Power Play in the Gulf Tiny Qatar Has Big Diplomatic Ambitions

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By and

Part 2: The Rise of Arab Nationalism


Sheikh Hamad is the prototype of a second-generation Persian Gulf monarch. Born in 1952, he grew up in the modest affluence of a Bedouin ruling family and was sent to Britain's Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. When he was 20, he returned to Qatar, which, like other Gulf countries, became independent in 1971. He entered the Qatari armed forces and was later promoted to the rank of major general and commander-in-chief.

When his father refused to step down, the ambitious crown prince simply deposed him. The Saudi royal family, fearing its own palace coup, has never forgiven him for the move.

Hamad's character, as well as that of the rulers of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, who are all about the same age, was largely shaped by three experiences: the bleak years between the Suez War and the Arab defeat in the Six-Day War, the condescension with which the urban elites of Cairo, Beirut and Baghdad treated them as the sons of Bedouins, and the enormous wealth they acquired after the first oil crisis in 1973.

The political reference point of this generation was the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Although he failed to provide the Arabs with a victory over Israel, Nasser did give them a feeling of self-worth. The sons of emirs and sheikhs had no use for Nasser's socialist ideas. They adopted his Arab nationalism, but they never became Nasserists.

They were united in their deep aversion to Nasser's heirs, men like Moammar Gadhafi, former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and former Syrian dictator Hafez Assad, the father of the current Syrian president. In their eyes, the dictators who had forced their way into power in Tripoli, Baghdad and Damascus were usurpers, and they felt what these men did to Libya, Iraq and Syria was a betrayal of true Arab nationalism.

'More Aggressive'

The desire to revive this Arab idenitity, rooted in the tribal traditions of the Arabian Peninsula, is one of the strongest motives behind the emir's political activism. This desire was also behind the establishment of Al-Jazeera, says Palestinian journalist Ahmed Sheikh, one of the first employees and later the editor in chief of the news channel.

The emir's role changed with the Arab Spring. He has gone from being a mediator to a political player. "Qatar has adopted a more aggressive and potentially more risky foreign policy," writes Meghan O'Sullivan, former US President George W. Bush's Iraq envoy.

Now the emir's friendships have come to fruition, including his ties to Libyan Sheikh Ali al-Salabi, who mobilized Islamist networks in the eastern part of the country to bring down Gadhafi. In covering the uprisings in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, Al-Jazeera delivered the iconic images of the Arab Spring. The station broadcast live from Tahrir Square in Cairo for several days during the Egyptian revolution.

To this day, the Qatari flag still flies next to the Libyan flag at checkpoints in that country. "We expect only good things from Qatar. It is a true partner in the Arab spring," said Rachid al-Ghannouchi, Tunisia's new strong man. Qatar's ruler already sees himself at the head of what he calls the "Arabellion." On the first anniversary of the Tunisian revolution, Hamad gave a speech in Tunis that sounded as if he had taken part in the uprising himself. The revolution must go on, he said, adding that he was prepared to send troops to Syria "to stop the killing."

Shifting Alliances

But Qatar's alliances change from country to country and from crisis to crisis. On Libya, Qatar cooperated with Saudi Arabia to get rid of Gadhafi, their common enemy. When Hamad noticed that the king of Saudi Arabia was not as determined as he was to convince then Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down, he quit the negotiations and left it up to Washington to apply pressure on the Saudis.

When Hamad realized that Saudi Arabia would have preferred to keep former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in power, he sought the support of the Turks. But when it became clear that Riyadh wanted to bring down Syrian dictator Assad, he revived the axis with Saudi Arabia. The emir's policy of shifting alliances is worthy of a master diplomat and statesman.

One could, however, also call him unprincipled. All its revolutionary posturing aside, Qatar is everything but a model democracy. The emir is responsible for appointing the Advisory Council, which has even less influence than its Saudi Arabian counterpart. The expanded voting rights promised years ago have yet to materialize. Amnesty International cites cases of whippings and the exploitation of foreign migrant workers. The strict Wahhabi form of Islam is the state religion in Qatar. And Al-Jazeera did not even report on the suppression of the protest movement in the Kingdom of Bahrain, in which Qatar was involved.

Recently, however, Sheikh Hamad has hit a wall in his new role. The transitional council in Tripoli now seems to feel uneasy about the emir's presence. "Our brothers from Qatar helped us but I fear Qatar will meet the same fate as Libya because of Gadhafi's megalomania," said Libya's UN representative Abdel-Rahman Shalgham.

A World Power in Miniature

Hezbollah once received the emir like a hero in southern Lebanon, because he had helped rebuild the cities there after the 2006 war. But that has now changed. "The emir, along with his Al-Jazeera station, has become a persona non grata in Lebanon and Syria since he came out against Assad," says a German observer in Damascus.

Thomas Birringer, a Persian Gulf expert with Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation, compares Qatar to Luxembourg, with its media conglomerate RTL and influential prime minister, Jean-Claude Juncker. "But a strong television station and a zealous diplomat do not make a leading power out of a tiny state," he adds.

Is Qatar a new world power? It's more like a world power in miniature. Even Qatar's sovereign wealth fund is smaller, in absolute terms, than that of the United Arab Emirates. The emir has no divisions of his own, and his army consists mainly of mercenaries. When Qatar sent its Mirage pilots to Libya, they were escorted by American and French fighter jets so that nothing would happen to them.

Because Qatar has relatively little to show for itself militarily, the emirate is in fact something of a lightweight in terms of realpolitik. But perhaps this isn't the emir's intention at all. Perhaps having the heavyweights as his friends is enough for him.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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