Egypt is the most populous, most militarily and culturally powerful nation in the Arab world. Qatar cannot boast such statistics, but can certainly boast of its wealth. A small Gulf State with only 2.1 million inhabitants (only 1 of 7 of which is native Qatari) but the world’s third largest reserves of natural gas and fourteenth largest reserves of oil, Qatar has, in recent years, strived to punch far above its weight in terms of its diplomatic influence on the region. The continued ambition of Qatar to be a major regional player, and the interest of Egypt in maintaining its sovereignity and regional influence has recently come to a head. New political axes have formed in the region, and it would not be far-fetched to suggest that something of a Middle Eastern Cold War is brewing in amongst recent political developments.
With that said, in order to comprehend Qatar’s motives to take such an audacious, and risky step, one must understand the context within which Qatari foreign policy came about.
The Sheikh Hamad: Father of Qatari Realpolitik
The Sheikh until June last year, Hamad al-Thani, was born in 1952. He did not grow up in a time that Qatar was so affluent. He was sent to the prestigeous British Officer’s Academy in Sandhurst, and returned to Qatar when it became independent in 1971. He shot through the ranks of the new nation’s military, eventually becoming Commander-in-Chief of its military.
In 1992, he was given responsibility for running the country’s day-to-day affairs. Three years later, in 1995, his father went on holiday to Switzerland and was quite simply told by Hamad not to come back- his father did eventually return to his country in 2004, but with his son as the new Sheikh. Following this coup, his obvious goal was to consolidate his place as monarch both internally and externally, which he carried out successfully until his abdication to his son Tamim in 2013.
The Ultimate Welfare State
With regard to domestic politics, the small native Qatari population was quite easily pacified thanks to the nation’s vast hydrocarbon reserves. Citizens do not have to pay taxes, and both healthcare and education are free. Housing is also heavily subsidised. Generous scholarships are also available for capable students. In addition to this, the country’s main welfare organ, Qatar Charity, takes care of the country’s orphans and the poorest echelons of Qatari society. Given these provisions, there exists but a minimal probability of any internal opposition to the estabishment, albeit an autocratic one, from ever arising.
Qatar’s Wealth as a Policy Tool
In respect to Qatar’s foreign policy, one of the Sheikh’s perogatives was a highly concerted effort to raise awareness in the West of his country’s growing influence. It has been argued that the reason for this publicity drive is an intention to avoid ‘small-state anonimity’, with retrospect to the invasion of the then-unknown Kuwait in 1990. This is particularly pertinent given the proximity of Qatar to an aggressive and expansionist Iran, with which it precariously shares the North Dome gas field, the largest in the world.
Examples of the country’s flamboyant public diplomacy campaign include the purchase of the Chelsea Barracks and Harrods’ Department Store in London, as well as owning 95% of Europe’s tallest tower, the Shard. It has also, akin to other Gulf nations, spent a considerable amount of money in funding Middle Eastern Studies departments in the West, including Oxford and Georgetown. The nation spent $230 million on a sponsorship deal with the renowned Barcelona Football Club in 2011. In the media, the state-funded Al Jazeera satellite and internet news provider is an increasingly popular and globally available source of information about the Middle East. To top it all, the tiny State won (or bought) the bid for the 2022 Football World Cup, for which it will spend a spectacular $150 billion in the next few years. From this publicity campaign, it is easy to see that Qatar has a strong desire to matter in the world. Yet, to achieve this, it must matter in its own region.
Qatari foreign policy was, up until quite recently, strongly aligned with that of nearby Gulf neighbours and the United States. It is a founding member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a loose political and economic union comprising Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman. The Al-Udeid Air Base hosts the American and British Air Forces, and the US Strategic Command for the Middle East moved just south of the Qatari capital Doha in 2003. It tried to independently, and quite neutrally, raise its profile as a major regional player by mediating numerous crises in Yemen, Eritrea, Lebanon and Sudan. Yet despite this seemingly standard policy, Qatar has, since the start of the Arab Spring, evolved its policy strategy into a much more aggressive and independent incarnation.
The Arab Spring, and Dubious New Friends
After the start of the Arab Spring, Sheikh Hamid made a point of supporting many anti-Establishment movements in Arab countries. This was a step that other Gulf Monarchies were far more reluctant to take, given the possibility of the ‘awakening’ coming too close to home. This is also pertinent as many of these opposition groups were in fact offshoots or affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood- an Islamist organisation which is generally opposed to the idea of monarchy.
Qatar began by supporting the Innahda Party of Tunisia in 2011, then by sending both troops and weapons Islamist rebels in Libya and pressuring Washington to topple the Gadhaffi regime. With the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, Qatar split with the Syrian government and eventually began arming Syrian rebel groups– a development that conveniently occurred around the same time as the Hamas split with the Assad regime, a coincidence which saw its leadership move from Damascus to Qatar. This meant that Qatar gained yet another ally in the Islamist and Muslim Brotherhood world, continuing the precedent set by its earlier Arab Spring policies.
Qatar’s Egyptian Headache
The extention of Qatari influence, however, soon began to step on the toes of other regional players. When longtime Gulf friend and ally, Hosni Mubarak, was overthrown in a popular revolution and the Islamist, Muhammed Morsi, came to power, Sheikh Hamad threw support behind the new President and his Muslim Brotherhood to the tune of over ten billion dollars. This support was not echoed by the other Gulf states, given the huge cultural influence of Egypt in the Arab world and the potential political issues that an Islamist Egypt could cause for them. Egypt continued to become a source of contention between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours and even after the ascension of the new Sheikh Tamim in June 2013, the Qatari policy of support for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood continued.
It backfired, however, giving way to the new Sheikh’s first diplomatic crisis. In July 2013, literally hours after Tamim formally became Sheikh, Muhammed Morsi was overthrown by the Egyptian military, causing Qatar to lose its entire financial and political investment in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Insult was added to injury when the other Gulf countries gave vocal support, as well as $12 billion in aid to the interim government soon after. With this, Qatar became widely perceived by Egypt as an enabler of the hated Muslim Brotherhood, and in November of that year, Egyptians burned Qatari flags outside of the Cairo Embassy. Tensions grew as Qatari diplomatic and media criticism of other Gulf States and the Egyptian Interim Government grew fiercer, as well as rumours of Qatar funding al-Qaeda linked rebels in Mali floated around. In early March 2014, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar. In terms of regional influence, this was nothing less than a huge blow to Qatar’s viability as a major actor.
After the election of coup engineer and former Egyptian Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi later in the same month, Qatari criticism of Egypt rocketed to the point where Al-Jazeera was simply banned in Egypt, with several of their journalists still in prison. Since then, Al-Jazeera and other Qatari-funded outlets have now taken a distinctively pro-Muslim Brotherhood stance, deeply criticising the current government. Qatar’s capital Doha is now a place of refuge for remnants of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and affiliated Salafist parties.
Short-Term Gains, Long-Term Losses
Its failed venture for influence in Egypt, however, is only one of numerous foreign policy failures for Qatar. In the rest of the post-Arab Spring world, Qatar’s other Muslim Brotherhood investments have quickly unravelled. In January 2014, the Tunisian Islamist Innahda Party gave up power. In Libya, secularists gained a definitive mandate to form a government in June elections, beating the Qatari-funded and the head of Libyan General Khalifa Haftar has continued his Operation Dignity, with the aim of dismantling the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood. In Syria, Qatari-backed Jihadist groups are becoming ever-more ostracised in political circles, and Muslim Brotherhood-related groups have lost their majority in the Syrian National Coalition. To make matters worse, Egypt ostentibly accused Qatari intelligence for a terror attack on its troops on July 21. Moreover, the German Development Minister accused Qatar of backing the universally vilified extremist group Islamic State. Now, more than ever, it requires a means of reclaiming some semblance of significance in the Middle East. Enter the Gaza Conflict.
The Gaza Redemption
Egypt has been the traditional mediator for ceasefires between Israel and Hamas, not only because of its geographical proximity to Israel and Gaza, but also because of its control of the Rafah Crossing, the only land link from Gaza to the rest of the world, and vice versa. The most recent example of an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire is that of November 2012, when Mohammed Morsi used his Muslim Brotherhood ties to effect a Hamas ceasefire, a popular move in Egypt and with the West. Given Qatar’s current and dire diplomatic predicament, it wishes to achieve something through the ceasefire but also to reclaim its mantle of being a trustworthy mediator for regional conflicts. More importantly for Qatar, there exists in mediating the Gaza Conflict an opportunity to undermine Egypt’s President al-Sisi, who is also deeply loathed by Hamas. On Wednesday, the Egyptian daily Al-Hayat reported that Qatar threatened to expel Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal from its capital if the Egyptian ceasefire agreement was met- particularly without the provisions of a seaport and airport being constructed in Gaza.
The reason for this Qatari threat is that, should Israel agree to allow an airport and seaport be built in Gaza, not only would Qatar finance it to great acclaim throughout the Arab world, but it would significantly reduce Egyptian influence over Gaza in terms of the influx of people and materials. Qatar has also lent support to a proposal of former Member of the Knesset, Azmi Bishara (who now resides in Doha), that would see the Egyptian Rafah Crossing placed under international control, further undermining Egypt’s power in Gaza. The sabotage of this ceasefire, broken by Hamas around 8pm on Tuesday, comes much to the ire of Israel and Egypt, both of which concur that Hamas is a terror group and that Egypt should be the party to mediate any ceasefire agreement. The other Gulf States, most of which have outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood and have a vested interest in the new Egyptian government, also agree with this.
The Formation of Blocs, and the Future
And so comes about a new, highly informal bloc of states with common goals in the region, valuing stability and opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood (with the added common security concern of Iran). Naturally occurring in opposition to this is the axis of Qatar and Hamas, both of which share the goals of keeping Hamas alive, undermining an unfriendly Egypt, improving conditions in Gaza, and above all: coming out of the situation looking like winners. Having also been remarkably critical of Israel, highly supportive of Gaza and with an Islamist government, Turkey stands as another possible player in this new, counter-Egyptian axis- although until the new Prime Minister (likely to be incumbent Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu) is appointed, that is a space to watch.
The breakdown of the Gaza ceasefire is a symptom of a wider battle between the two, now opposing sides of Egypt and Qatar. Gaza is likely to be an enduring flashpoint between the two sides, as Qatar’s still-new Sheikh desperately yearns for a visible foreign policy victory. Future Qatari policy outside of Gaza, however, is still difficult to discern. Continued inflammation of the Gaza Conflict until a favourable resolution is found is a likelihood. Enhanced support for the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, a major thorn in the side of Egypt, is a possibility. Regardless, it is not unreasonable to infer from these recent events the dawn of a Middle Eastern Cold War.