Qatar was one of the most active supporters of change in the Arab World during the Arab Spring of 2010-2011. Alongside other Arab countries, it continues to play an important role in Libya and Syria today. The question is, what has made it so influential?
Qatar is a small country with a population of 1.8 million, of whom only 278,000 are Qatari citizens, and 1.5 million are expatriates living in an area of less than 4,500 square miles. Historically, Qatar has been vulnerable to outside influence because of its size, location and small population. Even today, its armed forces count a mere 11,800, the 2nd smallest army in the Middle East. However, Qatar has oil reserves of 15 billion barrels, and owns 13 percent of global gas resources, making it the country with the highest per capita income in the world, at $104,000. (Luxemburg is a distant second at about $80,000 per capita).
Qatar’s powerful Aljazeera TV station played a key role in the 2010-2011 revolts. From early on, Aljazeera sided with the people demonstrating for a change in government. The vivid and emotional images Aljazeera presented, incited the imagination of Arabs and helped gather support for liberation movements from the military regimes that had oppressed people for decades.
Many countries of the Middle East were de facto police states. In Tunisia, President Zain El Abidine Ben Ali ruled the country from 1987 to 2011, President Husni Mubarak controlled Egypt for 30 years, and Ali Abdullah Saleh virtually monopolized the presidency, government and military in Yemen for three decades. Assad of Syria has ruled since 2000, following his father Hafez Al-Assad who took power in 1971. Libyan dictator Gaddafi ruled for 42 years. Economic development was stagnant, institutions weak, and media controlled and censored. Unemployment was staggering at a constant 30-50 percent, especially among the youth population. Conditions were rife for change. The reporting of Aljazeera certainly helped to force regime changes many Arab states, yet in Syria the struggle continues. There is no question that Qatar provided support, ranging from diplomatic assistance to providing financial aid, and sometimes the provisions of weaponry. In the regimes of Libya and Syria, leaders continued fighting against their own people rather than turning over power, as was the case in Tunisia and Egypt.
Many accuse Qatar of meddling in the affairs of these countries. To be fair, Qatar supported moderate elements of the struggle against the regimes. This resulted in Islamist groups joining the fight against the regimes of Gaddafi in Libya, and Assad in Syria. It was hard to identify Islamists among these groups. After an initial hesitation, even the United States decided to support the same groups fighting against the regimes in Libya and Syria. Certain radical Islamists groups benefited from the support of both Qatar and the United States. Yet, this was both unintentional (and limited), despite their best efforts to vet these groups.
Can Qatar Re-Shape the Political Doctrine of the Muslim Brotherhood?
The post-Gaddafi era in Libya turned sour. Militias that were formed and took part in overthrowing Gaddafi soon took over power in the political vacuum that was created after the fall of the regime. ISIS moved, taking advantage of the existing chaos in lawless areas outside the control of either government forces or the countless militias.
During his first interview as the Emir of Qatar in late September 2014, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani vowed to support the 60-nation coalition formed by the United States to fight ISIS. The Emir dismissed accusations that Qatar was funding terrorism, stating “We don’t fund extremists,” he told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “If you talk about certain movements, especially in Syria and Iraq, we all consider them terrorist movements.” Of the coalition, he said, “We’ve been asked by our American friends if we can join, and we did.”
The most serious accusation against Qatar is its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. This group was successful in recent elections in Morocco and had moderate success in Jordan. However, they suffered major setbacks in other countries. In Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the Muslim Brotherhood was banned and labeled as a terrorist organization. In Libya, it fared poorly in the parliamentary elections of 2014, but used force in alliance with other militias to take over control of Tripoli in an operation named Libya Dawn, and to bring back the failed General National Congress. The Muslim Brotherhood blocked political process in Libya, and aligned itself with more radical groups, such as the Libya Islamic Fighting Group, an off-shoot of Al-Qaeda in the western region, and Ansar Al- Sharia, an Al-Qaeda affiliate in the east, blamed for the assassination of former US ambassador Chris Stevens and four other Americans in Benghazi. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was labeled a terrorist group and for two years has been widely blamed for activities seeking to destabilize the Egyptian regime. The Egyptian economy relies heavily on its tourist industry as a source of employment and inflows of foreign currency. It has suffered greatly since the instabilities starting in 2010, and due to continued acts of terrorism, it has not been able to recover. Revenues fell from about 14 billion dollars in 2009, to less than 4 billion dollars in 2015.
Qatar’s strong support for the Muslim Brotherhood and to a lesser extent questionable groups in Syria has continued. Such support will undoubtedly isolate it internationally. Qatar’s early backing of groups during the Arab Spring was aimed at liberation and democracy, yet the subsequent deviation and radicalization of some of the groups it supported, particularly in Syria, Egypt and Libya, should make Qatar reconsider its position. Instead, Qatar should use its considerable influence to force these groups to accept the results of elections that did not go in their favor, and to be more conciliatory and constructive participants of the political system, rather than to seek exclusive power and control.
Some may view Qatar’s financial and political power as a threat to the region. The influence it propels over the Muslim Brotherhood, and the political authority it has developed through its active diplomacy, give Qatar a unique position that can play an important role in bringing peace and stability to the region.
Qatar has been an important ally of the United States. The two countries concluded a Defense Cooperation Agreement, which has been subsequently expanded. In April of 2003, the U.S. Combat Air Operations Center for the Middle East moved from the Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, to Qatar’s Al Udeid Air Base, near its capital Doha. Al Udeid and other facilities in Qatar serve as logistical, command, and basing hubs for the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) area of operations.
In a recent visit to Oslo, Qatar’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Ben Abdulrahman Al Thani called for putting an end to the fighting taking place in many Arab countries, and “the importance of peace making and reconciliation efforts that were never so necessary as today”. He said that the fighting in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen must come to an end, warning of more radicalization if conflict continues. He added that “the people of the Middle East did not choose to live in environments of terrorism or sectarian violence, and history is witness that we believe in forgiveness and coexistence, regardless of our backgrounds whether race, religions or sects.”
As a strong ally of the United States, Qatar can be called upon to play a more active role in combating ISIS and terrorism, and to use its influence and leverage on the Muslim Brotherhood to significantly change their policies and avoid real and justified prospects of joining the terrorist organization list by the new U.S. administration and to work constructively to help bring peace and stability to the region.
Center for Transatlantic Relations SAIS