News / Middle East

What’s Driving Qatar’s Foreign Policy?

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Cecily Hilleary
From the art world to the airline industry and on to the United Nations, the tiny Gulf nation of Qatar has been leaving a big footprint wherever it goes.  This week, Qatar Airways announced it will partner with American and British Airways, giving them access to vast new markets in India and Asia. 

Qatar has been investing millions of Euros in European banks, real estate, fine art and football clubs and will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup―all this while providing considerable financial support to the countries of the Arab Spring.  All in all, Qatar’s investments across the globe are estimated at about $60 billion.

So what is Qatar up to? Is it just looking for sensible ways to invest its money?  Or, is Qatar trying, as one commentator told VOA – only slightly in jest – to become the world’s next “superpower?”

Spreading the wealth

The Qatar Investment Authority has spent more than $4.3 billion this year on eight deals in Europe, including a shopping mall on the Champs Elysees in Paris, the London Olympic athletes village and the Italian fashion house, Valentino.  It has invested in some of France’s top companies―Louis Vuitton, TOTAL, and the Carlton Hotel in Cannes. 

The Artprice and Organ Museum Research, group recently disclosed that Qatar has been buying up international art at prices well above market value. The Qatar HYPERLINK "http://www.arabianbusiness.com/qatar-royals-buy-cezanne-painting-for-250m-443738.html" royal family recently paid $250 million for a single work by the 19th Century French painter Paul Cezanne.   

Qatar also has offered to pour $100 million into small and medium-sized businesses in the French banlieues, low-income suburbs where most of the country’s six million Muslim immigrants live.  Qatar says these investments are part of a global strategy to reduce the country’s reliance on oil and gas revenues.  But some commentators fear something else may be afoot, even calling it a “takeover,” expressing fear that Qatar is aiming to radicalize France’s Muslim population.

Religious motives

Pepe Escobar is an outspoken Brazilian journalist and Asia Times columnist who comments frequently for the Al Jazeera network.  He is also the author of  Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War.  Following Qatar’s recent bid at the United Nations for an Arab-led intervention in Syria, Escobar wrote an outspoken commentary in which he outlined what he believes are Qatar’s political—and religious—motives.

“The war inside the Muslim world at the moment is between Salafi jihadis―or hardcore Wahhabis―financed, supported or with the sympathy of Saudi Arabia on the one side, and the Muslim Brotherhood supported by Qatar on the other,” Escobar told VOA.  “The future foreign policy of Qatar is to propel, finance, encourage―you name it―the Muslim Brotherhood, all over the Middle East, from North Africa to the Middle East,” he said.  It does so, says Escobar, through its Al Jazeera television network. 

“And one of the most important figures at Al Jazeera TV,” Escobar said, “is Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi―he has a program on Shari’a law and connections between Shari’a law and everyday life.”  He refers to ash-Shariah wal-Hayat, or “Shariah and Life,” a talk show that is watched by an estimated 60 million Muslims worldwide.

“Look at what has happened since the beginning of the Arab Spring.  We have the Muslim Brotherhood capturing the presidency in Egypt.  They have the prospect, if the Bashar Al-Assad government falls―which is not a given, of course―of being the major power in the post-Assad regime.”

In his recent commentary in Asia Times, Escobar suggested a second motive behind Qatar’s ambitions―a desire to squash a $10 billion deal between Iran, Iraq and Syria to pipe natural gas from the South Pars field, across Iraq and Syria, and into Europe―a deal that, in Escobar’s words, “would solidify a predominantly Shi’ite axis through an economic, steel umbilical cord.”

Instead, Escobar says Qatar wants to build its own pipeline “in a non-Shi’te crescent,” through Jordan and into the Mediterranean.  Thus, it was these two interests-- religious and economic, that drove Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani to call for Arab intervention in Syria at the UN General Assembly last month.

Agent for Peace

However, Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, sees things quite differently. 

“I think you have to look at Qatar’s foreign policy initiatives over the last half decade,” he said.  “They’ve been throwing a punch above their weight.  Their style is to really project power by presenting themselves as a mediator.  And certainly, in the case of the Arab Spring, they are actively supporting change in the region.  They’re doing this, I think, partly out of prestige, partly as a means to raise their profile within the GCC and to win the support of Western powers.”

Wehrey points out Qatar’s long history of diplomatic intervention:  Doha worked to broker the 2008 ceasefire in Lebanon and to reconcile the two sides in Sudan’s civil war.  He also cites Qatar’s outreach to Iran. 

“I think in the case of Syria, it’s the Qataris wanting to shape the post-Assad outcome in a way that preserves their interests and gives them a bigger seat at the table than perhaps some of the other Arab powers,” he said. Wehrey admits that it would be in Qatar’s interest to see a more moderate form of Islam to prevail in a new Syria.  He also suggests another motive in Qatar’s long-term strategy:  Its rivalry with Saudi Arabia.

“The Qataris, I think, make a virtue of trying to upstage the Saudis on these regional initiatives, and I think that power rivalry has to be taken into account," he said.

Whatever Qatar’s motives, Wehrey notes that efforts at “constructive engagement” can backfire.  “We’ve seen that certainly in Libya, where the Qataris certainly engendered some good will because they sent their advisers, weapons and training during the war, but then afterwards, they were seen as meddling in Libyan politics.”

 In the end, he says, the Qataris are finding out like everybody else that things have a way of boomeranging in the region.

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