Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The limits to power

Qatar overstepped its status and now faces the consequences, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

In the natural sciences, the infinitely small (genes, atoms, etc) is no less difficult to understand than the infinitely large (the universe, solar systems, constellations and the like). The same seems to apply to nations. The ungraspable complexities of a superpower like the US, Russia or China may have their counterparts in such small nations as Micronesia, Fiji, Singapore, Brunei and Luxembourg. Qatar is no exception. The tiny country has an area of barely 12,000 square kilometres and its population is less than three million of whom only 12 per cent (312,000) are Qataris. In Qatar, they differentiate between “pure Qataris” and Qataris of mixed parentage. The former makes up at most half of that 12 per cent. The Qatari GDP adjusted by Purchasing Power Parity is $353 billion while its nominal GDP is $185 billion. The per capita share in gross national income is about $69,000 — the highest per capita GNI in the world. The general characteristics of the country, in terms of history, social structure and tribal origins are not much different to those of other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The political behaviour of the state has been remarkably different, especially during the past quarter of a century.

From independence in 1971 to 1990, Qatari foreign policy was largely constrained; it generally went along with what the other Gulf countries did. When advised to play a more proactive role in some regional issues, it would always respond that Qatar was not a superpower. It preferred to watch how others acted first. Then, in 1990 three important developments would combine to precipitate an essential change in Qatari foreign policy. The first was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait which occasioned Qatar’s participation in the international and Arab coalition to liberate Kuwait. That experience gave Qatar a broader window onto the world, which began to consult Doha on important strategic matters pertaining to the security of the Gulf and its relations with the superpowers. The second was that the dream of natural gas had become a reality and Qatar was on course to production and export, now that Japan was ready to sign a 25 year-long deal to import Qatari gas after Doha agreed to the condition of including US firms in the production process. The nightmare of shrinking petroleum reserves was over. Qatar had been staring at the spectre of total depletion of its oil production which had dwindled to 400,000 barrels a day. Now natural gas reserves not only gave it untold wealth, they also would help it invest so as to boost oil exports up to 600,000 barrels a day. The third development was that Crown Prince Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani had come into his own and now dominated key ministries and security agencies after gradually sidelining various uncles and brothers.

With these three developments, the crown prince developed a new concept for Qatar and its role in the region, its self-perception and its perceived historical rights. That concept was radically different from that which had existed since independence and it would begin to assert itself at three telling junctures. The first occurred when Qatar took advantage of the Kuwait crisis by using its participation in the coalition to liberate that country and the aftermath as a means to bolster its claims to the Hawar and Fasht Al-Dibil islands, title to which it disputed with Bahrain. Qatar rejected a compromise solution proposed by Saudi Arabia that entailed the construction of a bridge linking the two countries plus a $5 billion payment. The dispute eventually ended up before the International Court of Justice that ruled in favour of Bahrain, dealing Qatar a major diplomatic defeat that it could have avoided had more sensible views prevailed in Doha.

Secondly, also during the Kuwaiti crisis and the tense period afterwards, the Qatari crown prince began to gradually inch his country’s borders with Saudi Arabic westwards with an eye to acquiring a border with another neighbour, the UAE. It was not long before this attempt sparked what became known as the “Al-Khafous border crisis” which Saudi Arabia resolved militarily, delivering a harsh message to Doha in the process. By the time Egypt had arrived to mediate, Qatar was now ready to acknowledge the immutable reality that it had one territorial neighbour, Saudi Arabia.

Thirdly, after the two previous failures, the crown prince decided that it was necessary to change the political realities entirely. He therefore staged a palace coup while his father was abroad. This was not out of keeping with Qatari traditions, but what was new was that it would give impetus to a vision that held that Qatar had the power to exercise a regional and international role commensurate to the magnitude of its wealth and to the special capacities of its political leadership. Such was the belief that came to prevail in Doha, regardless of how at odds it was with geopolitical facts and the geostrategic situation of the state.

Three factors encouraged a Qatari behaviour that manifested the dissonance between fact and fancy. The first was the enormous technological advances, especially in communications, that enabled it to compensate in part for its paltry historical lot in size. This gave rise to the establishment of Al-Jazeera that offered a handful of leftwing and Arab nationalists who had worked under the strict regime of the BCC the opportunity to spread their wings in the heart of the Gulf. But Qatar’s inroads in communications technology did not stop at Al-Jazeera. They expanded to newspapers, radio and television, and internet websites, some in Qatar and others based elsewhere in the world. The second factor was that Qatar complemented its stock of leftwing and Arab nationalist pundits with another larger and more rigidly organised contingent drawn primarily from the Muslim Brotherhood and associated groups. The result was a Qatari political cocktail made up of a variety of components that shared a thirst for radical change in the region, regardless of how that outlook contradicted the very nature of the Qatari political system itself, in which leftist and rightwing discourse are almost unheard of, whether in the era of Sheikh Hamad or that of his son and heir Sheikh Tamim. The third factor and probably the most illustrious and obvious is the “Arab Spring” which, instead of blooming flowers and fragrances wafting on gentle breezes, generated surging waves of turmoil, all of which Qatar exploited to the full. All are familiar with the rest of the story: How Qatar created a huge rift in the GCC and beyond, in Yemen, while it reserved a special place for Egypt in the reserves of Qatari rancour and resentment.

The Qatari story from 1990 to the present generated new and changing realities in Qatar the other countries of the region tried to accommodate, taking numerous circumstances into consideration. But patience does have its limits and the limits of power have their governing principles. Ultimately, what’s right is right, and it was necessary to side with a friend.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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