Sunday, September 20, 2009

For Qatar, Small is also Effective



While bigger players squander their goodwill and fortune, the small Emirate is slowly emerging as a diplomatic powerhouse in the Middle East. The conduct of Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani in lending his weight to burning issues is a sign of emerging Qatari diplomatic acumen, even while others have burnt their fingers in similar diplomatic ventures. It has become obvious, given President Hosni Mubarak’s ineffective unity talks between Fatah and Hamas, that Egypt has lost its leadership role in the Middle East peace process.

Fortune, however, favors Qatar. In May 2008, the Emir Khalifa brought the warring Lebanese factions to Doha and facilitated a marathon discussion between the pro- and anti-Syrian factions. The Emir stepped in after other influences within the region and the historical links of the French proved insufficient to bridge the gap between the factions. On a few occasions Amr Moussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League, announced an impending settlement only to flounder. Qatar did not have any such pretentions. The warring Lebanese factions left the Emirate with the Doha Accord that ended the political boycott by the Hezbollah-led opposition and, eventually, paved the way for the parliamentary elections held on 7 June 2009. With Saad Hariri abandoning his efforts to form a unity coalition, one should not be surprised at Emir Khalifa’s re-entry onto the Lebanese political scene.

Likewise, when the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan had problems with Hamas and its activities within the country, Qatar stepped in. The deportation of Khalid Mashaal and his colleagues to Doha in November 1999 resolved an impending showdown between the Islamic militants and the Hashemites. The move also enjoyed the tacit backing of Israel, which was at ease with a ‘friendly’ monarch watching over the ‘outside’ leadership of Hamas. The importance of Qatar in regional developments was given a boost in September 2008, when the Syrian president convinced the Arab League to appeal to Qatar to sponsor negotiations between the Darfur rebels and the Sudanese government. Although progress has been minimal, the development highlights the growing diplomatic reach of Qatar.

As part of an effort to cleanse the negative image in the region following the 11 September attacks, Qatar has also taken the lead in initiating and hosting inter-faith dialogue among the Semitic religions, which often involves Jewish religious figures. Doha has also hosted a number of Israeli officials, leaders and commentators.

What makes Qatar acceptable to both sides of the political divide; Israel and Hamas, Hezbollah and Hariri and Iran and the US?

One can look at three possible explanations. One: unlike other regional players, Doha does not have historical baggage, nor does it have any illusions about its regional influence. Although wealthier, it does not resort to chequebook diplomacy to gloss over deep political differences. Above all, it does not have pretentions of being a regional player. Not pressurised to deliver, Qatar is more effective than others.

Second, Qatar maintains open channels of communication with all the major players in the region, a fundamental pre-condition for any mediatory efforts. It has close ties with Syria and, unlike other Arab powers, did not boycott the March 2008 Arab summit in Damascus. This move proved helpful when the Emir sought to mediate between the Syrian-backed Hezbollah and the US-backed Hariri factions. The tension between Riyadh and Damascus, both before and after the Damascus summit, diluted the Saudi ability to resolve the Lebanese stalemate. The same fate awaited Egypt after Mubarak chose to skip Damascus.

Three, in pursuing foreign policy options, Khalifa is not always guided by American preferences and dictates. For example, American displeasure did not prevent him from dealing with Iran. His disagreement with the prevailing international consensus over the nuclear row was exhibited in July 2006: when the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1696 that called on Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment, Qatar was the only member to vote against the resolution. Similarly, open communication with Tehran was accompanied by Qatar maintaining a low-level Israeli mission that had been briefly closed following Iranian pressures just days before the Emir hosted the Ninth OIC summit in November 2000.

In short, low profile activities, lesser expectations and, above all, the maintenance of closer ties with all the warring sides has enabled Qatar to play a role far bigger than its size and economic influence would suggest. Small is not only beautiful but, in the case of Qatar, it is also effective.