Qatar: A Changing Foreign Policy?

01 Feb 03:00 AM

Sector : Economy & Int'l Relations Country : Qatar

By David B. Roberts

The double-hatting of the former Minister of State for the Interior as the new Minister of the Interior and as the Prime Minister is arguably a neat sign of the change in priorities

If the leadership gets its way Qatar will undergo a prolonged and boring period in their foreign policy after the excitement of the 2000s

So has Qatar’s foreign policy changed? What are the differences under Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani? How will Qatar change without the guiding influence of (now) former Emir Hamad Bin Khalifah Al Thani and his chief lieutenant, Hamad Bin Jassim Al Thani? These are the key questions with which many are concerned. As yet, there are precious few answers and analysts must instead, as ever, scrabble around for whatever evidence can be found and from which extrapolations can be reasonably be made.

Yet the search for evidence immediately hits a brick wall as there is not much evidence around. Yet is this in and of itself evidence, a confused analyst may tautologically wonder? The relative dip in Qatar’s international actions, the lack of grand initiatives launched by the small Gulf state, and the absence of iconoclastic initiatives stemming from Doha is noticeable. Without the former Foreign Minister’s  overbearing personality thrusting his country in all directions, Qatar’s foreign policy has settled down somewhat. Whether he would have calmed down his approach in any case is impossible to say for sure, but caution hardly characterized his time as Foreign Minister (1992-2013).

The Taliban office in Doha that opened so farcically in summer 2013, with flags and anthems that were expressly forbidden by the Afghan and American governments, and closed soon after, has remained moribund. The former Emir’s visit to Gaza in October 2012, has subsequently seen no similarly pointed flourishes, though conferences continue to fill up the Doha calendar, including ones hosting a range of Islamists. In Libya, though the fog of war prevents any detailed understanding of who is supporting whom, it seems likely that Qatar’s support has tailed away compared to the 2012 levels.

This is not to say that there has been no activity from the new Foreign Ministry. Qatar played a key role in arranging the release of nine Lebanese hostages held in Syria in October 2013, and the same month used dollar diplomacy to ease the financial burden on the Palestinian Authority.

Nevertheless, there appears to be something of a gap between the dynamism and eye-catching activity of Qatar under Emir Hamad and his Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hamad Bin Jassim Al Thani and their successors. Much of this difference can be put down to a change in personalities. Hamad Bin Jassim was an imposing, gregarious, powerful individual who spent decades sauntering around the world making policy as he went. While the new Foreign Minister, Dr Khalid Bin Mohammed Al Attiyah, clearly has the complete confidence of his Emir, he is different to his predecessor. More cerebral and less eager for the lime-light, a trained lawyer and a former military man, Dr Al Attiyah was never going to launch his country into controversial venture after venture with little obvious reconnaissance. His emphasis instead is on professionalizing his diplomats through numerous training programs and seeking to soothe the bitterness that engulfs many Qatari foreign policies. As for Emir Tamim, he feels comfortable enough in his position that he does not need to engage in any boisterous policies to assert his authority or to prove that he is his own man.

This is entirely the correct approach. It is practically impossible for him to compete with his father, a modern day Metternich according to the New York Times, who revolutionized and founded the modern state of Qatar. Instead, Emir Tamim is proceeding sensibly, making judicious speeches at the UN and in the Qatari Majlis As Shura that reinforce his father’s key messages regarding Qatar’s independent nature.

Yet following in his father’s footsteps is not the only difficulty facing Emir Tamim. Indeed, he must also follow in the diplomatic footsteps of Hamad Bin Jassim, whose remarkable record in leading Qatari diplomacy began to become unhinged in his last eighteen months in office. The two most significant forays engaged in by Hamad Bin Jassim – seeking to lead the overthrow of Bashar Assad in Syria and attempting to strenuously back former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi when he was in power – have, in the short term at least, unequivocally failed. In both arenas but in Egypt in particular, Qatar’s influence has dwindled significantly to the point where Qatar is a bit-part player where it once, even if only for a short time, commanded much respect. Qatar’s position may yet recover in the long-term but only with assiduous and delicate finessing from Doha: Emir Tamim and his Foreign Minister have quite a job on their hands.

Qatar’s changes in foreign policy do not necessarily merely stem from personnel changes. Indeed, it is tempting to suggest that there is a new less controversial, more conciliatory tone in the halls of the Emiri Diwan and in the Foreign Ministry’s tower. The received wisdom relating to Emir Tamim’s ascension to the throne in Qatar notes that he is actively prioritizing internal matters as the boom for construction for the 2022 World Cup begins to kick-off. There is logic to this assertion. Certainly, there is a lot of work to be done. Qatar is a young country that has been operating a modern bureaucracy for less than a generation and no Qataris outside the energy sector have experience in undertaking projects of the scale required for the World Cup and its related infrastructure. The double-hatting of the former Minister of State for the Interior as the new Minister of the Interior and as the Prime Minister is arguably a neat sign of the change in priorities. Abdullah Bin Nasser Al Thani brings to both posts a fearsome reputation as a hard worker, who demands and receives loyalty and a sleeves rolled up mentality from his staff. Emir Tamim’s speeches too have focused significantly on domestic issues as one might expect, exhorting Qataris to play their part a responsible role in the growth of their country.


David B. Roberts
David B. Roberts is based in Qatar as a lecturer in the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London and is a former Director of the Qatar office of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). His book “Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City State” will be published in mid-2014.




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