Doha’s delicate diplomatic balancing act

03 February 2010

Qatar, economically dependent on both Iran and the US, will need to draw on its renowned diplomatic skills to maintain relations

In a meeting with Ibrahim al-Muqaisib, Qatar’s ambassador to Tehran, on 12 January, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the relationship between Qatar and Iran was an “exemplary model” for regional ties in the Middle East. He added that there were “no limits to the expansion of ties and co-operation” between the two states.

Al-Muqaisib responded in kind. “Qatar is determined to improve the level of economic and cultural relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran to a level to match our countries’ excellent political relations,” he said.

Key facts

30 per cent - Proportion of Qataris believed to be of Persian descent

QR554m - Total value of trade between Qatar and Iran in 2007

Source: MEED

It is easy to read too much into such diplomatic niceties. Exchanges of fine words are an important part of relations between states, but fine actions do not necessarily follow. In the case of Qatar and Iran, however, there is evidence of a relationship that goes beyond the formulaic rhetoric of international diplomacy.

Like many countries that have established cordial relations, Qatar and Iran have stated a desire to deepen commercial ties and to co-operate in non-controversial areas such as education and the transfer of expertise. A reduction in customs duty and tariffs has been discussed; Qatar has expressed an interest in investing in Iran’s banking, telecoms, tourism and steel sectors; and a committee has been set up to look into the development of links between Iran’s universities and the Qatar Foundation’s Education City.

Training exercises

As MEED went to press, Qatar’s heir apparent Tamin al-Thani was visiting Tehran for talks on economic co-operation that will “open a new chapter in the growing relations between the two countries,” promises Abdullah Sohrabi, Iran’s ambassador to Doha.

But there have been more concrete developments to match these good intentions. In early July 2009, Tehran announced that Iranian frontier guards would join Qatar’s coastal command in joint training exercises, and a further agreement was signed in August 2009 to improve co-operation of border guards over territorial waters. Mustafa Najjar, Iran’s interior minister, is due to visit Qatar “soon” in order to sign a security agreement that is expected to cover further co-operation between the two nations’ armed forces, as well as naval training and exchanges of experts.

The significance of such co-operation should not be underestimated. “Security is the most sensitive issue for all the states in the region,” says Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, a specialist in comparative and internationalist politics at London University’s School of Oriental & African Studies.

“It is always easier to have economic relations, as they are usually mutually beneficial and do not affect issues of sovereignty and security. Once relations between two states step into the security sphere, even on a low level, it is usually indicative of stronger relations.”

In a world in which Iran’s diplomatic motives are often viewed with suspicion on both an international and regional level, Qatar’s apparent friendship with the Islamic republic is striking. When Qatar hosted a summit of the six GCC states in December, 2007, it took the unprecedented move of inviting Iran. And, when its calls for an extraordinary meeting of the Arab League in January 2009 to discuss Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza strip met with opposition from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, it decided to hold its own summit, to which Ahmadinejad was again invited.

Qatar has also marked itself out from its neighbours on the issue of Iran’s nuclear development. While Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE have all expressed concern over Tehran’s nuclear programme, Qatar has spoken out in favour of the country’s right to develop nuclear technology for peaceful means and said that the imposition of sanctions by the US and the UN was counterproductive.

“[Diplomacy] is a game Qatar can lose as well as win, but I have not seen any evidence that they are losing”

Anthony Cordesman, CSIS

Qatar has good reason for going to such lengths to engage Iran. The geographical proximity of the two states, as well as their ethnic ties – more than 30 per cent of Qataris are believed to be of Persian descent – create a basis for affinity. More importantly, Qatar has a strong strategic imperative to hold Iran close. Not only do the two countries share the world’s largest non-associated gas field – known as the North field in Qatar and South Pars in Iran – but Qatar’s proximity to Iran and its military relationship with the US – Qatar’s Al-Udeid military base is home to US troops – mean that it would be extremely vulnerable in the event of a regional conflict.

 “They are basically tied to each other with the North field and South Pars gas field,” says Eckart Woertz, economics programme manager at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre. “At the same time, Qatar does not want any nuclear escalation, because its gas installations are above ground and very vulnerable. They also host Centcom [US Central Command], so, if there is a conflict, they are a primary target.”

Qatar’s vulnerability has led to a policy of diplomatic outreach, in which its relationship with Tehran is just one element. “Qatar is a state with an intense security dilemma,” says Arshin Adib-Moghaddam. “It is surrounded by big players not only in terms of political weight, but also economically and culturally, so it requires delicate diplomacy to ensure these big players do not impinge on its sovereignty.”

Qatar has said that it will not allow the US to launch an attack against Iran from its soil, but Doha’s ultimate reliance on the US in the case of a regional war, and its hosting of the Al-Udeid airbase, means Washington remains a key partner. Qatar’s strategy is “a three-cornered game” in which it must maintain a balance between its relations with Washington and Tehran, says Anthony Cordesman, Arleigh A Burke chair in strategy at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) in the US.

Mediator role

Doha’s skill at juggling allegiances has a long history. It has, for instance, maintained a good relationship with both Israel and Hamas. This in turn has enabled it to develop a role as a Middle East mediator, making the relative weakness of its small size into a strength.

As well as convening talks on Gaza in early 2009, it brokered a deal between rival political factions in Lebanon in May 2008, used the Doha Arab League meeting in March 2009 to address conflict in Sudan, and has recently tried to help soothe tensions in Yemen. “Qatar’s size makes it an acceptable mediator in most cases, since it does not have intrinsic interests in most of the region’s disputes,” says Gregory Gause, a Middle East expert at the University of Vermont in the US.

Not only are Doha’s growing ties with Tehran a strategic imperative, they can also be seen as part of a drive to enhance its diplomatic stature in the wider region.

“Qatar’s relationship with Iran is another example of the exercise of soft power in the Middle East that Qatar has taken on and been quite successful at,” says Anoush Ehteshami, director of the Centre for Iranian Studies at Durham University in the UK.

“Qatar has managed to achieve very high visibility, to be taken seriously as a Gulf state, to develop a very high political profile in the region, and to be seen as an island of reform,” agrees Cordesman.

Doha’s efforts to punch above its weight diplomatically have at times ruffled the feathers of the region’s traditional peace-brokers, Cairo and Riyadh. Qatar’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has been particularly delicate, since Riyadh allegedly attempted to engineer the restoration of former emir Khalifa al-Thani shortly after he was deposed by his son, the current emir, Hamad al-Thani, in 1995. The image of Qatar competing with Saudi Arabia for diplomatic power may have been overblown, but this is not to say that a broad network of international allegiances and an enhanced diplomatic standing are not useful tools with which Qatar can counterbalance the influence of Saudi Arabia, the only country with which it shares a land border.

“Much of their foreign policy is directed at having as many friends as possible to help them ward off Saudi pressures,” says Gause. “Qatar is always balancing the US, other Gulf states, and anyone it can find, against Saudi Arabia,” agrees Cordesman.

From a wider regional viewpoint, it is certainly true that some Gulf states might prefer a more formal approach towards solving differences with Iran. But Qatar’s willingness and ability to engage with the Islamic republic at least provides another diplomatic channel through which the issue can be addressed.

“Qatar is playing an important role from a GCC perspective,” says Ehteshami. “The UAE, especially Abu Dhabi, would prefer a formalised process led by the GCC, but that is not going to happen. Even they would prefer Iran to be in some form of dialogue, as would Saudi Arabia.”

Washington, too, would prefer to see open doors rather than closed ones.

“I am sure the current US government will not object to Qatar’s role in a way that the Bush administration would have,” says Ehteshami.

“The US wants to maintain some level of security in order to prevent Iran from disrupting oil flows from the region,” agrees Arshin. “There is a degree of trust between Iran and Qatar, which is one of the rarest commodities in international relations. It would not be prudent for the US to try to confine this.”

For all its success in broadening its diplomatic ties, Qatar is still vulnerable to the shifting geopolitical situation in the Middle East. Following the most recent breakdown in international negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme in early January, there remains the more serious danger that Tehran’s relationship with the West, or with Israel, could deteriorate still further. But, for the time being, Qatar’s widely sown diplomatic seeds are bearing fruit. “It is a game that Qatar can lose as well as win,” says Cordesman. “But I have not seen any evidence that they are losing at the moment.”

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