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24-02-2012 - Gulfnews/ByOmar Shariff

Is Doha the new Arab political capital?

Qatar's popularity seems to be on the rise especially since the Arab Spring, as the country is perceived as being on the side of the Arab masses and doing something tangible to help them achieve their goals. On the other hand, there are those in states like Syria, Tunisia and Libya who resent what they see as its meddling in their internal affairs. For the past few years, and especially since the beginning of the ongoing Arab Spring, Qatar has perfected the art of punching above its weight in regional and international affairs. And it has done so primarily - though not always - through the projection of soft power. When Hurricane Katrina devastated parts of the United States, Doha launched the $100 million (Dh367 million) Qatar Katrina Fund to help the battered citizens of the richest and mightiest nation on earth.

Putting its unbelievable wealth to good use, it took the lead in the reconstruction effort following Israel's war against Lebanon in 2006; so much so that the Iranian-allied Hezbollah's TV station, Al Manar, repeatedly broadcast a well-choreographed song thanking Qatar for its efforts. Again, following Israel's ruthless assault on Gaza in 2008/2009, Qatar was there with a helping hand.

But it is with the onset of the Arab Spring that Doha truly seems to have found its calling. Tiny Qatar's ambitions, apparently, know no bounds. It is trying to emerge as the major powerbroker in the Arab world, replacing traditional heavyweights like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It took the lead in organising the Arab and international effort to topple the deranged dictator in Tripoli, to the extent that it also carried out air raids on regime targets in Libya in tandem with Nato jets. "It's Qatar's moment in Arab history," declared Professor Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, one of the UAE's foremost political analysts and a Gulf News columnist. "When regional powers like Egypt and Iraq are in retreat, there is room for daring and ambitious small states like Qatar to play a leading role. It is filling a vacuum in the region, as it has the resources to do so."

Some critics have accused Doha of harbouring an Islamist agenda for the region, a thought dismissed by Dr Abdullah. "No; Qatar just has a Qatari agenda. It's a very ambitious state, with the resources to match. There is no more to it. However, Gassan Al Ezzi, a Professor of Political Science at the Lebanese University in Beirut and an international affairs commentator, had a different take on the issue. "It is a difficult question to answer. But it is clear that Qatar has supported Islamist parties, which won elections in Egypt and Tunisia, and would most likely support them if they win elections in Libya and other countries. This gives Qatar influence over the ruling regimes in the post-revolution countries, including the most important Arab state, Egypt. Besides, political Islam is not the same in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt or others. Even within the same country, there are differences. For instance, in Egypt, the agenda of the Salafists is not the same as that of the Muslim Brotherhood."

Gabriel G. Tabarani, a Middle East expert who is also the editor in chief of Miraat Al Khaleej and author of the book In Jihad's New Heartlands: How The West Has Failed To Contain Islamic Fundamentalism, said that Qatar's intentions "remain murky". "Some say Qatar has a Napoleonic complex, others say it has an Islamist agenda. Qatar was very active in diplomacy even before the Arab Spring, but I cannot think of a specific interest that the country is pursuing through its expanding role. Qatar has no interests at stake. Its Arab Spring policy seems to be policy for policy's sake. However, Sunni revival via supporting mainstream Islamist groups in the countries that are witnessing change could make sense from a GCC security perspective to confront Iran.

Decisive shift

"But for all the contradictions in its policies - and there are many - Qatar is advancing a decisive shift in Arab politics that many in the West have yet to embrace: a Middle East dominated by mainstream Islamist parties brought to power in a region that is more democratic, more conservative and more tumultuous. Qatar is a country without ideology. Its leaders know that the Islamists are the new power in the Arab world. This alliance will lay the foundation for a base of influence across the region." However, Tabarani did not feel that Qatar could be accused of having imperialist intentions. "I don't think it is the case. In terms of geopolitics, however much the role of the country has grown, the impact will remain limited. Bismarck has confirmed that the geography of the state is the permanent element in politics. Geography plays a role in determining the political influence of the state."

In Qatar's rapid ascendance in the region, there is no denying the central role played by the Al Jazeera TV station, especially the Arabic version, which has become a darling of the Arab masses. So has Qatar used Al Jazeera as a tool to promote its agenda? "Yes, absolutely," said Dr Abdullah. "It is a tool, and a very effective tool in Qatar's foreign policy. And there's nothing wrong with that. I think the BBC is a tool of British foreign policy, and CNN of American foreign policy and so on. This [Al Jazeera] is part of Qatar's soft power. And like any modern state, it is exercising it."

Al Ezzi seemed to concur. "As for the use of Al Jazeera as a tool, this is a reality we see everyday. But the station attained its present status well before the Arab revolts began; it was not only as a result of these revolutions."

According to Tabarani, one year ago, even those most optimistic about Qatar's potential could not predict that the Gulf state would one day be leading the Arab League and speaking on its behalf. "In fact the year of the Arab Spring has brought political change to several Arab countries, but even more so to Arab foreign policy with Qatar stepping in as a force in Middle East politics. However, I would not judge Qatar's foreign policy as smart or not. I'd say it's relevant."

Speaking about Qatar's role in Lebanon, Sahar Atrache, a Middle East and North Africa analyst with the Brussels-based think-tank International Crisis Group, said: "In Lebanon, Qatar was able to preserve very good relations with both the March 14 and the March 8 coalitions. Doha was a major funder of South Lebanon's reconstruction after the 2006 war. Its [current] stance on Syria has harmed its relations with Hezbollah, which are cooler today. Thus, it can't play the balancing role it used to. Instead, it chose to take the lead in most of the Arab uprisings."

Managing contradictions

Asked how had Qatar managed to emerge as the most dynamic Arab state in the Arab Spring, she observed, "For the past few years, unlike the US, Saudi Arabia, Egypt under [Hosni] Mubarak, Syria or Iran, Qatar didn't fall into a Manichean division of the region. Thus it was able to manage contradictions in the region and developed good relations with very antagonistic forces (US/Syria and Iran; Hezbollah/Sa'ad Hariri in Lebanon). By doing so, Doha was able to fill a void left by other players. For instance, in Lebanon, when Syria and Saudi Arabia reached a deadlock in 2008, a ‘Doha agreement' was brokered. Qatar has relied on two major factors: its wealth that allowed it to fund a wide range of political parties, NGOs, research centres in the region, thus procuring it important leverages; and Al Jazeera, which it has used as a tool to promote diplomacy and discredit its rivals." Atrache said that Al Jazeera thus "can't be considered as a professional, reliable source of information. In the Arab uprisings, it turned into a major player - not sure this is the media's role - and adopted biased standards in its coverage. Intentionally concealing the Bahraini revolt deeply contrasted with its very outspoken positions on Egypt, Libya, Syria ..."

There is perhaps no government that dislikes the role Qatar is playing in the Arab Spring more than the regime in Damascus. Tabarani said that the diplomatic rift between Syria and Qatar has been simmering as the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East. "The tension between the two countries is now at its boiling point especially after the failed vote in the UN. Damascus sees Qatar as its main enemy now, and the main financier of the opposition. So their future relations if the Bashar Al Assad's regime stays is not promising."

However, regionally, Qatar's popularity seems to be on the rise, as the country is perceived as being on the side of the Arab masses and doing something tangible to help them achieve their goals. "On the streets of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria, they are all thankful to Al Jazeera, which in turn means they are thankful to Qatar, which in turn means they are thankful to the Emir of Qatar, Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, who is probably the most popular man in the Middle East right now," said Dr Abdullah.

But a growing role for Doha in the region has also caused growing alarm. Quite apart from Syria, there are those in countries like Tunisia and Libya who resent what they see as Qatar's meddling in their internal affairs.

"Now, there may be people who are happy with its policies, and those who are unhappy. That is natural; Qatar should accept the fact that what it is doing will not be liked by 100 per cent of the people," Dr Abdullah noted.

He described Doha's role as "mind-boggling". "Qatar has played a constructive and positive role ... in [the] Afghanistan [talks], in Yemen, Lebanon ... sometimes on behalf of bigger powers in the region. By default or by design, Doha today is the political capital of the Arab world. And there's a lot of investment that has gone into this."

 

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