Middle East

Qatar casts size aside with assertive foreign policy

Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani (right)
Image caption Qatar has become deeply involved in regional issues under Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani

The spectacular skyline of Doha has become symbolic of the wealth and development which now characterise this once impoverished country.

A former pearl-fishing centre, Qatar emerged in the 1990s as one of the richest countries in the world, thanks to the exploitation of large oil and gas fields since the 1940s.

The tiny Gulf state is teeming with construction sites, cranes and roadworks, testament to its rapid growth. But Qatar is not satisfied with being just a wealthy country - it wants to be seen as a serious regional power as well.

It is a role it is already carving out for itself, for example having mediated in peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel, and having opened offices in Doha for the Afghan Taliban.

Image caption Qatar has undergone an economic revolution since the mid-1990s

And, in sharp contrast to its neighbours, Qatar openly supports both the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and the militant Hamas movement. It has hosted Hamas' political leader Khaled Meshaal since he was kicked out of Damascus for supporting the anti-government protests.

It is a foreign policy principle of Qatar that in the search for peace and stability no-one should be excluded and everyone should be engaged with.

New approach

In his residence in Doha Mr Meshaal was confident Qatar will not bow to external pressure to expel him from the country.

"Qatar is courageous enough to host us and they don't accept to be dictated by anyone. We respect their rules and appreciate their support," he said.

Image caption Qatar's hosting of Islamists Khaled Meshaal (c) and Yusuf Al-Qaradawi (l) has angered neighbours

It is an example of what Jaber al-Harmi, editor-in-chief of Al Sharq, one of Qatar's leading papers, sees as an attempt by the emirate to forge a new approach to dealing with the region's problems.

"Qatar tried to suggest a new attitude in the Arabic sphere and wanted to say that there is another view to what's prevailing," he said.

This became apparent at the start of the Arab Spring in 2011.

Qatar's government publicly supported protests in the region and its leading pan-Arab news channel Al Jazeera gave voice to those opinions.

"Qatar believed that it had to side with the Arab streets, the people and their aspirations for reforms and freedoms. What distinguished Qatar is its transparency in its policies," said Mr Harmi.

Al Jazeera's audience grew during the upheavals, but the channel has been accused of being biased and politicised.

'Media slant'

Its coverage caused fallout between Qatar and other Arab countries, particular Syria and Egypt, where its journalists were imprisoned by the government.

Syria has repeatedly accused Al Jazeera of faking news. Syrian pro-government media denied any protests were taking place in the country, saying Al Jazeera was staging scenes in its studios in Doha.

Image caption Al Jazeera chief Yasser Abou Hilaleh: "In the Arab world, people don't separate between states and media"

But the channel's Director General Yasser Abou Hilaleh says criticism levelled against Al Jazeera is unfair.

"In the Arab world, people don't separate between states and media. We are working in very difficult, sensitive and dangerous circumstances. Media is a main player and all parties deal with it as a major player."

Mr Abou Hilaleh says, contrary to a popular view, Al Jazeera's coverage is not dictated by Qatar's foreign policy.

"When I worked for Al Jazeera as a correspondent and now as a director, in both cases, we have nothing to do with Qatar's foreign policy. But in certain countries, our offices are treated as embassies for Qatar.

"Eventually there is a mutual influence that we can't ignore. Governments that have bad relations with Qatar, will have bad relations with us"

Jihadist links?

Qatar's government has supported opposition groups in many Arab countries, and especially in Syria.

It is, for instance, the only country that has an accredited ambassador to the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC).

But there are questions surrounding Qatar's role in Syria, and the extent to which they support not just mainstream but also Islamist and jihadist groups there.

Image caption Qatar hosts the US's most vital air base in the region

It has used its influence with jihadists on occasions, such as mediating the release in March 2014 of nuns who had been abducted by the al-Qaeda-linked group the Nusra Front.

Husam al-Hafez, a former Syrian diplomat who defected to Doha, sees Qatar's policy as pragmatic.

"I believe that Qatar like some other countries has some good connections with all Syrians and with most of the factions on the ground. The fact that most of the factions nowadays are Islamists means that you have to deal with them on a daily basis. That's a positive role to play by mediators."

Qatar today is part of a Saudi-led coalition attacking Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen. It is viewed by many as a proxy war where Sunni Arab countries are trying to stop what they see as Shia Iranian expansion in the region.

Qatar regards Iranian influence as a major threat, and is trying to prevent it strengthening in Syria, where it bolsters the regime with weapons and military advisers.

So far, Doha has achieved some foreign policy successes. There was reconciliation with the Gulf Co-operation Council after a brief fallout and Qatar has mended relations with Saudi Arabia, especially over the issue of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Its policy of inclusion rather than exclusion seems to be working for the moment. But squaring up to Iran is a complex problem, and not one which looks like being solved any time soon.