Doha’s diplomatic role in the Middle East

26 October 2010

Maintaining good relations with Washington and Tehran, as well as placating Riyadh’s concerns about its diplomatic ambitions will be Qatar’s biggest test yet

Qatar in numbers

30 per cent: Amount of Qataris believed to be of Persian descent

$60bn: Size of arms deal signed by Saudi Arabia in October

Source: MEED

At the centre of one of the most politically sensitive regions in the world, Qatar’s growing stature as a peace-broker within the Middle East over the past few years has garnered no shortage of headlines around the world.

Its success in brokering the Doha Agreement between the warring factions in Lebanon helped pave the way for its subsequent achievements. In May 2008, Qatar’s ruling family invited Lebanon’s rival political factions to attend a peace summit in Doha. The outcome was the signing of the Doha Agreement, marking the end of an 18-month political impasse in Lebanon.

One of the driving forces for Qatar is the weakness of Arab institutions in solving regional disputes

Graham Boyce, Nomura Group

Since then, Doha has raised its diplomatic profile by convening talks on Gaza in early 2009, as well as using the Doha Arab League meeting in March 2009 to address conflict in Sudan. It has also had measured success in helping soothe tensions in Yemen.

Middle East diplomacy

“One of the driving forces for Qatar is the weakness of Arab institutions in solving regional disputes,” says Graham Boyce, former UK ambassador to Qatar and vice-chairman of the Europe, Middle East and Africa advisory panel at Japan’s Nomura Group. “If Qatar can solve any of the problems of the region, the others in the GCC would welcome it.”

Saudi Arabia – long regarded as the principal political powerbroker of the GCC states – scaled back its involvement in regional diplomacy over the past few years.

The kingdom tried to settle the dispute in Lebanon in 2008, but its political weight and regional connections got in the way. Viewed as too biased towards Sunni interests, Riyadh lost its support among the opposition in Lebanon, and so deferred to Doha.  

In subsequent years, Qatar assumed a more conspicuous role as a mediator in the region and, in doing so, largely filled the void left by the kingdom’s withdrawal. 

However, during the course of 2010, Riyadh has played an increasingly engaged role in Middle East diplomacy. On 30 July, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz travelled to Beirut with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to try to defuse growing hostilities triggered by the international tribunal set up to investigate former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination in 2005. 

King Abdullah’s visit was highly significant – the first by a reigning Saudi monarch since 1957.

The Saudi and Syrian leaders met again in Riyadh on 17 October amid rising tensions in Lebanon over the outcome of the investigation.

King Abdullah was also a key facilitator in laying the ground for the resumption of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on 2 September after a 20-month hiatus.

Saudi Arabia’s ambition to reassert itself is ultimately motivated by protecting its own backyard. Keen to see the maintenance of political stability in Lebanon and improved relations with Syria, Riyadh is also growing increasingly disconcerted by the belligerent posturing of Iran. “Saudi Arabia is reasserting its foreign policy interests after a lag, when Riyadh almost seemed to be asleep, as it seeks to counter Iran’s influence,” says Theodore Karasik, security analyst at Inegma, a Middle-East think-tank.

On 29 June, King Abdullah met with US President Barack Obama at the White House with both leaders voicing “strong support” for international efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear development programme.

Doha summit

While Riyadh has not publicly condoned the US and UN-imposed sanctions on Iran, it has sought to persuade leaders of India and China to apply more pressure on Tehran.

Aware of the political power it wields owing to its vast oil wealth, Riyadh has pointed to the fact it has a spare oil production capacity of 4 million barrels a day that could replace Iranian oil exports.

The kingdom’s stance against Tehran is representative of its Gulf neighbours for whom Iran also represents a major security concern.

In light of this, Qatar’s efforts to bring Iran back into the fold are striking.

Doha’s decision to invite Iran to the GCC summit in December 2007 was a bold move and a clear reflection of its growing confidence in staking out a new path for diplomacy in the region. 

Similarly, when Riyadh and Cairo opposed its calls for an extraordinary meeting of the Arab League in January 2009 to discuss Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, Doha defiantly held its own summit to which Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited.  

Qatar is now playing the game of mediation with the full approval of Saudi Arabia

Mustafa Alani, Gulf Research Centre

While Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE have all expressed concern over Tehran’s nuclear programme, Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad al-Thani has said Iran’s right to develop nuclear technology should be respected and that the imposition of sanctions is counterproductive. 

In June, the Iranian ambassador to Qatar, Abdullah Sohrabi said Tehran has allotted land at Bushehr for a permanent Qatari trade centre, which is expected to boost trade between the two countries.

Doha’s defiance in not dancing to the tune of the US on Iran has certainly been beneficial for its relations with Tehran. It has also helped foster its image as an independent force that sets its own foreign policy agenda.

However, Qatar has a vested interest in keeping on good terms with Iran.

More than 30 per cent of Qataris are believed to be of Persian descent, and the two countries have stated a desire to deepen commercial ties by reducing customs duties and tariffs.

Iran-Qatar commercial ties

Qatar has expressed an interest in investing in Iran’s banking, telecoms, tourism and steel sectors. A committee has also been set up to look into the development of links between Iran’s universities and the Qatar Foundation’s Education City on the outskirts of Doha.  

In a meeting with Ahmadinejad on 12 January, Ibrahim al-Muqaisib, Qatar’s ambassador to Tehran, said: “Doha is determined to improve the level of economic and cultural relations with Iran to a level to match our countries’ excellent political relations.”  

But what really binds them together is that  they share the world’s largest non-associated gas field, known as the North Field in Qatar and South Pars in Iran. 

“Qatar shares a maritime border with Iran, as well as the world’s largest gas field,” says Boyce. “Iran will still be a neighbour long after the US has gone, so Qatar needs a long-term working relationship with the country, which will eventually be the dominant power in the region – even if it does not like everything that Tehran does.”

Qatar wants to keep a lid on any escalating tension over Iran’s controversial nuclear development programme because its own gas installations are above ground and therefore vulnerable to possible air strikes. 

At the same time, Doha hosts the US military base Al-Udeid and recognises that it would be an easy target if Iran and the US were to go to war.   

With a native population of about 170,000, Qatar is under no illusion as to whether it can stand up to Iran militarily.   

“Qatar continues to present itself as a friend to all in the region, as well as to its Western allies,” says Neil Partrick, a Middle East expert, who formerly taught political science at the American University of Sharjah in the UAE.

“For Qatar, the additional sanctions on Iran only increases the logic in trying to maintain its image of being non-aligned. While on the Palestinian issue this stance is plausible, Iran knows that the US command and control facility in Doha not only protects the Al-Thani regime, but that it would be key to any US military action against Iran.”

Doha’s precarious balancing act in maintaining good relations with both Washington and Tehran could prove to be the trickiest diplomatic task it has taken on.    

“I think that Qatar’s relationship with the West remains unique,” says Karasik. “The fact that Qatar actually appears closer to Iran now than a few years ago illustrates Doha’s desire to be distinctive and forward-looking as opposed to some of her neighbours. In some ways, Qatar interferes in Saudi interests and it is likely to produce trouble behind the scenes.”

Given its small size, Doha’s efforts to punch above its weight diplomatically have at times ruffled the feathers of Saudi Arabia, which likes to be regarded as the region’s pre-eminent peacemaker.

In fact, Qatar’s relationship with Riyadh has been somewhat controversial since Saudi Arabia’s alleged resistance to the current Sheikh Hamad’s seizure of power from his father in a coup in 1995.

Sheikh Hamad’s belief that Riyadh was involved in the attempted counter-coup against him has also been a source of friction. Clearly, Doha’s policy towards Iran is at odds with both Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC. At the same time, Riyadh is grateful that Doha is providing a channel of communication with Tehran.

“Qatar is now playing the game of mediation with the full approval of Saudi Arabia,” Mustafa Alani, head of security and terrorism studies at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre, commented to MEED in late September.

“Whenever Doha is involved in a major initiative, it will go to Riyadh before and after to inform them of what they are doing and to consult with them.”

Qatar- Saudi Arabia: Shared interests

Qatar’s rise to prominence in the diplomatic sphere has no doubt been seen as an affront to the Saudi monarchy. But their shared interests vastly outweigh their differences and it would appear that Riyadh is increasingly grateful that it has an ally to deal with Iran.  

The fact that Doha has not traditionally exercised major political influence in the region has worked to its advantage, helping it to be seen as a neutral arbiter, while its small size has meant it is perceived to be unthreatening.   

“Qatar has had more success because it is seen as less partisan in the disputes it has engaged in,” says Boyce.

Doha has stolen the lead in regional diplomacy in recent years, but Saudi Arabia’s political clout should not be forgotten.

“Arguably Saudi Arabia is the only Arab state these days that could seek to encourage Syria to re-enter the Arab fold by being more cooperative on Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and other issues,” says Partrick. “There are some, admittedly small, signs of Saudi success in influencing Syria on these fronts.” 

Riyadh’s recent signing of a $60bn deal to strengthen its military capabilities is a clear sign of its determination to build up its defences.

Acutely aware of the shifting geopolitical situation in the Middle East, Riyadh has once again moved to reassert itself as the region’s peace-broker. But it recognises that Qatar also has an important role to play and the two can work together for the greater good of the region.

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