WASHINGTON — Over the past few years, Qatar, the tiny gas-and-oil rich emirate has emerged as a major regional political player, and globally as a media powerhouse by founding Al-Jazeera TV. Politically Qatar moved aggressively to fund “Arab Spring” Islamist movements and Hamas militants who control the Gaza Strip.
But now some observers say a backlash has begun against Qatar, especially in Egypt where it was an active backer of the Muslim Brotherhood. Adel Iskandar is a scholar of Arab studies at Georgetown University, and the author of Al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network that is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism. He says Qatar has overreached by moving from a neutral mediator in Arab disputes to a major player in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria.
“The groups that were supported by the Qatari government in Libya have turned into extreme militias that have destabilized the country, the Muslim Brotherhood Qatar backed in Egypt is in dramatic decline after the army removal of the elected President Mohamed Morsi, and the factions affiliated with Al-Qaida are becoming much more successful in Syria,” said Iskandar.
A move from mediation to activism
Before the Arab Spring, Qatar tried to foster a regional role by mediating Arab disputes among the main Palestinian factions; Hamas and Fatah, and also among rivals in Lebanon and Sudan.
As Qatar decided to back the Syrian rebels in their quest to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with money and arms, the Gulf nation managed to detach Hamas’s leadership from its alliance with Syria and Iran. Qatar’s former Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani made a state visit to Gaza in October 2012 and pledged 400 million dollars to rebuild infrastructure. Hamas political leader Khaled Mashal relocated to Doha in 2012 after being based in Syria for a decade.
Shadi Hamid, Director of research at the Brookings Doha Center argues that Qatar did not want to just be a tiny, small state in the Gulf but wanted to leave its mark on the region’s politics starting with mediation and the soft power of television.
Al Jazeera as a tool
Since 1996 Qatar used its Al Jazeera Arabic satellite network as its primary tool of influence in the region. Al Jazeera introduced a new and unfamiliar kind of public debate in a region dominated by state-run broadcasters. Over the years Al Jazeera became the most watched TV network in the Arab world. It was praised in Tahrir Square where it was a major source of news about the Egyptian uprising of 2011, but eventually it was criticized for becoming a mouthpiece for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Eskandar says the changing trajectory of Qatar’s foreign policy from natural mediation to actively taking sides in the conflicts of the Arab Spring negatively impacted Qatar’s media tool; Al Jazeera Arabic.
“Al Jazeera used to have a firewall between its governmental funding and its broadcast content, but when the Qatari government decided to support Islamist groups in Egypt, Syria, Libya and Tunisia, viewers began to see a transformation in Al Jazeera from professional investigative approach to an outpost of the Qatari government propaganda machine.”
Eskandar says that has led to a drastic loss in the audience share for Al Jazeera Arabic TV, which used to be seen a credible source of reporting. He says Qatar enjoyed good relations with a variety of friends by solving disputes and being a generous aid donor, but when it tried to be a major player, backing an Islamist party in the largest Arab country the move backfired.
“The Qatari government felt it could punch over its weight, but eventually realized that the situation is more complicated and that its immediate regional competitors like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates seem to be more determined than ever to take a political stance against the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Eskandar said the question now is whether the Qatari government will shift its strategy or continue its drive for more clout in the region.
Shadi Hamid argues that Qatar’s direct involvement in the Arab Spring turned out to be more complicated than expected. Hamid told U.S. National Public Radio that he expects a recalibration of Qatar’s priorities with its new ruler Sheikh Tamim Ben Hamad al-Thani.
“There is going to be more of a domestic focus, I think there is a realization that maybe they went too far with their support of certain Islamist groups in the region.” said Hamid. “That provoked a backlash. Qatar’s stock has taken a hit.”