject matter. Increasingly however I came to realize one thing: If we are looking for some kind of explanation, perhaps the place to look is not in the Horn of Africa but in the history of independence of Qatar and the specific circumstances by which the current leadership came to power.

The Quest for Relevance
 The increasing role of Qatar in the Horn of Africa has been evident in its active engagement in the range of conflicts, both intra-state and inter-state conflicts. Since the late 1990s Qatar set to play a very controversial, often destructive role in the affairs of the sub-region. The precursor for this was the emergence of a new leadership with a new philosophy in Doha. On acceding to power in June 1995, against the odds decidedly produced by Saudi Arabia, the new Emir Sheikh Hamad quickly decided to take measures that help to elevate Qatar’s position on the world stage. This drastically changed the content and projection of Qatari foreign relations and the nature of alliances. It was not long before it became clear that the Sheikh Hamad had plans to alter his country’s foreign relations. The new Emir came to believe that Qatar’s interests would better be served if the country takes things differently and moves faster than its neighbors politically and culturally. Organizing pompous international events, such as hosting the World Islamic Conference and World Trade Organization conferences and major sporting events became a kind of annual ritual in Doha, the capital city.

Qatar is ruled by the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and his tribe, the Al Thani. In 2006, the Emir has stated, Qatar should be ‘known and noticed’. Not to mention the activities underway to turn the country into an important regional hub, a kind of Arab version of Switzerland except that unlike the latter he started to take and pursue controversial measures and involve in acts of conflict instigation in the Middle East and some parts of Africa. Then he founded Al-Jazeera. This must have helped the country to punch more than its weight. However it is the new foreign policy profile of Qatar that was seen as sweeping and dangerous precedent. This has become a headache to one of the biggest neighbors’, Saudi Arabia.

Small Nations, Big Problems?
 As they say, Qataris resent Saudi Arabia’s arrogant sense of seniority (pretty much like Norwegians feel about Sweden), mainly due to historical hangover than contemporary politics and clearly defined national interests. For their own part the Saudis didn’t make things easier as they spent a lot of resources, time, diplomatic capital, and force to show the Qataris simply to remind them who was the boss. This is very much linked to Qatar’s colonial history, despite the close cultural and religious relations with the big neighbors’, mainly Saudi Arabia. Clearly, the situation is similar to small states with big ambitions. It is not surprising that Qatar’s behavior and conduct of foreign policy is similar in many respects to that of Norway, and both are very close to Eritrea. Scholars today tend not to believe anymore in the notion of a small-state syndrome, but if there is such a thing, then Qatar seems to exemplify it.

This doesn’t mean that Qataris are inherently different from their neighbors but asserting a new identity and new statehood anchored in new narratives and complications related to adopting to the new international system of the sub-region where they belong seem to have led to a different and non-conventional making of foreign policy processes. The foreign policy imperatives of such countries mostly follow the actions of their big neighbors than real and practical domestic priorities and national interests. It is as if small countries that have accumulated deep dislike of their big neighbor, and emerging as a truly independent state and getting rich, creates its own nuances and complications. The transition into a state by latecomers with some form of inbuilt grudges and national psych is often attended by confusion and disarticulation. And there is a tendency to take these grudges beyond national borders and translate them into a global role and international profile. Another dimension is evident too. Such states are very nervous about their security and harbor unimaginable nightmares about ghosts of insecurity.

They feel extremely insecure about being a state and this insecurity is even reflected in the name they give to themselves. Quite often the state comes before the name of the country, such as the state of Eritrea, the state of Israel etc.The security/state syndrome is so high that everything is defined in sometimes non-existent security terms.Nonetheless,there are as in many international relations, political issues that should be taken into account in such a dynamics.There is some parallel that explains Qatar’s tumultuous relations with Saudi Arabia to that of Eritrea’s nervous standing toward Ethiopia except that there are reversals of roles in initiating the political processes that underpin this nervousness. There are many things internal to Ethiopia that irritate the new state of Eritrea, as there are similar issues that the new ruler of Qatar inserted into the political system that angered the Saudis and make them feel insecure at the political and regional level. Suffice to say that with its new, though weak, reform process and a constitution, Qatar has underlined Saudi Arabia’s backwardness. Let’s not forget that Eritrea doesn’t have a constitution. Compare this with the constitutional making process and contested, though less impressive elections in Ethiopia. Whether it is implemented or not having a constitution is a powerful sign of graduating into a modern state and becoming a member of the international community. Up to now Eritrea doesn’t get it.

Too Close for Comfort
 Qatar is in almost all the major conflicts in the Horn: Somalia,Darfur,Ras Dumeirah.The foreign policy of Qatar like Eritrea or in some respects like Norway is more than ambitious, it is no less destructive. In many ways Qatar tried to steal Kaddafi’s moment, particularly in the Horn of Africa. Egyptian preeminence in the region mainly the Horn of Africa has long been challenged by others, even by Sudan in the mid 1990s and become increasingly replaced by robust involvement and influence peddling by the Saudis. Hence, the contest became mainly between Libya and Saudi Arabia although the approaches were not always the same, until Qatar began to challenge Saudi Arabia on every bit of foreign policy from the Middle East to the Horn of Africa. The role of Al-Jazeera in all this is critical. It may not be a surprise that the big neighbors of Qatar, and in some specific circumstances Ethiopia, are furious that the TV station has become the modem of destabilization and instrument of their humiliation.

The growth of Al-Jazeera to fame in the Middle East and internationally had a rub-off effect on Qatar, which as the saying goes ‘found itself famous for something other than pumping gases. But it is already becoming famous for something other than pumping gas or Al-Jazeera i.e. its insensitive meddling in the affairs of other countries and intervention in conflict situations in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. Qatar is also the host of the newly formed but increasingly powerful colloquium of the Organization of Islamic Conference/OIC/. And the Emir of Qatar, as astute as he is, effectively uses the OIC for foreign policy objectives and as an instrument to neutralize negative perceptions abroad.

Qatari leaders have stunned everyone when they declared Qatar’s relationship with America is their country’s ‘first consideration’. This was more than a bluff to the British and the Saudis. The change from British to American protection within a few years could only be compared to Emperor Hailesellasie of Ethiopia’s astute and stealth political and diplomatic turnaround in the late 1940s, and his success in replacing the British by the Americans.Incidentally, there are some historical parallels between the two. Prominent among all is the attempt to change a very traditional society by carefully designed and executed processes of modernization which are still more conservative and less radical. The laser-type focus on modern education, including buying wholesale into the American University system, without foreseeing its social and political implications. This aside, Qatar is not Ethiopia; quite the contrary. Qatar is about the size of Connecticut, 4500 square miles .The total population of the country is only about 610,000 souls, bearing in mind that at least 400,000 of them are migrant workers from Pakistan, India and Egypt. Noticeable only by its absence is the huge American military deployment in this country. Qatar is geopolitically important. Though dominated by a desert, which is bleak even by regional standards.

Lying between Iran and Saudi Arabia, like a mouse sharing a cage with two rattlesnakes, the little Emirate has had to learn to live in its wits. Qatar has flourished recently. Today, Qatar’s huge gas reserves-the largest known natural gas reserves of any country except Russia-bestow upon its people one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. As long as there is a buyer for its gas, Qatar is going to be rich. As long as there are less expensive actors of instability, Qatar will continue to write the checks easily. Qatar has the right to be ‘known and noticed’, but at what cost? And that is of course the point.

 Just as civilizations have foundation myths; Qataris seem to have destination myths, the whole collective notion of yearning and working hard to play a prominent role in the Arab and Muslim world. For this to happen, they have to use their massive-gas generated- wealth and buy clients, who are ready to burn their fingers on behalf of Qatar. Qatar can do a lot on the cheap. And often, this foreign policy is concerned with partisan diplomatic complications than broader national or regional security. Very few countries can play a double game: working as both bad and good guys at the same time. Qatar allows the US to establish a base in its territory, but it supports radical Islamists in Lebanon, Palestine and Somalia and can easily get away with it. There may be some give and take in terms of Qatari role in the Middle East crisis-often as a pawn to Iranian influence peddling, while facilitating US military missions- but in the Horn of African region Qatar plays the role of a full-time spoiler. What is unsettling about this is that the sub-region was already flammable even without Qatar. Meddling in Horn of African affairs was not something the Qatari leaders were forced to do and it certainly is not something they were asked to do. They simply chose to do it. This is something more than a quest for relevance.

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