No matter where you turn today in the Middle East, it is hard to miss the obvious political and economic influence that the small, gulf state of Qatar is having on the region.
A proud nation of around two million people, Qatar rests on vast oil and natural gas reserves that has given it extraordinary wealth and with it the title of having the world’s highest per capital income. It is in no small part then that this vast fortune has partly spared this country of the levels of unrest and violence that swept through the region beginning in 2010.
As other Arab countries witnessed great upheavals of change, from Tunisia to Libya, Egypt to Syria, Qatar has played a crucial role and has had a front row seat to the transformation of the region and the ushering in of new governments.
The rule of Emir Hamad bin Khalifia al-Thani, who overthrew his father in a bloodless coup in 1995 , brought with him a more progressive role in Arab affairs that elevated his nation’s status to that of a regional power. While the characteristics of what makes a country a ‘power’ can certainly be debated, the Arab Spring put on full display the prominence of Qatar, which in turn has truly caught the attention of the Western world.
Now that his son Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has assumed the role of emir, will anything change? From his first inaugural speech to the nation on Wednesday, he spoke of broad domestic issues and remained assertive over foreign policy but did not mention any significant changes to Qatar's social status quo.
Take for instance Libya and the role that Doha played in assisting NATO in setting up a no-fly zone. It sent several fighter jets to help in this operation and some reports indicated that it deployed Special Forces to help the rebel fighters against Qaddafi.
A September 2011 Foreign Affairs article by David Roberts reads:
“Qatari special forces reportedly provided basic infantry training to Libyan rebel fighters in the Nafusa Mountains, to the west of Tripoli, and eastern Libya. The Qatari military even brought Libyan fighters back to Doha for special exercises.”
While Qatar is not a new player in the affairs of the region , it was not lost on the West the role that the country played in defeating Qaddafi and allowed the Libyan people the chance to be free for the first time in decades.
President Obama summed it up quite well by saying on April 14, 2011 that “we would not have been able, I think, to shape the kind of broad-based international coalition that includes not only our NATO members but also includes Arab states, without the Emir's leadership. He is motivated by a belief that the Libyan people should have the rights and freedoms of all people.”
We have seen a strong push in Syria by the Qatari government. Emir al-Thani was a stark advocate early on of suspending Syria from the Arab League and often fought with Damascus on the Security Council during early deliberations of how to address the conflict. Qatar openly welcomed the Syrian National Coalition to the Arab League summit in March and allowed them to open an embassy in Doha. Perhaps most prominently, though never officially confirmed, the Qatari government has been supplying arms to the opposition.
As the United States and the West continue to discuss whether to arm the opposition and provide it with aid beyond non-lethal assistance, Qatar has seemingly provided the opposition with weapons for some time now and has collaborated with the CIA and other countries to do so.
From an economic standpoint, Qatar has dished out millions of dollars to several countries affected by the Arab Spring. Doha agreed to offer Egypt and the Morsi government aid worth around $3 billion dollars, in addition to previously announced aid of $5 billion dollars. This all comes as Morsi continues discussions with the International Monetary Fund on an aid package to help Cairo recover from its economic crisis.
In Libya, Qatar was an early financial supporter of the National Transitional Council by offering oil and other refined products including gasoline.
In 2012 Qatar provided a $500 million loan to the Tunisian government to help boost the economy.
Qatar has also pledged money to Gaza, including $400 million to Hamas in late 2012 after the Emir visited the Gaza strip, becoming the first head of state to do so.
So what is Qatar trying to achieve by its progressive agenda in the region? The money it dishes out doesn’t appear to come with too many strings attached and in many cases it doesn’t demand the money back it loans. It is a strong supporter of Arab rights and serves as a counterweight against Iran and its determined ambition to increase its influence in the region. So while al-Thani is a strong defender of the will of Arab peoples to express themselves and control their own destiny, shouldn’t the Qatari Emir do the same at home?
The United States State Department in its 2012 Human Rights Report on Qatar said:
“the principal human rights problems were the inability of citizens to change their government peacefully, restriction of fundamental civil liberties, and pervasive denial of expatriate workers’ rights. The monarch-appointed government prohibited organized political parties and restricted civil liberties, including freedoms of speech, press, and assembly and access to a fair trial for persons held under the Protection of Society Law and Combating Terrorism Law.”
The United States has had a strong relationship with the Emir and that was again demonstrated on his visit to the White House on April 23. President Obama seemed to allude to the influence of Qatar in his remarks by saying that “Qatar is also an important country in the region, and has an influence that extends beyond its relatively small population.”
Many articles and theories have been published as to why Qatar and other oil-rich Arab countries have been spared the change brought on by the Arab Spring. We can look at its vast wealth accumulated from its resources and to the relatively small percentage of native Qataris versus its expatriate population. But with perhaps the exception of Saudi Arabia, no other country in the Gulf, has been as crucial in Arab affairs, especially in the last few years.
So with the important role it has been playing in the region, does it not have a responsibility to change at home? Would this not provide the Emir an opportunity to open up society and allow his people the freedom of speech, press, assembly and other liberties that they desire?
Qatar has been front and center in many of the changes that continue to play out throughout the region. The moral, political and economic assistance it has provided the people from Syria to Tunisia points to it being on the right side of history. The question here is will the Emir allow his people to speak their mind and express themselves more openly?
With power comes responsibility and now is the time for the government to exercise that responsibility. The responsibility to open up and allow Qataris the same liberties and not just champion them for people abroad. Time will certainly tell whether or not Emir al-Thani, or his son, continues to be on the right side of history or if he will remain silent in Doha and not allow his people more freedom and liberties. I certainly hope it is the former and not the latter.
by Garret Pustay