Things to watch out for at September's G20 highlight

What can we expect?

On 1 January 2013, the presidency of the Group of 20 (G20) developed and developing countries passed from Mexico to Russia. After a series of uninspiring and largely overlooked G20 finance ministers’ meeting, the highlight of the year will be the gathering of the leaders in St Petersburg from 5 to 6 September. But what can we expect of this eighth summit of G20 leaders?

The G20’s decision to meet in St Petersburg this year is part of a longer process by which Russia has become a central member of the various alphanumeric configurations that have come to characterize global governance. Rewind to the end of the Cold War and it was the Group of 7 (G7) that provided the mechanism by which moral support and financial assistance was extended to the former Soviet Union. Since then, Russia went through a series of different statuses within the G7 from invited observer via full member, thereby creating a Group of 8 (G8) in 1998, to host of the 2006 St Petersburg Summit (famed for the "Yo Blair!" incident when President George W. Bush was caught on microphone hailing Prime Minister Tony Blair). Despite numerous calls along the way for Russia’s membership of the G8 to be rescinded for its poor record on human rights, it was a natural and original member of the first G20 leaders’ summit and its presidency this year can be seen as a culmination of a process by which it has become an integral and recognized member of international society.

At the same time, Russia’s hosting of the G20 will also play out domestically. Leaders of all political shades have attempted to enhance their reputation and standing at home, often with elections in mind, by exploiting the tailwind that hosting a successful summit provides (pace Gordon Brown "saving the world" at the 2009 G20 London Summit). Considering that Russia will host both the Winter Olympics and G8 in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in 2014, Vladimir Putin will be blessed in the near future with numerous opportunities to showboat both internationally and domestically.

Then there is the actual agenda. The exact focus of the summit’s agenda has been developed over the year and will be a mixture of legacy issues from previous summits and new issues that the Russians hope to add. No doubt the leaders will continue their efforts to stimulate economic growth, as well as combat tax evasion. However, this is an agenda that differs only slightly from that of the G8 leaders when they met by Loch Erne, Northern Ireland earlier this year. Since the first summit of the G20 leaders in November 2008, there have been repeated claims of the G8’s irrelevance and predictions of its ultimate demise. However, it appears as if reports of the G8’s death have been greatly exaggerated, and in fact the G8 may in fact be functioning as a caucus of the "developed" nations within the larger forum of the G20.

Looking beyond St Petersburg, Australia will host the G20 in 2014 and Turkey in 2015. Thereafter, the presidency will rotate on a regional basis with the Asian grouping (China, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea) set to host in 2016. South Korea welcomed the G20 to Seoul in 2010 so is unlikely to host again so soon. Both China (seeking to increase its voice in international affairs) and Japan (scheduled to chair the G8 in 2016) have declared their interest in hosting the summit. Indonesia, as a rising middle power, might be the compromise figure everyone can agree to. Whatever the outcome, the process of confirming a host will require a degree of cooperation. Although seemingly minor, this development could provide some optimism in terms of regional cooperation within a group of Asian countries that have historically and recently shown little interest in cooperating unless strategically required to do so.

Imagining Asian regional cooperation in the future inevitably requires a shift in thinking beyond a single-country perspective, which is exactly the approach that the School of East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield of which I am proud to currently be Head has sought to develop since its establishment as a Centre of Japanese Studies fifty years ago this year. Next month our Vice Chancellor, Professor Sir Keith Burnett, will open the Kyoto Science and Technology Forum, as part of a delegation from the university forging links with science and industry in a country uniquely poised to tackle the big issues facing the world – energy, health and sustainability. Engaging with countries like Japan has never been more important.

The East Asia region of 1963 and that of today are barely recognizable as a result of Japan and China’s rise. However, some important issues remain unresolved whether they be the divided Korean Peninsula or the continued American military presence. These changes and continuities inevitably cut across a single country’s concerns and make the region not only one of the most dynamic in the world today but also one necessary to understand for all our futures, not just the G20’s.

Leaders will gather in St Petersburg from 5 to 6 September. Photograph: Getty Images

Hugo Dobson is Professor of Japan’s International Relations and Head of the School of East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield. He has attended a number of G8 and G20 summits since 2008 and has written widely on the subject of global summitry and Asia’s role.

Getty
Show Hide image

Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.