Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani speaks to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during celebrations marking Bastille Day on July 14, 2008 in Paris [GALLO/GETTY]

For a thumb-sized nation, Qatar packs an unlikely diplomatic punch. Western observers see the geographically tiny nation as an example of diplomatic leverage without the "hard" or "soft" power that normally provide ballast for such international ventures. 

"Hard power" is determined by military assets and the ability of a nation to project its protective umbrella abroad, while its "soft" equivalent is a measure of a country's normative influence.

Joseph Nye, an international relations expert who coined the concept of hard and soft power and author of Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (2004), sees a distinctive niche for Qatar on the global stage.

Nye, who is also Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, says Qatar's stature was given a boost particularly in the wake of its successful mediation to end a protracted political stalemate in Lebanon.

That achievement was crowned at a four-way summit with France, Syria and Lebanon in Paris a few days ago.

"Qatar has managed to find an important diplomatic niche between the West and the Arab nationalist mainstream, which it backs up with its considerable financial resources," Nye told Al Jazeera from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Mediating difficult crises 

The Harvard academic is not alone in his recognition of Qatar's ability to mediate difficult crises in a perennially fraught region, but an important question does pose itself - how did Qatar become a diplomatic player in the Middle East?

It is definitely not for want of other regional heavy hitters - Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey have for years tried to mediate crises in the region.

More importantly, success in Lebanon came after much greater global players had tried and washed their hands of what they saw as an impossible situation with irreconcilable egos and interests.

Last May, Western nations were priming themselves for yet another evacuation of their nationals from Lebanon, similar to the exodus in the summer of 2006 when Lebanon fought an all-out war with Israel.

(Canada had evacuated 15,000 of its citizens in 2006, and had a similar number registered with its mission in Beirut even as the Lebanese power vacuum played out on Beirut's streets.) 

Writing about the Qatari leader's role, a commentator recently wrote in the Beirut-based Daily Star: "Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani enjoys the trust of the different parties in the Middle East because of his willingness to talk to the Syrians, Iranians, Israelis, Hamas and Hezbollah."

Analysts in Washington and Ottawa agree, generally, but there is much more to diplomacy than just a felicity with dialogue and talking to all sides.

Diplomatic assets

Qatar's mediation broke the Lebanese deadlock [AFP]
While lacking in conventional hard and soft diplomatic assets, Qatar brought all that it has to bear while rolling out its hard-knuckled initiative in Lebanon.

Part of its standing, of course, is the reality of its military alliance with the US, manifested through the largest American pre-positioning base, the largest air base in the Middle East, and the headquarters of the US Central Command. 

While the strength of an economy is not ordinarily seen as hard power, hard currency definitely helps.

In this case, the tiny Gulf nation has compensated for its limited footprint by investing billions in Lebanon's reconstruction, especially in South Beirut and other Hezbollah strongholds immediately after the 2006 war.

As one diplomatic observer pointed out, this brought Hezbollah onside, but also established an independent benign beachhead for Qatar in Lebanon's political landscape.

Sense of the dramatic

Patrick Theros, a former US ambassador to Qatar and currently president of the US-Qatar Business Council, also credits the Gulf nation with possessing a "sense of the dramatic".

He points to the fact that it was a Qatar Airways aircraft that made the first landing at Beirut airport during the 2006 war, amid the fighting. Similarly, he points to the Qatari invitation extended to Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, the Iranian president, at a summit of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders. 

Theros says that Doha has had a keen ear to the ground by paying heed to popular movements in its neighbourhood and also listening closely to the views of expatriates who live in the country.

"Qatar definitely practises the maxim of holding your friends close, and your enemies even closer," the retired US diplomat said. 

So, what might be a sequel? A possible intervention to end the brinkmanship over Iran's nuclear programme?

That would be nothing short of a diplomatic coup. 

George Abraham is Contributing Editor of Diplomat and International Canada, published from Ottawa.

Source: Al Jazeera