Analysis: Qatar’s foreign policy – the old and the new

Recent regional events have influenced Qatari foreign policy, but have not changed its fundamentals.

Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, Emir of Qatar, speaks during the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters [AP]

Since attaining independence in 1971, Qatari foreign policy has passed through various phases. Two turning points have marked its development: the transfer of power to Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani in 1995 and his recent abdication of power to Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani in June 2013.

Like in other Gulf states, Qatar’s foreign policy was generally in agreement with the foreign policy of the Saudi government until the mid-1990’s, when Doha carved its own independent path under the leadership of Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani.

Adopting an “open” foreign policy, which relied on soft power tools such as media, diplomacy, education, culture, sports, tourism, economy and humanitarian aid, Doha’s strategy was based on good relations with neighbours, the formation of strategic alliances with major and medium powers and the building of a brand.

Since the current ruler came to power after his father abdicated in June 2013 (a move unprecedented in modern Arab history), the Arab region has undergone several substantial changes that have reshaped the geopolitical landscape and regional power balances. The most significant of these are: the ousting of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, the escalation of the conflict in Libya, the territorial expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and the Houthi takeover of major state institutions in Yemen.

Each of these events, among others, has undoubtedly impacted Doha’s foreign policy.

The impact of the Arab Spring 

Qatar’s international relations doctrine focuses on the consolidation of peace and stability, as proscribed by its constitution. It is based on the principles of encouraging settlement of international disputes by peaceful means, supporting the right of people to self-determination, non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, and cooperation with peace-loving nations.

Since the mid-1990s successive Qatari governments have upheld these principles. Before the outbreak of the so-called “Arab Spring”, then Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani adopted diplomacy that focused on mediation and conflict resolution. Doha assumed the role of mediator in almost every regional conflict: from Sudan to Eritrea, Lebanon to the Palestine, and Somalia to Yemen.

When Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani came to power, Qatar’s style of diplomacy changed significantly, in line with various recent developments in the region, particularly in Egypt, Iraq and Syria.

The positive results of this mediatory role secured recognition and credibility for Qatar at both the regional and international levels; this was the case with Qatar’s mediation of the 2007 release of the Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor from detention in Libya and the Lebanon agreement of May 2008.

For fifteen years, Qatar’s foreign policy was distinguished by its neutrality and impartiality, until December 2010 when the outbreak of the “Arab Spring” protests catalysed a historic shift in the political landscape of the region.

Consequently, the country’s international image changed, with Qatar being regarded as an active supporter rather than a conciliating mediator. Qatar participated in military action in April 2011 under the NATO-led international coalition against the forces of the late Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. As part of the Arab League, Qatar also called for Arab troops to be sent to Syria to stop the bloodshed there.

The Arab Spring and Qatar’s consistent position on it, as well as the positions of international and regional powers, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), provided an opportunity to begin a new phase in Qatari foreign policy, aligned with the vision of Doha’s political leadership at the time.

Qatar’s policy of “impact and influence” has enjoyed considerable success, thanks to the changing political climate and divided geopolitical structures across the region under the influence of the Arab Spring. This substantial shift in Qatar’s foreign policy appears to reflect its confidence both in independent decision-making and its ability to perform on par with other countries in the region.

A shift to ‘smart power’

When Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani came to power, Qatar’s style of diplomacy changed significantly, in line with various recent developments in the region, particularly in Egypt, Iraq and Syria. Qatar’s foreign policy tools underwent a remarkable development with respect to the conceptualisation of both soft power and smart power. These developments forced the Qatari leadership to adapt and rationally reshape its policies in accordance with changing priorities.

Qatar’s diplomatic moves were somewhat quiet when compared with its previous stance, which can be attributed to the young Emir’s desire to strategically shape his country’s foreign policy, combining both soft and hard power approaches, while maintaining the constitutional principles underpinning Qatar’s foreign policy.

The new Qatari leadership is paying increased attention to internal affairs, especially since the country appears to be the target of a systematic campaign by Western media, supported by several organisations and countries that do not agree with Qatar’s foreign policy on various regional issues. It is worth noting here that Qatari officials do not deny that there are problems and deficits regarding the rights of expatriate labourers. The relevant state departments have initiated legislation to address those problems, especially since Qatar seeks to implement and achieve its sustainable development goals by 2030. It is also preparing to host international sports tournaments, most importantly the World Handball Championship in 2015 and the FIFA World Cup in 2022.

Qatar’s decision-makers have adopted an open-door policy for dialogue with all parties wherever feasible, with an explicit emphasis on not excluding any group from the political scene. Because this stance contradicts that of certain neighbouring countries which chose to confront some political Islam movements, it has fuelled disagreements within the GCC, and led to three members withdrawing their ambassadors from Doha in March 2014. Undoubtedly, this constituted the biggest challenge that Sheikh Tamim faced during the first year of his reign. This unprecedented crisis in the history of intra-GCC relations highlighted Qatar’s autonomous political decision-making and its capacity to maintain an independent strategy without necessarily being hostile to other regional countries.

The reaction from Qatar’s side showed its flexibility and willingness to overcome the crisis and was reinforced in the Emir’s speeches in Germany and at the UN in September 2014, as well as in his interview for CNN. An analysis of these events highlights new and old features of Qatar’s foreign policy, which suggests that it has been adjusted without compromising the fundamental principles laid out in the constitution.

The principle of mediation remains one of its most important features, with Doha becoming a model in solving regional and international conflicts and earning its status as the “Geneva of the Mashreq”.

In recent international forums Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani has called for a culture of dialogue and “preventive diplomacy” through pre-emptive peaceful methods rather than pre-emptive war, and has supported governments implementing gradual reforms. All signs suggest that Doha wishes to explore more flexible approaches than those adopted after the outbreak of the Arab Spring, without changing its foreign policy fundamentals.

It is worth mentioning the consistency with which Qatari decision-makers have supported the rights of Arab nations to demand freedom and dignity and their right to a better life rather than a forced choice between the tyranny of authoritarian regimes and the terrorism of jihadist organisations resulting from these tyrannies.

Dr Jamal Abdullah is a researcher specialising in Gulf affairs at Al Jazeera Centre for Studies.