According to prominent international relations theories, nations with significant hard power are influential in decisions on global affairs. Conflict mediation, considered among these decisions, is an area preferably allocated to global powers. The main reason behind such a tendency was these nations' worldwide dominance and their ability to enforce implementation by the actors involved. Reality has proven the limitation of these international relations theories. The last decades have witnessed the emergence of small nations which have shown their proficiency in conflict mediation. Among them, Norway and Qatar are two that have developed their international presence through mediation. The role of Qatar has significant importance since it’s a part of the world's most conflicted area.
by Anshad Usef
States within the Middle East tend to have ideological and political lineage towards regional powers. Proxy wars and sectarian clashes in the region have transformed it into a hazardous area globally. The factors behind this development are its dependency on other states, sectarian emotions and political affinity. The underlying causes of the conflicts in the region will have traits of one or more of these factors. Qatar, a small country with a prosperous economy, has been able to avoid these traits. In this context, it is interesting to examine the role Qatar takes in conflict mediation initiatives in the Middle East.
Until the 1990's Qatar was considered, in the international arena, to be a Saudi protectorate. From the beginning of the 21st century, Qatar increased its political engagement on the international level. It was evident that Doha will no longer be dependent on Riyadh. Consequently, the WTO Doha round in 2001 was a breakthrough for Qatar and the following years witnessed more intervention in global events.
Qatar's intervention in the Lebanon Crisis of 2008
After its independence from French rule in 1943, Lebanon witnessed several civil wars based on religious tension. The civil war between 1975 to 1990 was considered to be the most brutal one. The fighting resulted in the death of around 90,000 civilians, and two-thirds of the Lebanese population became displaced (Sune, 2011). The war also destroyed Lebanon’s infrastructure and, eventually, the total collapse of its economic sector. After the end of the civil war in 1990, it returned to a stable democratic system.
The crisis of 2008 instilled a fear in the Lebanese citizens and the international community whether it would return to a civil war as in 1975.
The crisis of 2008 instilled a fear in the Lebanese citizens and the international community whether it would return to a civil war as in 1975. The Lebanese government tried to decrease the influence of Hezbollah, a Shia militia group, by cutting down its telecommunications network and sacking officials suspected of involvement with the group. This resulted in the occupation of Hezbollah forces in parts of Beirut and, consequently, shutting down major air- and seaports. For a country like Lebanon, which was slowly emerging from the destruction of civil war, it would be unthinkable for them to overcome another conflict. In May 2008, both parties involved in the conflict reached an agreement supported by Qatar as a mediator. The two sides agreed on a framework for new parliamentary elections in 2009 and, under the auspices of the new president, to start a dialogue that would lead Hezbollah to lay down its arm. As a result, with its mediation, Qatar succeeded in averting civil war in Lebanon.
Hamas and Fatah unification attempts
The Palestine-Israel conflict has an evident presence in the geopolitics of the Middle East. The scattered Palestine resistance movements were considered to be an obstacle in the path to Israeli - Palestine peace talks. Both Gaza Strip and West Bank were governed by two different Palestine resistance movements - Hamas and Fatah. The unification of these two parties was crucial for an organised Palestinian society. The Fatah–Hamas Doha agreement of 2012 was an attempt towards such a result. Both parties agreed to end more than four years of separate governance in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and the Fatah-controlled West Bank. Furthermore, they decided to form an interim unity government to prepare for presidential and parliamentary elections. However, the agreement has not been successful because of internal disputes in the representation of the interim government.
US - Taliban peace talks
The American intervention in Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11 is considered the longest war in US history. Even though Washington attained its objective in the initial year of battle, the re-emergence of Taliban rebels turned the war into a stalemate.
Consequently, the US realised that military victory was unattainable, and the economic and military costs of the conflict became untenable. Eventually, the US and Taliban found a way to end this conflict. As a first step, Qatar allowed the Taliban to open an office in Doha in 2013. It is considered to be the first office of the Taliban outside Afghanistan after the US intervention.
In the following years, Doha supported and facilitated peace talks between the US and the Taliban. In 2020, both parties agreed to a ceasefire and eventual US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Building on these three particular case studies, the following policies of Qatar can be considered as an influence on its increasing role as a mediator in the region.
Infrastructure and the economic sector are among the first to collapse with the rise of conflicts. Rebuilding this is a difficult task for the warring parties. In the mediation process, the development of the regions after the conflict must have a particular priority. Studies of mediation have demonstrated that financial aid offered by mediators to the involved parties for reconstruction can have different outcomes in different cases. Although largely inconclusive, these studies suggest that material incentives and cooperation offered to the weaker party tend to decrease the level of conflicts (Schrodt, 2004). We can see that Qatar has invested heavily in the regions where it has mediated to end wars.
If we look at, for example, the new Afghanistan administration under the Taliban, Qatar has donated around $50 million in aid. Apart from that, 188 tonnes of food and medical assistance were shipped to the country (MOFA Qatar, 2021). Doha also sent a specialised technical team to work on repairs to Kabul International Airport to allow the arrival of vital humanitarian aid and the movement of people to establish safe corridors to deliver urgent assistance.
As a result form the fighting in May more than 4,000 Gaza homes were destroyed or damaged, with losses estimated by the World Bank up to $380m.
In the case of Palestine, Qatar was one of the top foreign contributors. Doha focussed on addressing the humanitarian crisis in both Gaza and West Bank. In May 2021, the Israel-Palestine conflict escalated, resulting in the highest number of civilians’ death after the 2014 war. Even after the fighting ended, Israel shut down all aid towards Gaza Strip. In August, as an effort from Qatar, Israel allowed Doha to send aid towards Gaza. As a result form the fighting in May more than 4,000 Gaza homes were destroyed or damaged, with losses estimated by the World Bank up to $380m. As a result, both Egypt and Qatar have each pledged $500m for reconstruction. Qatar, in particular, has provided hundreds of millions of dollars to Gaza’s poorest families in recent years. These funds have been a critical source of stability for the impoverished territory, where unemployment is currently approximately 50 per cent (Al Jazeera, 2021).
Lebanon has also received financial aid from Qatar. Onwards from the 2008 agreement, Qatar assisted Lebanon in various projects for its reconstruction. Recently, with the Beirut explosion, the fragile economy of Lebanon has become deteriorated. As a relief, Qatar has provided 70 tonnes of food for the Lebanese army in response to the request from its Army chief Joseph Auon. In June, Qatar, represented by the Qatar Fund for Development (QFFD), signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Lebanon’s Ministry of Health to rebuild the Karantina Hospital, which was damaged during the Beirut blast in August last year (The Peninsula Qatar, 2021).
Through these kinds of interventions, Doha is increasing its public appeal in the countries where it has mediated, and eventually among the main actors in the political sphere.
Qatar and Islamist movements
The Arab spring had created a political wave in the Middle East. It showed the thirst of the population for democratic governance. The region also witnessed the influence of Islamist groups on the population of the Middle East through these uprisings. Major Gulf monarchies like Saudi Arabia and UAE were opposed to the revolution due to its anti-authoritarian nature and the presence of Islamist groups. Contrary to this, Qatar stood with the revolution and eventually increased its influence with Islamist groups.
Egypt has found itself at the centre stage of the revolution. The coverage of the Tahrir Square protest in 2011, which went live on Al Jazeera, a Qatar owned media network, was a poster image for the Arab Spring. With the revolution, Hosni Mubarak, who governed Egypt since 1981, resigned. Eventually, a government under Muhammed Morsi with the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood took office in June 2012. Qatar allocated several billions worth of investment and loans to support the Egyptian economy. Al Jazeera also managed to publicise the government under Morsi as a triumphant picture of the revolution. Apart from Egypt, Doha also supported the rebels who had a connection with Islamist movements in Libya and Syria during the Arab Spring.
The Muslim Brotherhood is an organisation that has a presence in every country in the region.
Even though the revolution was not a success in many countries, it has caused a change in the political equation of the region. The Muslim Brotherhood is an organisation that has a presence in every country in the region. Its uprising in the revolution was a logical consequence of this. Doha has increased its influence over this Islamist movement through its support for the revolution. As a result, Doha can now act as a bridge between foreign nations and Islamist organisations. It increases Doha’s diplomatic leverage since many states, even in the region, do not have a relation with these organisations.
Apart from this, Doha’s influence over the Taliban with the success of US - Taliban peace talks has given Qatar more international attention, especially when other states need to contact the Taliban.
The media has the power to change the narrative of every incident. It can change a victim into a culprit and culprit into a victim. A political decision or event can have several different perspectives. The media can erase the other views and focus on a perspective that serves its interest. Al Jazeera is one of the top leading media networks globally, especially in the Middle East. It is funded in part by the Qatari government.
Al Jazeera was launched in 1996 and the network’s popularity increased in the Middle East with the coverage of the uprising, or intifada, that broke out in the Israel-occupied territories in 2000. Rather than the usual conflict narrative of western media, Al Jazeera focused on the hardships of Palestinian civilians in the uprising. However, Al Jazeera got international attention after broadcasting a press release from Osama Bin Laden in the aftermath of 9/11.
The media network broadcasted another perspective of the War on Terror, especially on its Iraqi network. When the Western media reported on bombings, Al Jazeera showed the bloodbath caused by these attacks. Consequently, Al Jazeera grew as a reliable media source even in the minds of the Middle East population.
The broader coverage and ground reports of Al Jazeera in the Arab Spring created an image for Islamist organisations, like the Muslim Brotherhood, as a voice of opposition to authoritative regimes in the region.
Qatar has utilised the popularity of Al Jazeera for its own interests. The media network has given its airtime for the voices of organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood, Taliban, and Hamas, which is quite impossible in popular Western media. The broader coverage and ground reports of Al Jazeera in the Arab Spring created an image for Islamist organisations, like the Muslim Brotherhood, as a voice of opposition to authoritative regimes in the region. In Israeli-Palestine conflicts, Al Jazeera managed to cover Hamas as a Palestinian point of view, while most other media tend to show only Fatah as a Palestinian authority and voice. Al Jazeera also has a significant role in the creation of the Taliban 2.0 perception. The media outlet substantiated that image by broadcasting interviews with Taliban spokesperson and airing live coverage of the Taliban’s bloodless capture of Kabul. Qatar appeases these organisations by portraying their interpretation of a story towards the international community through Al Jazeera, consequently increasing its influence over these organisations.
Qatar has always projected its potential role as a mediator into the spotlight. The country's foreign officials provided press releases and interviews explaining their efforts in negotiations. They tactically advertise Qatar as a brand for peace negotiations through media, mainly Al Jazeera, increasing its positive appeal among the international community.
Low internal and external opposition
During the Arab Spring, Qatar did not face opposition from their citizens against its autocratic rule. Thanks to its oil deposit, the country is a welfare state; therefore, citizens’ dismissal of the government is low. It does not have a democratic council to oversee its foreign interaction. As a result, the regime has the full authority to implement its foreign policies without fearing internal opposition.
Qatar maintains good relations with major powers. It is treated as an important strategic ally of the US. It even has a military base named Al Udeid, which hosts about 10,000 US troops (Taylor, 2019). This base houses the forward operating headquarters of the United States Central Command that plays a commanding role in US airstrikes in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
The Qatar diplomatic crisis of 2017 has significantly impacted its relationship with its Gulf neighbours. It was a result of a blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt. The countries presented 13 demands to remove the blockade, mainly; 1) to shut down Al Jazeera; 2) close a Turkish army base; 3) scale down Iranian ties. However, the situation has led to developing relationships with other regional powers like Iran and Turkey. In the aftermath of the Qatar blockade, Turkey deployed around 3000 more troops to Qatar (Al Jazeera, 2017). Turkey has also sent cargo ships and hundreds of planes loaded with food to help offset the embargo. Ankara and Doha are close allies on foreign policy, including on issues in Palestine, Syria and Egypt. The blockade has also deepened Qatar's bilateral relations with Iran. Iranian exports to Qatar jumped from around $60 million between 2016 and 2017 to $250 million between 2017 and 2018 (Mousapour, 2019). Qatar Airways, one of the prominent airlines under the Qatari government, utilised Iranian airspace to counter the air blockade.
Qatar's policies will not receive strong opposition in the international arena because of their crucial strategic and trade relations with these powers. The removal of the Qatar blockade in 2021 and the eventual increase in diplomatic relations with neighbouring Gulf countries will widen this scope.
The politics of the Middle East intertwine with the sectarian and religious interests of certain actors. As a result, the region has gotten into numerous endless conflicts. The policies of the nations in the area are influenced by their Shia, Sunni, Islamist and Western connections. Qatar’s foreign policies are aligned with these elements; therefore, it is evident that it has an influence over these countries.
Apart from this, Qatar finds itself in a region that is prone to conflicts. A nation with extensive economic resources and lower national power is much more vulnerable to these attacks. The role of mediator and eventual influence over major power blocks will increase Doha's role in the region and consequently decrease external intervention on their soil. In short, Qatar considers its diplomatic efforts as an element of national power.
Anshad Usef is a final year student pursuing a bachelors in International Relations from the Central University of Kerala. His interests range from International Relations, International Law, Foreign Policy to Ethnic and Sectarian conflicts with emphasis on the middle east region. He is mostly engrossed in finding new perspectives on international political events.