How did Qatar, a tiny peninsular nation that obtrudes into the Persian Gulf, come to obtrude as it now does in the Middle East and beyond? After the Gaza War, many are beginning to wonder, and worry. The Hamas leadership, after all, ran its strategy from the comfort of Doha hotels. When America sought a ceasefire, it was to Qatar that Secretary of State John Kerry first turned, to the chagrin of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel. In the conflict, Qatar emerged as the prime Arab backer of Hamas and a key global mediator—evidence of its attempt to become a major strategic player in Arab affairs.
On the face of things, this is surprising. The other Gulf principalities—Oman and Bahrain—shun the international limelight. Qatar, a nation secretive enough not even to disclose the number of citizens it actually has (the best guess is just under 300,000), presides over nearly two million foreign workers, and has embarked on an ambitious branding campaign both in the West and the Arab world. Indeed, since 1995, when the father of the current Emir deposed his own father in a palace coup, the emirate has pursued a consistent strategy of greater international visibility—bolstered by immense oil wealth (nearly a third of Middle East production) and complemented by a “soft power” strategy revolving around its celebrated news network, Al Jazeera. The congenial story in circulation is that the royal family, a number of whose members have lived or been born in Switzerland, sees the country as “the Switzerland of the Middle East.” As with all Middle Eastern imitations of things Western, however, the imitation is an eerily contorted image of the original.
Over the past two decades, Qatar has developed a two-pronged strategy to increase its stature, roughly divisible on linguistic lines. The difference between Al Jazeera’s Arabic and English expressions exemplify this duality: Al Jazeera in Arabic is the venue that expresses its more chilling regional aspirations; while Al Jazeera in English is the forum through which it expresses views that comfort and reassure cosmopolitans around the globe. In both in the Arab world and abroad, Qatar has sought legitimacy. The versions of legitimacy have differed, however, in each case, and the regime is expert at being two-faced.
Thus, for non-Arab consumption, Qatar has spoken the language of development, democratization, and capitalism. It has purchased sports teams and sponsorships abroad, and welcomed foreign investment at home, making known that it is open for business—even for Israelis, who used to visit during the optimistic days of the Oslo accords in the 1990s. The current Sheikh’s wife has become one of the single biggest spenders on art in the world, sponsoring foreign exhibitions and hosting exhibitions of contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst, Cai Guo-Qiang, and Takashi Murakami.
By welcoming prestigious foreign universities such as Georgetown into its sprawling, ever-expanding “Education City” campus, Qatar has billed itself as the cultural force that would bring, as the author of Tocqueville in Arabia wrote, “modernization but not Westernization.” The aspiration, in a word, is to import all the accoutrements of modernity and to educate a younger generation fluent in its cosmopolitan tropes, while at the same time retaining a set of social arrangements benignly labeled as traditional.
The Education City story would not be complete, however, without mentioning the counter-forces at work. Qatar Academy, the jewel of primary schools in Qatar and feeder to the many Education City campuses, is being split into an Arabic-speaking school for the Qataris and English-speaking school for the Expats. So, too, Qatar University, which once sought to become a bilingual, Arabic-English campus to compete or at least complement the Education City campus, has made and about face and declared it will be an Arabic-only campus. In Qatar, with each move into modernity, there is a countermove against it.
Western observers who have lived in Doha for many years speak of a palpable change in the 1995 palace coup. The body language, even Qatari dress, has changed. The atmosphere is more comfortable, more at home; people are more confident that this whole thing called “modernity” can be managed. Where ten years ago women dared not expose even a strand of their hair in public, now it seems only a question of time before they show it all.
Yet these developments are belied by the architecture of the city beyond the confines of the central city. There kilometer after kilometer of walls encircle family compounds, within which the family ties that modernity softens are fortified because of a joint-ventureship economy that grants to Qatari business partners 51 percent of the profits generated by the labor of the foreign companies with whom partnerships are formed. Here an idle rentier class rakes in big money, even as it enjoys the leisure and security necessary to fortify family and tribal power structures that are anathema to the modern world.
Geopolitically as well, Qatar has tipped its hat to American interests, particularly by granting the U.S. the use of military bases after 9/11. In so doing, it hoped to persuade the West that it was an ally in the war against radicalism.
But if Qatar is an ally, it has also played the other side of the coin. While English editions of Al Jazeera have presented flattering perspectives of Western ideas, Arabic Al Jazeera has given sympathetic coverage, bordering on propaganda, to even the most radical Islamist movements across the region. Shortly after September 11, Fouad Ajami wrote that Al Jazeera Arabic had become “inflammatory TV” that “deliberately fans the flames of Muslim outrage” against the U.S. and the Jews and made Bin Laden “its star.”
These days Qatar has provided funding and weapons to al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria—to say nothing of its ongoing support of Hamas. And Al Jazeera was the great champion of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, proclaiming the group the harbinger of “Islamic democracy.” It also hammered the world with images of Palestinian blood and misery, stoking anger against the Jewish state.
Meanwhile, Qatar’s much-vaunted cooperation with the United States has turned out to be, in the words of one leaked report from the State Department, “passive.” It refused to lift one more finger than was necessary in the war against terror, and it turned a blind eye to most of it. While permitting American bases was a nod to the West, its tolerance of terrorism told regional actors that this support was only given under duress. In short, Qatar has brilliantly played what Simon Henderson has called, a “double game” of maneuver between the West and Islamism, in speech and in deed.
For both the Bush and Obama Administrations, Qatar’s game has worked. As part of its Freedom Agenda and its turn against the “unstable” stable authoritarian regimes, the Bush Administration turned to moderate Islamist nations such as Turkey and Qatar as models for Iraq and others to emulate. The Obama Administration has followed suit, at first welcoming the election of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The Qatari way seemed vindicated. The more successes wrought by the double game, the bolder Qatar became in flouting the U.S., as evidenced by Qatar’s opening a Taliban embassy in Doha, to the chagrin of President Karzai, who complained about this to Washington.
Recent events, however, have not all been favorable to Qatar’s strategy. In particular, the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood and the rise of Al-Sisi in Egypt were shattering blows to Qatar’s view of the Middle East. With the Muslim Brothers being the bitter enemies of the Egyptian regime, Egypt has also turned on its prime backers, the Qataris. And in Egypt today, Al Jazeera has developed a reputation as traitor to the Arab cause, and the Emir of Qatar as an instigator of radicalism and terror. Reporting on the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt last February, Gregg Carlstrom noted how Al Jazeera became the mouthpiece of radical Jihadi views—featuring guests openly calling for an assault on the Egyptian Coptic minority. None of this, of course, made it into Al Jazeera English.
As a result of Qatar’s support of Hamas in the last war, even Saudi Arabia understood the danger of Qatar as a player undermining stability in the Middle East and encouraging terrorist movements. The Saudis have sent top-level delegations to Doha to warn their neighbor that its double game has crossed even their high threshold for tolerance.
With its still strong emphasis on moderate Islamic democracy, America has been slower than the Arab nations to discover Qatar’s game. Qatar was able to keep its duplicitous game on the table: most recently with a $11 billion arms deal signed by Chuck Hagel in July. For two decades, Qatar has tried to be the exemplar of a hybrid version of modernity and Islamism—but has leaned more and more on radicalism. ISIL’s attack on the fabric of the Arab state system may finally bring Qatar’s strategy into focus. Perhaps Washington and the West will finally notice.