Determinants of Qatar’s Foreign Policy (Part I)
Anthony Shadid—one of the best reporters on the Middle East—wrote an article recently about Qatari foreign policy. The subject has attracted a lot of interest as of late: the Emir of Qatar and his prime minister have become dominant personalities in the meetings of the Arab League. The small state has been playing a role far beyond its traditional legacy. Qatar is now a leading Middle East country and its prime minister gets to decide whether Syria stays or leaves the Arab League. This is unprecedented. This, of course, owes much more to the role of Al Jazeera than to the gas deposits in Qatar. But the various analyses of Qatari foreign policy omits a key determinant of its foreign policy orientation.
Anyone who has discussed foreign policy with the Emir of Qatar—as I have on two occasions only, the second one last year—knows that enmity toward Saudi Arabia is a key determinant of Qatari foreign policy. People were too quick to forget about the bitter Saudi-Qatari feud as soon as Qatar and Saudi Arabia reconciled last year. When I saw the Emir in the summer of 2010, my first question to him was along the lines: so I take it that you and Saudi Arabia are allies now? He laughed and quickly sarcastically dismissed the notion and went on to elaborate on his still very negative views on Saudi Arabia and its role in the region. The Emir even puts his close military alliance with the US and his hosting of the US bases in the emirate in the context of his fears of Saudi diabolical plot. The Emir reasoned that aligning with Saudi Arabia’s enemies would be a sure bet to protect his regime from Saudi plot. The Emir wanted to prove to the US that he can be a more reliable ally than Saudi Arabia: and he went along with US Congressional pressure to normalize ties with Israel (up to a point as he had difficulty reconciling his regional alliances and his professed—privately—Arab nationalist views with his relations with Israel—which have been pursued vigorously by his prime minister).
The Emir of Qatar also used Al Jazeera to pressure Saudi Arabia: anti-Saudi critics—Saudis and non-Saudis—were given ample platform to express their opposition to the House of Saud. Prince Nayef was very aware of the impact of Aljazeera on the internal stability of the kingdom and he presented the faction within the family that lobbied for rapprochement with Qatar, while Prince Salman and Prince Sultan were opposed and their mouthpieces reflected that disagreement.
Qatar’s feud with Saudi Arabia also affected Qatari relations with other GCC countries. Qatar was quick to improve relations with any GCC member , like Oman, that had a disagreement with Saudi Arabia (the most open secret about GCC members is that they all have strong feuds and conflicts, their brotherly show of affection and solidarity notwithstanding. There are even strong conflicts within the emirates of the UAE). The feud between Qatar and Saudi Arabia is the number one reason why Qatar even launched Al Jazeera. Its very creation was intended to counter the Arab media which are overwhelmingly controlled by House of Saudi and their affiliates. What happened then better explains where things stand now, something I will address in my follow up post.