15 November 2013
By Burgan Hobbs
WASHINGTON D.C. – With the Saudi-U.S. rift, rapprochement with Iran, and the ongoing conflict in Syria dominating the current discourse on Middle East affairs it is easy to lose sight of other issues. The domestic transition that took place in Qatar this past summer received little fanfare and deserves to be revisited in light of current trends. Setbacks in Egypt and Syria are an indication of Qatar’s limitations and possible overreach. In the immediate term, expect Qatari foreign policy to be more subtle and less adventurous. However, watch for Qatar to capitalize on opportunities that raise its foreign policy profile.
The tiny statelet, roughly the size of Connecticut, has long punched above its weight in the Arab world. Over the last decade Qatar has developed the skill set to wield significant political and financial power; becoming an effective center for international diplomacy, economic conferences, and since 2011 – a backer of revolutions. However, foreign policy setbacks in Egypt and Syria indicate Qatar’s limitations and possibly the regimes realization of policy overreach.
Qatar began to emerge as a significant regional actor only after Sheikh Hamad came to power in 1995. Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani should be given much of the credit for transforming the sleepy Gulf monarchy into an internationally recognized brand.
Given Sheik Hamad’s achievements, age, and the stability of the al-Thani monarchy it is perplexing that he chose to abdicate this past summer; handing the reins of power to his son, Sheik Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani. The timing and context of the transfer of power in Qatar indicate a shift in mood both at home and abroad. Over the next year it will be important to watch for a rebalancing between Qatar’s domestic and foreign policy priorities, as well as the Saudi response.
On the domestic front, Tamim’s most disquieting task will be managing the large and potentially unruly al-Thani extended family. With a history of plots and palace coups the key for the new emir will be to balance the interests of the real power centers, the interrelated families and tribes. Hamad was successful, in part, because he placed high-ranking members of the extended family into powerful posts. Unlike other Gulf monarchies this allowed the former emir to rule with greater autonomy as fewer challenges arose from within his family. By effectively marginalizing the decision-making through consensus dynamic so prevalent elsewhere in the region, Doha was able to pursue foreign and domestic policies with fewer constraints.
Since coming to power, Tamim has begun revamping a plethora of government agencies with overlapping responsibilities that developed under Hamad. The ministerial shuffling taking place is an attempt to ‘regularize’ government by making it more coherent and responsive. While this may make the business of government more efficient, it is also likely to encroach on the vested interests of the elite which could fuel discontent and lead to internal divisions. There is also a possibility that external powers, specifically Saudi Arabia, will capitalize on internal dissent by co-opting members of the ruling family in an attempt to hem in Tamim’s ambitions. In the coming years watch for push-back that could limit Tamim’s decision making options.
So far, Tamim has been focused on domestic issues. The ouster of Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani aka HBJ is probably the most consequential. HBJ simultaneously occupied the position of foreign minister and prime minister and he was arguably the most important figure after emir Hamad over the last decade. HBJ was primarily concerned with foreign policy issues, whereas his replacement, Abdullah bin Nasser al-Thani, is likely to make domestic issues a central priority. That Nasser will continue to run the interior ministry is a reflection of Tamim’s desire to refocus on domestic issues, or rather a consolidation of the domestic status quo.
To this end, there is a simmering inter-familial dissent that has lead to the imprisonment of a dozen AlThani family members, while others remain in exile in Canada, France and Saudi Arabia. Little public information has been allowed to seep out, but there is every reason to believe political motivations underlie the imprisonment and exile of members of the ruling family. The internal dissent that does exist has been largely passive, but this has not prevented from the rulers from nipping potential problems in the bud.
The possibility of democratic reforms and parliamentary elections, however unlikely, is also something to watch out for. Within the GCC, Qatar has been the country most likely to implement some degree of Western-style democratization. Sheik Hamad was one of the most dynamic and liberal-minded rulers in the Gulf and it will be interesting to see how Tamim manages this trend. Qatar’s political liberalization to this point has been sufficient to undermine those that would seek to challenge the regime. However, balancing internal security with the liberalizing forces already at work will be increasingly challenging.
Doha looks at the political paralysis in Kuwait, the GCC country with the most experience with democratic practices, as a fate to be avoided. As such, the parliamentary elections that were scheduled for 2013—originally conceived at the height of the Arab Spring in 2011 to pacify those that may sow discord in the Kingdom—have been quietly shelved. It is too early to tell if this is a temporary about-face or a longer-term tactical retrenchment. Since ascending the thrown, Sheik Tamim shows more of a willingness to defer to the Saudi agenda than did his father. Therefore, in the current regional security environment, further democratization will be unlikely.
In spite of this, the extent to which Qatar democratizes may determine the trajectory of reform in other countries across the region. Riyadh is watching the generational succession in the neighboring sheikhdom with considerable consternation as the youthful shake up next door, especially if democratization makes inroads, further highlights the chronic power-struggle between aging successors to King Abdullah.
Autonomy and Ambition
Qatar’s domestic policy shift is rooted in, and has consequences for, broader foreign policy realities. Stability at home combined with growing economic power has allowed Qatar to pursue an assertive foreign policy that belies its size and crude reserves. Qatar’s foreign policy is to spread its influence and ideology to serve as an alternative pole to either Saudi Arabia or the West. In this regard it has been surprisingly successful. As such, continuity in foreign policy should be expected in the short-term. However, as geopolitical landscape in the Middle East develops over the next year, watch for signs that indicate a less adventurous Qatari policy. Qatari activism, particularly since the start of the Arab Spring, may be viewed as overreach.
Two vehicles have allowed Qatar to maintain relative financial independence and a robust counter-Saudi foreign policy: Al Jazeera and Liquid Natural Gas.
Qatar’s government-owned Al Jazeera has become a highly respected media outlet with a global audience. The impact of Al Jazeera for Qatar’s foreign policy, political discourse within the MENA generally, as well as serving as an alternative model to Western dominated media, should not be underestimated. While Al Jazeera is but an aspect of globalization and the information technologies that spawned new media, the network has been influential enough to encapsulate these forces with the concept of the “Al Jazeera Effect”, a successor to the CNN effect. The Qatari-network has served as a primary galvanizing agent for the Arab street. Indeed, the Arab Spring was in no small part underpinned by the forces and content that Al Jazeera unleashed.
Unlike Western media, Al Jazeera was not conceived of as money making machine but rather to serve Qatar and its interests. The outlet is a relatively low-cost way to generate interest in high-profile issues that serve Qatari policy. Consequently, this has drawn the ire of Qatar’s neighbors in the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia, and across the MENA from Tunisia to Egypt, Syria to Iran. Al Jazeera is regarded as being independent of government influence, including Qatar’s. While there is accuracy in this charge, the regime does impose constraints on the extent to which it will tolerate direct criticism of Qatari elites. In the post-Arab Spring world the regime is more sensitive to the dissent Al Jazeera can catalyze close to home and the network has been seen as politicized, if not outright biased. The regime will find itself walking an increasingly fine line if Al Jazeera is to maintain its credibility.
In a geopolitical sense, Al Jazeera serves as an instrument to challenge Saudi regional hegemony by shaping Arab popular opinion in ways favorable to Qatar. Despite this, neither the network nor Qatar operates in a constraint free environment; knowing full well that pushing their larger neighbor to far could prove perilous. Criticizing autocrats and fomenting unrest in Egypt and Syria is one thing, instability in the Gulf Kingdoms is quite another. Al Jazeera’s coverage of Saudi issues, where it exists, is often tepid. Though unlikely, this could change depending on how Riyadh manages monarchical succession and the ongoing turmoil in the region. Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and elsewhere, along with support for Salafi groups in Syria has been undermined by a seemingly successful counterrevolutionary strategy orchestrated by the Saudis. Doha now finds itself more deeply involved in a competition for influence than ever before and it may increasingly utilize its most potent tool — Al Jazeera – to push back against Riyadh.
The second pillar of Qatar’s influence is linked to natural gas, specifically its production of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Over the last five years LNG has become an increasingly important commodity and Qatar preemptively developed the infrastructure to produce and export it. This is critical for Qatar’s foreign policy, because it can never hope to compete with Saudi Arabia in terms of crude oil reserves or production which gives Riyadh the ability to manipulate the supply and price of crude oil. Accordingly, Saudi Arabia has maintained considerable influence over the smaller Gulf States who are dependent on oil exports alone. Qatar’s LNG base gives it a considerable source of revenue not subject to Saudi influence, and therefore the relative autonomy that affords an ambitious foreign policy.
While Qatar LNG exports currently represent about a third of global supply, the market is changing as additional supplies come online from the United States, Russia, Africa, and elsewhere. Qatari LNG was originally meant to supply the U.S. market, but the recent shale gas boom has made the U.S. virtually self sufficient. To maintain high revenues, Doha is trying to strike long-term deals at competitive rates with Asian consumers. Qatar’s LNG will remain the best option for potential buyers for the next few years until new sources displace Doha’s competitive advantage.
The Qatari initiated Dolphin Gas Project is an ambitious plan to escape both the potential dangers and cost of LNG production, as well as Saudi influence. By supplying natural gas from Qatar’s North Field via pipeline to the UAE and Oman, Doha can secure an easy market for gas exports while serving the domestic demands of its neighbors. The Saudis view this effort as inherently threatening because it consolidates economic and energy security outside Riyadh’s orbit. Unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabia has for years opposed pipeline projects that traverse its overland territory as well as the undersea line from Qatar to UAE. The Dolphin project has even reignited old boarder disputes between Saudi Arabia and the UAE over the land bridge that, until the 1974 Riyadh Treaty, connected UAE to Qatar. Locking in favorable LNG deals and developing the Dolphin pipeline will remain critical for Qatar to maintain its independent streak.
Qatar’s domestic shakeup comes at a time of regional upheaval and Saudi Arabia is increasingly assertive. Al Jazeera will remain a secure outlet for Qatari influence, but the economic foundation of Doha’s assertive policy could be gradually undermined as energy markets change. The window of opportunity for Qatar’s financial and foreign policy independence is beginning to close. Qatar should act quickly to shore up its regional influence while it still has the time and resources to do so. Sheik Tamim will try to pursue a policy of continuity along the lines of his predecessor, but in a changing economic and security environment the difficulty will be avoiding either strategic overreach or being subsumed by a dominant neighbor.