Qatar: regional backwater to global player

By Michael Stephens
Researcher, RUSI Qatar, Doha

  • Published
Doha sky line

'Known for being unknown'; such was Qatar, the tiny Persian Gulf state that often appeared merely as an appendage to its neighbour Saudi Arabia. Members of Qatar's ruling Al Thani family had so often deferred to Riyadh for fear of causing tension or attracting undue attention to themselves.

Quiet and inoffensive was the modus operandi of the Qataris for so long. Rich in oil and gas, they were poor in manpower and the state resources necessary to defend themselves against the region's dominant powers.

But the Emirate has seen a remarkable transformation in recent years.

Qatar is everywhere, utilising its immense wealth to buy skyscrapers, football clubs, hotels, rare art collections, support rebellions in the Arab region, and play a central role in the diplomatic affairs of Arab politics.

Palace coup

So why has this country, so long a regional backwater, become a player on the global stage?

Today's Qatar is the product of 17 years of stable rule by Emir Hamad bin Khalifah Al Thani, who took power from his father Khalifah in the most peaceable of coups.

Image caption,
Sheik Hamad bin Khalifah Al Thani has transformed Qatar in the last two decades

Old Khalifah - content to spend his days on the French Riviera - did not possess the ambitions of his son, whose desire to secure Qatar was sharpened by the experience of Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, a similarly tiny hydrocarbon rich state surrounded by larger rivals.

The ability of Saddam's forces to overrun the Emirate set in motion a series of initiatives by the then Crown Prince Hamad to ensure that his own nation did not meet the same fate.

To be secure Qatar could no longer be the quiet man of the Gulf, it had to become useful to a world who would then have a vested interest in protecting it.

Most important of all it should be useful to the United States, the only power capable of securing Qatar's survival.

Knowing US presence on Saudi soil after the Gulf War was untenable, Qatar provided the perfect alternative and a US base was established on Qatari soil in 1992.

It has since become the Headquarters of Centcom, responsible for coordinating US operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Reform and transformation

But being useful to the world involves more than just having troops on your soil.

The future Emir realised that in order for the world to notice Qatar, it would have to make itself noticed.

Hamad's assumption of power in 1995 heralded immediate changes.

He established Al Jazeera the Arab world's ubiquitous television network, and began programmes to upgrade Qatar's educational, healthcare and infrastructure facilities funded by massive increases in hydrocarbon production.

More recently the country bid for and successfully won the right to host the Asian Games in 2006 and the FIFA World Cup in 2022. This once closed off and quiet country is now opening its arms to the world.

Qatar has seen an influx of institutes, art galleries, think tanks and research centres that also serve to build civic and cultural dialogue in the country.

Discussions of issues of the day, particularly amongst the youth, are encouraged. Centres of academic excellence regularly hold debates about foreign policy issues and domestic concerns facing the country.

Wealth and privilege

Qataris, traditionally a highly passive and apathetic people when dealing with political questions, are now being imbued with a sense that they must begin to contribute more.

Ideas are seeping into this most traditional of Islamic societies from all over the world. Qatar is becoming a melting pot for modernism and traditional Islamic values.

Young Qataris grow up in this environment and into a land of wealth and privilege very different from their parents, most of whom experienced so little of the modern world that they did not even know their own date of birth.

Where older generations favoured traditionalism, younger generations consistently push back the frontiers of social norms.

Even in this most conservative of countries it is not unusual to see young men and women holding hands or dating in public spaces, much to the chagrin of the country's traditional and religiously conservative families.

Understandably this has not been a wholly comfortable process.

Qataris know the tale of their next door neighbour Dubai, who by opening its arms to the world subsumed traditional Emirati culture in favour of westernisation, and all the vices that came with it.

Beneath all the gleaming buildings and money Qataris are still a traditional people. Islam is still important in their lives and whilst they openly embrace many of the benefits of globalisation there is an attempt to limit the Western vices that swept into Dubai.

Hybrid state

Furthermore, in the Qatar of 2012 the locals make up just 15% of the population of the country. Asserting their culture in the face of an overwhelming influx of foreigners is an issue of crucial importance to Qataris.

Image caption,
Qatar has a small army but has actively supported revolutions in Syria and Libya

Qatar will not become another Dubai is the oft-repeated phrase that you hear from the local population.

With ultraconservative Riyadh to the West, and effusively liberal Dubai to the East, Qatar seeks instead to become a genuine hybrid state that manages to conserve Gulf culture and tradition, but with more open and tolerant social attitudes.

The pathway may take some years to navigate and may be a little bumpy along the way. The influx of one million alcohol-fuelled football fans in 2022 is a cause for some concern. Quite how Qataris will tolerate the sight of openly drunk foreigners walking around their streets is a question no one yet has an answer to.

In foreign affairs the country has also become hyperactive. The Arab Spring has marked a turning point for Qatar in the eyes of the world.

The Emirate has ridden on the wave of popular movements across the region and actively supported the fall of dictators in both Libya and Syria. It has supported growing populist Islamist movements across the region with money, diplomatic action and even weapons.

Qatar's attempts to solve the Arab world's problems have met with mixed reactions, especially from those who believe Qatar operates a double standard in its attempts to support revolutions against dictators in the Arab world, or place itself in the middle of diplomatic disputes in other countries.

It is after all still an absolute monarchy and whilst proposed elections in 2013 may be the first major step in renegotiating the bargain between citizen and state it is unclear just how far that process will be continued in coming years.

Breakneck speed

Image caption,
Qatari women celebrate their country's successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup

However the path forged by Qatar's ruling elite has merged the priorities of foreign policy with the need for domestic change, and the two seemingly separate spheres are more interlinked than many outsiders think.

The regional aspirations of the Emir to change the Arab world into a more active, capable and effective collective is also reflected in the social changes that he seeks to inculcate into his own citizenry.

The adventurism in foreign affairs and the rapid development at home stem from the same basic premise; to push the Arabs into a more engaged, 'modern' and globally competitive people, first by encouragement and financial inducement, but also by force if necessary.

Qatar is the product of incredible oil and gas wealth, a ruling elite with a vision, and a local population willing to accept the dictates of that elite.

The country is moving at breakneck speed away from its past and towards a new and unknown future. It has its share of plaudits and detractors alike, but what cannot be denied is that Qatar is now on the map and is destined to be for some time yet.