Explaining Qatar’s foreign policy

Explaining Qatar’s foreign policy


The changes of the past year in the Middle East and North Africa revealed how active small states can be. Engagement of Qatar in NATO operations in Libya, actions of the Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani against Syria in the Arab League and coverage of Al Jazeera channel during the uprising in the neighboring Kingdom of Bahrain suggest that this small carbon-rich Gulf monarchy has a potential to influence the regional politics. In this article the attempt would be taken to explain why Qatar’s foreign policy is not framed within the Gulf region, why this small Gulf state is so active in many issues in the MENA region and what are the fundamentals for such an active engagement abroad?


Among the universe of the methodological approaches capable of expounding Qatar’s case perhaps only the network analysis can help us understand the foreign policy of Qatar from the perspective of small state in contrast to the gas- and oil-rich one. The object of the social network analysis is  relations or connections that actually explain why actor is able to exert influence in and reduce pressure from the environment[1]. Qatar seeks diversification of its relation to other countries due its own limitations. Since influence can be achieved not only through possessing resources, but also by forging as many connections within the network as possible.

Historical Background

Modern state of Qatar was formed in the mid-19the century as a result of concentration of power in the Al Thani family’s hands. However, till its independence in 1971 Qatar was a British protectorate, since then due to discovery of the massive oil and later gas fields Qatar has become one of the richest monarchies in the region with the highest GDP per capita in the world. The present ruler of Qatar Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani seized power after the bloodless coup d’état in 1995. Beginning in the early 1990’s the Qatari foreign policy has been formed into what we can see now: multidimensional engagement and activity in major issues in the region.

Qatar’s relations with its neighbors weren’t always good. Small monarchy has faced the territorial problems with Bahrain and its much bigger neighbor Saudi-Arabia. Long lasting tensions with Bahrain over the islands were resolved in 2001 by the decision of the International Court of Justice, saying that disputed islands belong to Bahrain, and border conflicts with Saudi-Arabia in 1992-1994 resulted in the signing border demarcation agreement in 2001.

Taken into account that all its neighbors have oil or gas fields, Qatar has found itself in a situation when it could not enjoy much weight on the regional politics on basis of resource richness. Even more, sometimes Qatar’s economic activity was restricted due to the absence of cooperativeness with other Gulf monarchies, as an example of Saudi Arabia suggests, when a number of energy pipeline projects were renounced as a result of reluctance of the latter to provide territory for Qatar’s oil and gas supply.


Willing to be more independent of the state of affairs in the region and of Saudi Arabia in particular, Qatar decided to seek for relations outside the Gulf. As an oil and gas-rich exporter Qatar was interesting candidate for partnership in the eyes of Western countries, especially for Europe, who in turn were looking for more carbon suppliers.

The Defence Cooperation Agreement stricken in 1991 between Qatar and USA symbolized the developing military collaboration between the Gulf state and the West. After the withdrawal of its military base from Saudi Arabia USA decided to choose Qatar as a home  for its Central Command and built largest in the region Al Udeid U.S. Air Force Base and Camp As Sayyliyah. Since then Qatar’s security has been guaranteed by the presence of the US troops on its ground[2].

But Qatar went further in alliance with western countries. During civil war in Libya Qatar supported the efforts of the NATO to establish a non-fly zone and provide the rebels with military assistance. Qatar sent its six mirage jet fighters and supplied the insurgents with modern anti-tank missiles and rifles. Later on Qatari government acknowledged that its military officers had trained the Libyan rebels and had sent its troops to Northern Africa[3].

Above the military cooperation with the West announcement of democratic reforms in country suggests that Qatar wants the normative approach with its allies outside the region. Though reform initiatives are mostly of a proactive character, i.e. they are not a reaction on the outside pressure, and deal with a wide range of issues beginning from the elections to municipal councils to referendum on permanent constitution, Qatar continues to be a typical Gulf monarchy with limited freedoms[4].


Although Qatari foreign policy to some extent can be described as a pro-western one, there are almost no critical sentiments about its relations with the West in the region. The reason for this is in skilful manipulation of multiple “identities” by the Qatari Emir. Qatar enjoys good relations with almost all Islamic countries; its popularity is going to rise even more given the fact of Qatari support of revolutions in Libya and Egypt where Islamists got power in parliaments.

Qatar demonstrates intention to become an interlocutor between the West and Islamic world. The Al Jazeera network channel, established in 1996, has become a unique and effective tool of the Qatari Emir in his activity as a cultural bridge and even more[5]. Funded by the government Al Jazeera serves as “a voice of voiceless”, the channel pretends to represent the whole Islamic “Ummah” (community) thus it automatically indicated Qatar’s new and completely different from the pro-western level of engagement.

Aside from financing the satellite channel, Qatar in his aspires to gain weight in religious affairs in the Middle East has long been hosting prominent clerics from other countries. For  example, Yusuf Qaradawi, who was forced to leave Egypt in the wave of oppression against Mulsim Brotherhood, has been living in Qatar since 1960’s and issuing fatwas (religious decrees) and writing philosophical works, some of which are marked with extremist notions on the western powers waging war against muslims.


Seeing that Qatar is capable of maintain relations with several sometimes opposite stakeholders, it would not be surprising that Qatari Emir has ties to some terrorist organizations like Hizbullah and Hamas and rogue states like Syria and Iran. Although these regional players are mainly at odds with the western countries, such an exclusive access to them and relatively good relations make Qatar a valuable mediator during negotiations whether it is over the Palestinian interim government or the preventing civil war in Lebanon.

Art of Balancing

Taken everything into account it is hard to imagine a regional conflict without direct or indirect involvement of Qatar in it. In 2007-2008 Qatar was mediating between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels, in 2010 Djibouti and Eritrea asked Qatar for mediation in their border dispute, Qatar proposed the agreement to Sudan and Darfur rebels in 2010, though it was rejected. Still Qatar is showing it will play further a role of mediator or even active participator to conflicts.

The roots for such a proactive foreign policy of such a small state can be found in the domestic affairs. In 1995 after the coup d’état new Emir was trying to establish a positive and liberal image of a new ruler with a single goal – to consolidate its regime making first steps in hostile environment where supporters of the old regime inside the ruling family and outside the monarchy (Saudi Arabia) cherished hopes for restoration. Even still the biggest threat to regime in Qatar comes from inside the Al Thani family.[6]

Later, events of the first Gulf war and earlier of so called Tanker war during the Iraqi-Iranian conflict 1980-1988 clearly demonstrated Qatar that cooperation within the Gulf Cooperation Council can not fully provide security to its supply facilities[7]. Qatar chose the West to call for the protection and security in case of any emergencies in the region. Another cause for resorting to the western assistance was clear intention to get rid of the Iranian (due to large Shia community in Qatar) and Saudi Arabian influence.

However, with the rise of fundamentalism in the region it became too risky to bind itself too heavily to the West and to portrait itself as its ally in the Middle East. Qatar’s foreign policy was directed onto the maintaining relatively good relations with forces who were seen as main supporters of radical Islamism – beginning from armed militias in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon to Iran and Syria. Having great financial resources Qatar provided help to Muslims in the region, especially after the armed conflicts.


Seeing all facts describing the unique Qatari activity in the region we can assume that such a dynamic foreign policy, its participation in major issues in the Middle East and broad relation to main stake-holders are actually only a way out for Qatar from the dangers it faces. Keeping all sides close simultaneously and counter-balancing all central players give Qatar a chance to be an influential hub within the network of relations. Qatar tries to lessen the influence from its surrounding by attaching weight in the regional affairs. But further question thereupon would be  how long Qatar is capable of conducting such a skilful foreign policy and maintaining equilibrium between the sides?

[1] Hafner-Burton Emilie M.,“Network Analysis for International Relations”, International Organizations, vol.63(2009), p.560
[6] Mehran Kamrava, “Royal Factionalism and Political Liberalization in Qatar”, The Middle East Journal, vol.63 (2009), p.411
[7] David G. Victor, Amy M. Jaffe, Mark H. Hayes, “Natural Gas and geopolitics from 1970-2040”, (Cambridge University Press; 1 edition (2006), p.237

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