by Neville Teller
The tiny state of Qatar has spent most of the past thirty years fighting for a prominent position on the world stage. It has won through. Qatar’s latest role – acting as a mediator between the Taliban’s political leaders and former Afghan officials – has confirmed its place at the world’s diplomatic top table.
Its position has a solid track record behind it. Over the past year Qatar has hosted talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, and before that, initiated by the Trump administration, between the Taliban and the United States. Doha, Qatar’s capital, was the setting for that series of face-to-face negotiations. They resulted in the formal agreement of February 29, 2020 that envisaged an orderly withdrawal of US and other foreign forces, backed by an undertaking by the Taliban to engage in peace talks with the Afghan government. President Biden, announcing that the US would leave by the end of August 2021 regardless, effectively tore up the Doha deal and gave the Taliban carte blanche to topple the government and take over the country. The Taliban’s founder and political head, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who had exiled himself to Qatar, returned to Afghanistan a few days ago.
Mediation between the Taliban and what is left of the previous Afghan administration now rests on Qatar. Washington acknowledges Qatar’s key role in the crisis. On August 20 Biden spoke on the phone with Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim al-Thani, thanking him for Qatar’s efforts in the peace process.
Even before the Afghanistan debacle, Qatar had become recognized as a regional power broker because of its major role in the delicate Israel-Hamas-Palestinian situation in Gaza. On August 19 Qatar achieved a breakthrough when it signed a deal with the United Nations to resume supplying cash to Gazan families. The deal, which involves providing more than 100,000 families with $100 per month, may not have been sufficient to prevent further border skirmishes, but some commentators believe it has averted a resumption of full-scale hostilities between Hamas and Israel, allowing the Egyptian-led peace negotiations to continue.
How has this Gulf state – a small peninsula projecting into the Persian Gulf – won for itself such an influential position?
Its bid for global status can, perhaps, be traced back to 1995 when Sheik Hamad al-Thani ousted his father, who was on an extended summer vacation in Europe, and pronounced himself Emir. Surviving a countercoup backed by Saudi Arabia, Sheik Hamad, together with his wife and prime minister, set out to convert Qatar into a high-powered modern state.
His first big achievement was to launch the Al Jazeera television news network. Al Jazeera claimed from the start that its journalists and editors provided an objective service independent of state control – a claim often contested over the years. Today the media giant that it has become still proclaims “Al Jazeera is an independent news organization funded in part by the Qatari government.”
In pursuit of its aspiration to become a major player in the region and beyond, Qatar’s tactics have sometimes puzzled, sometimes infuriated, its neighbors. But then, as one of the world’s wealthiest nations – and certainly number one on a per capita basis – Qatar has reckoned for a long time that it could afford the luxury of proceeding along its own preferred path, without too much concern for what others thought.
For example, Qatar’s strategy of backing Islamists − from Hamas in Gaza, to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, to hard-line Syrian opposition fighters − while at the same time offering itself as a key US ally, was rooted in pragmatism: Qatar wanted to extend its influence in the region by being friends with everybody. “We don’t do enemies,” Qatar’s one-time foreign minister is reported to have said, “we talk to everyone.”
This worthy objective is apparently inconsistent, in Qatari eyes, with signing up to the Abraham Accords. When Qatar was mooted as one of the Arab states likely to embrace normalization with Israel, it was quick to issue a denial.
Qatar’s wayward policies, especially with regard to Islamist groups, had long infuriated its neighboring Arab states, and on 5 June 2017 Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar for a second time, and virtually imposed a trade blockade.
For three-and-a-half years Qatar withstood the worst that the Egypt-led alliance could inflict, and in January 2021 diplomatic relations were restored without any concessions on Qatar’s part. In the interim Qatar had transformed itself into a major diplomatic player and a generous donor of foreign aid. Its ultra-modern capital Doha was full of skyscrapers, the country had become a commercial hub, and it was well on its way to becoming a cultural, sports and tourist center for the Gulf as a whole – a position likely to be consolidated when Qatar hosts the FIFA World Cup in the winter of 2022.
The tournament kicks off on Monday, November 21 and the final will be played at the Lusail Stadium in Doha a week before Christmas on Sunday December 18. Although Israel does not have diplomatic relations with Qatar, the head of the Qatari organizing committee, Hassan al-Thawadi, confirmed back in 2019 that Israelis will be able to enter the country as tourists to attend World Cup matches. “Everyone is welcome,” he said. ”We do not mix sport and politics, but we would hope that Palestinians are able to make it too.”
The US and Qatar have often failed to see eye to eye, but the connections are strong. At al-Udeid, about 20 miles from Doha, the US Air Force has a base servicing its Central Command which covered US forces in Afghanistan. But while welcoming the US Air Force, Qatar allowed the Taliban to establish a political office in Doha.
Qatar’s declared aim has been to create a space in the Gulf region where differing parties, even rivals and enemies, could do deals. In this it has succeeded. The effort has been long and sustained. Khalid al-Attiyah, the Qatari foreign minister, spoke about it eight years ago at Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House.
“Our country considers that political solutions require the representation and participation of all parties to the conflict, no matter how difficult and controversial,” he said. “It is our belief that only such preconditions can allow for viable, legitimate and ultimately long-term resolution to conflicts.”
A quarter of a century ago Qatar set its sights on playing in the big league. Few would deny that it has won its place there.
The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is: “Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020”. Follow him at: www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com