For a Gulf state, Qatar is a diplomatic mould-breaker. In May this year, Qatar’s ruling family invited all of Lebanon’s main political parties to a peace summit in Doha.
The summit concluded with the signing of the Doha Agreement that ended the 18-month political crisis in Lebanon.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani has hinted at Qatar establishing relations with Tel Aviv before the establishment of a Palestinian state.
In a rare event for the Arab world, the new Israeli Prime Minister, Tzipi Livni, visited Qatar as foreign minister in April this year to discuss Iran’s nuclear programme.
Qatar has been taking calculated steps to raise its profile as a regional actor. In September, Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani made a high-profile appearance at the four-nation Damascus summit, alongside France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Qatar is working hard to improve the region’s relations with Tehran. Doha’s decision to invite Iran to the GCC summit in December 2007 was regarded as a sign of its growing diplomatic confidence in acting as a facilitator in the region, leveraging the experience gained during Qatar’s two years as a temporary member of the UN Security Council from 2005.
“Part of their success has been the willingness to play a pragmatic game,” says Gerd Nonneman, associate fellow at UK thinktank Chatham House and professor of Arab and Islamic studies at the University of Exeter.
“They have really done all they can to not be associated with one party or another, even if it annoyed outside powers at times – for instance, by not dancing to the tune of the US on many of these things.”
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 arbitrator.
This perceived neutrality has proved instrumental in its -success in brokering milestone peace deals, such as the Doha Agreement.
“It was a striking success by any standards,” says Nonneman.
“Saudi Arabia had tried to settle the dispute, but its political weight and regional connections got in the way, mainly because it was seen as effectively too biased towards a Sunni interest, so it lost its grip among the opposition in Lebanon. In stark contrast, Qatar bent over backwards to make sure it was not seen as partisan.”
What is equally striking is that Saudi Arabia – which has long been regarded as the principal political power-broker of the GCC states – retreated from mediating on the peace deal and instead deferred to Doha.
“Saudi Arabia may have well preferred to mediate these issues itself and, no doubt, had a certain degree of reservation,” says Neil Partrick, who teaches political science at the American University of Sharjah.
“But the point was that it was not specifically going to try to block anything that Qatar was doing.”
Relations between Doha and Riyadh had become strained because of Saudi Arabia’s resistance to Sheikh Hamad’s seizing of power from his father in a coup in 1995, and the emir’s belief that Riyadh was involved in the attempted counter-coup against him.
Qatar has also had territorial problems with Saudi Arabia, which came to a head when Riyadh threatened to block construction of the Dolphin gas pipeline from Qatar to the UAE.
Many believe winning the approval of Saudi Arabia has allowed Qatar to assume a more conspicuous role in regional diplomacy, and explains its increasing boldness, most noticeably by inviting Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the GCC summit at the end of 2007 without consulting the other Gulf states.
Aware of the friction this had caused among its neighbouring states, Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad commented at the time: “I do not believe that we can solve our problems by cutting off Iran from the region, since it is an important player.”
However, analysts say Qatar’s desire to be on good terms with Iran is as much motivated by self-interest as political goodwill.
“Two or three years ago, Sheikh Hamad actually went to Tehran to try to reason with the Iranian government about its nuclear programme, and instead was told in no uncertain terms that if there was a threat to Iran and Doha was seen as being even remotely associated with it – which, of course, it would be, given that it is home to the biggest US airbase in the region – Qatar would be wiped out,” says Nonneman.
“It was a simple power play but, of course, it influences Sheikh Hamad’s calculations now as they [the Qataris] feel very vulnerable to a possible Iranian military attack.”
With a population of about 900,000, Qatar is under no illusion as to whether it can stand up to Iran militarily. Consequently, such foreign policy is essential to its security.
At home, Qatar’s attempts at democratic reform also form part of the rebranding message it wants to get out to the world.
A new constitution was approved in a referendum in 2003, making provisions for free elections for a parliament that will have legislative powers.
The implementation of the electoral and parliamentary elements of the constitution has been postponed while Qatar works on drafting the necessary legal framework, but it now looks as though all the pieces are in place, resulting in the cautious expectation that parliamentary elections could happen next year.
“There was a sense of shock in Qatar when this constitution was announced, because -people had not really expected this, and that includes some people within the royal family, as there is very little active demand for this in Qatar,” says Nonneman.
Indeed, with the highest gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in the world, and no internal religious or political sparring, such political reform could be viewed as unnecessary.
But Qatar’s desire to be seen as different from its Gulf neighbours is driving change. In May 2007, the de facto first lady, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, announced that Qatar was going to create “the Arab Centre for Democracy”.
Doha has reportedly made a contribution of $10m towards the centre, which is now open.
It has attracted the high-profile civil rights activist Saad El-Din Ibrahim, an academic who was in trouble with the Egyptian government over democracy education.
Doha plans for the centre to be the biggest organisation in support of Arab democracy in the world.
“Qatar’s domestic track record provides an interesting model for the modern Islamic state,” says Sir Graham Boyce, former UK ambassador to Qatar and chairman of the Middle East Advisory Board at UK-based technology group Invensys.
“It is taking a lead in inter-faith dialogues and championing a role for Islam similar to the Great Ages in Islam, when it was open to all ideas.
“It still retains its conservative traditions, while embracing the best the West has to offer by granting foreigners much more freedom than Saudi Arabia – for example, by not prohibiting churches and alcohol – without going to Dubai lengths.”
There is certainly no doubt that Qatar displays a politically progressive stance, both on its home turf and in the wider region. In this sense, the emir and Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani have been critical.
“They are quite exceptional in terms of the energy they invest in pursuing their diplomatic efforts,” says Nonneman.
“They have a small staff of incredibly hard-working, bright people around them who are seen as the ‘modernising crowd’. But they don’t have the pool of skills that an average-sized country’s foreign policy bureaucracy could draw on.”
Qatar’s rapid, successful pursuit of fostering diplomatic relations in the region is all the more remarkable given that, until a few years ago, its foreign policy was essentially a reflection of Saudi foreign policy.
“Interestingly, and to some extent unusually for Arab mediators, they seem keen not just to oversee the [Doha] Agreement but to also follow it up,” says Partrick.
“For example, Qatar did not just oversee the signing of the Doha Agreement and then walk away, it tried to aid that political process through staff visits, and so on.
Whereas Saudi Arabia launches or oversees an initiative and that is as far as the support tends to go.”
However, while Doha’s cachet as a regional diplomat has increased enormously because of the success of the Doha Agreement, the consensus is that unless there is an agreement to be had, either among the Lebanese or any other party in dispute, Qatar or anyone else’s mediation is not worth a lot.
This is evident in the Palestinian peace negotiations. While Qatar has some respect from both Hamas and Fatah in Palestine, it has not been able to deliver any kind of agreement.
And although it was able to engineer ceasefires for a period in the Yemen Saada conflict in the summer of 2007, those eventually collapsed.
Many believe that Qatar’s role is ultimately as a facilitator and peace-maker rather than a power-broker, and that any influence it has will only really be effective in the Arab region.
But Qatar has, on some occasions, ridden rough-shod over GCC political sensitivities, most noticeably by not consulting with its GCC neighbours.
“This is no doubt down to the emir himself, who has a force of personality and directness of manner that is ideally suited to allowing Qatar to play a much larger role on the world stage than the size of his country should allow,” says Boyce.
According to Partrick, Doha’s future foreign diplomacy will more likely be as a proactive host rather than as a mediator.
“It is not so much that Sheikh Hamad is running around and actively proposing alternative policies for moving forward,” he says.
“In the case of the Doha Agreement, it is more that Doha was an acceptable venue for securing the agreement, when the parties themselves began to recognise what shape it would take.”
At the centre of one of the most politically sensitive regions, Qatar has its work cut out. Its diplomatic credentials were strengthened by its two years on the UN Security Council, and it has consistently generated regional headlines since the end of its UN tenure. It now needs to decide whether it wants its political future to be that of facili-tator or true power-broker.
Doha has contributed $10m towards its Arab Centre for Democracy