The man standing next to Cameron, Sarkozy and Merkel in the recent pictures at the Elysee Palace to mark the first ‘Friends of Libya’ meeting is the Emir of Qatar. Back in March Qatar was first, after France, in publically recognising the Libyan Opposition group, the National Transitional Council. Qatar then went on to not only provide military support for the NATO operation in Libya, but also played a proactive mediation role with members of the Arab League in gathering support for the NATO intervention.
Qatar has also shown strong political leadership, willingness and influence in bilateral relations with its Arab neighbours throughout the Arab Spring — from rumours of having frozen their investments in Syria, to public messages of support for the opposition in Syria and Yemen — though Qatar’s role may not always seem consistent, as with Bahrain.
The key questions are — Does the highly nationalistic Arab Spring need an Arab champion that will ‘step in’, with its military might, to help oust dictators; and what are Qatar’s broader international political ambitions? Does the world now need new political players?
We may not have seen the Arab Spring coming, but the motives and ambitions of possible rich and powerful frontrunner countries that support opposition against dictatorship and are willing to fund long-term growth and stability, should not go ignored. That Qatar stepped in quickly with its shuttle diplomacy and military backing for the Libyan NTC and made clear their long-term plans for stability in Libya and the wider region is indeed laudable, and are the appropriate strategic trajectory moves of a reliable international relations player.
As relations between Turkey and Israel continue to slide downwards, stability in the Middle East during and post the Arab Spring rightly concerns many. While the quartet may send over Tony Blair to help mediate between Israelis and Palestinians, is it time to seek out other more capable partners? Qatar will show further leadership this week with their support of the Palestinian Authority’s bid for UN recognition of Palestine, building on their recent supportive role at the Peace Initiative Committee in Doha.
While other emerging powers with strong balance sheets such as China and India appear to have more insular political agendas, where international forays are confined to the economic, and while traditional Arab allies are either disappearing, or like Saudi Arabia have remained relatively silent and inward looking, Qatar is perhaps seizing on political ambitions that others lack.
As Egypt has shown, whilst protesters are rejoicing in their nationalistic verve and strength in ousting a dictator and his cronies, hoping to replace them with more democratic government and institutions, they do not yet know what ideological or political colours those replacements should take. The vacuum that this could create across the Arab region — with its oil, Islamic tone and over 100 million young people — is what rightly interests many, including in the West.
So what do we really know about Qatar? Their ‘vital statistics’ are impressive to say the least. It is the world’s richest country per capita with growth at 19.4 per cent in 2010, and projected growth beyond 2014 of 9 per cent, and with oil and liquid natural gas reserves, production and export capacity that would make Saudi oil pumps foam at the rim. Its ambitions for its future are remarkable — while our own government seems to tie every policy initiative to 2015 (coincidentally the next election), Qatar is working to a vision for 2030.
We have seen Qatar burst to the forefront of the international agenda with its savvy and ambitious portfolio through winning the 2022 World Cup bid and investment in brands we all know, including Barclays, the London Stock Exchange, Harrods and the 2012 Olympic Park, and rumours of buying football clubs surface periodically. It has also established major international institutions in media through the Al Jazeera news network, banking through the Qatar Financial Centre, technology and R&D through Qatar Foundation and the Qatar Science and Technology Park attracting leading universities and think tanks from the US and UK to have bases in Doha.
Qatar has a population of just 300,000 Qataris, and over 1.3 million expatriates. The government has invested considerably to enrich the lives of its citizens, with unemployment in 2011 almost non-existent at 0.2 per cent, and the CIA World Factbook section for ‘population below poverty line’ for Qatar showing ‘N/A’. In contrast, the section on foreign reserves and gold shows over $31bn in assets held.
Qatar is no democracy: it is an absolute monarchy with no political institutions, yet Qataris did not join their Arab neighbours to revolt against their leaders in the Arab Spring. Its local population appears content with its stability and national investment programmes to increase education, health and services and overall living standards, though its low-paid expat population still await higher labour standards. The internal call for democracy among young Qataris fell sharply from 68 per cent in 2008 to just 33 per cent in 2010. The question of involvement in the Arab Spring — where protesters call for democratic governance and inclusion — will unravel within Qatar’s borders in time, no doubt.
At a time when a large proportion of the world’s wealth and power is held by BRIC countries, where the question of ‘are you a democracy?’ is no longer the price of entry for engagement in international relations, and where long-term economic and political stability and citizens’ rights are vital, the world does need more players willing to mediate, challenge and support intervention when necessary.
Qatar’s ambitious and capable political trajectory should not go unnoticed.
Zamila Bunglawala is Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institute.