Qatar's Role In Libya and Beyond

10 MINS READApr 5, 2011 | 20:07 GMT
Despite the fact that Libya is nowhere near the Persian Gulf, Qatar has been the Arab state most ardently supporting the rebels in eastern Libya. Qatar has long had an active foreign policy, and its recent moves have positioned the tiny state as a player in the Libyan crisis — no small feat considering how insignificant it is in comparison to the traditional Middle Eastern powers. In reality, Qatar remains a very weak country that relies on the United States for its security, constantly reminded of its precarious geographic position between regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran as it tries to use foreign policy as a tool to present itself as a useful ally to any country.
Qatar sits on a small peninsula jutting off the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula into the Persian Gulf, wedged between the two regional powers: Saudi Arabia and Iran. Qatar's size and strategic location have made it fundamentally insecure throughout its history, and since the coming of its oil and natural gas wealth, the ruling family in Doha has sought to remedy this problem in a variety of ways. Qatar tries to maintain good ties with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, it hosts a sizable U.S. military contingent, and it conducts a foreign policy intended to create a perception of Qatari influence that exceeds its actual ability to project power. This desire to create a perception of power explains Qatar's recent moves in eastern Libya, where Doha has slowly positioned itself as one of the main players in the diplomatic game being waged in various corners of the Muslim world.

Qatar's Foundations

Qatar's hydrocarbon wealth is fairly new. Oil exports did not begin until 1949, which marked the beginning of a shift from an extremely poor tribal area perpetually under the dominance of outside powers to a modern nation-state. Though oil came first, natural gas eventually became an integral part of the Qatari economy as well, and together they form the foundation of modern Qatar. Qatar pumps just over 800,000 barrels per day (bpd), not much in comparison to some of its neighbors, but still a considerable amount for a country of roughly 1.7 million people (around three-fourths of whom are expatriate workers). Qatar is more famous for its massive North Field natural gas field that sits offshore northeast of the peninsula (it shares the field with Iran, where it is known as South Pars). Qatar holds the third-largest proven natural gas reserves in the world (approximately 896 trillion cubic feet), and it is also the world's largest liquefied natural gas (LNG) exporter. As a result, some calculations place Qatar at the top of the rankings in per capita gross domestic product worldwide. None of this hydrocarbon wealth would mean very much if Qatar were unable to export it, which requires not only territorial security (on land and in its territorial waters that contain offshore oil and gas deposits) but also unimpeded access through the Strait of Hormuz. And this is one of the most important reasons why the ruling family in Doha tries to maintain good relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. Unlike Bahrain, which finds itself in a very similar geopolitical situation but with a 70 percent Shiite population, Qatar has better relations with Iran in part because only about 10 percent of its population is Shiite and it does not feel threatened by a Shiite majority acting as agents of Tehran. Qatar has extensive economic linkages with Iran and helps Tehran circumvent sanctions by acting as a shipping hub of illegal goods, much as the United Arab Emirates does. As for its relations with Saudi Arabia, Qatar was a contributor to the Peninsula Shield Force that entered Bahrain on March 14, while Doha-based Al Jazeera has been nowhere near as dogged in its coverage of the protests in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province as it has been in several other Muslim countries that have experienced unrest. The imperative of maintaining territorial security and unimpeded access through the Strait of Hormuz also creates the need for a foreign security guarantor. This forms the foundation of Qatar's relationship with the United States. Qatar did not exist as an independent nation until 1971, when the British completed the withdrawal of their naval assets from the Persian Gulf region. For decades before, Qatar existed under British suzerainty. It was London that first granted protection to the al-Thani family (which still rules Qatar) against the rival al-Khalifa family in nearby Bahrain. And the United States has stepped into the role of a foreign power able to guarantee Qatar's continued territorial integrity. The United States does not run Qatar's day-to-day affairs as the British had done; the United Kingdom largely controlled Qatar's foreign policy in exchange for security guarantees. But the United States does have a large footprint in the country with two significant U.S. military bases. Qatar volunteered to be the new host of the U.S. Combined Air Operations Center after it was removed from Saudi Arabia in 2003 and set up at the existing Al Udeid U.S. air base south of Doha. Today Al Udeid serves as a key logistics hub for American operations in Afghanistan and as a command center for operations in Iraq. A second American base in Qatar, As Sayliyah, is the largest pre-positioning facility for U.S. military equipment in the world. Doha benefits from its security alliance with Washington, but it also wants to maintain its independence and build a reputation (both in the Arab world and beyond) of being a significant actor in foreign affairs, more significant than geopolitical logic would suggest. Above all, it wants to be seen as acting in its own interests, even if it is operating according to a set of restraints that prevents it from pursing those interests too vigorously. Sometimes this brings Qatar in line with certain countries' positions, only to find itself seemingly on the opposite end of an issue in short order. This is most aptly displayed by Al Jazeera, which first became known for its critical coverage of U.S. and Israeli activities in the region and is now widely attacked by Arab regimes for fomenting dissent within their own countries. Despite what neighboring governments may feel about the media outlet, Al Jazeera's emergence has helped put Qatar on the map in the eyes of the Arab street, evidenced by the fact that in 2022 Qatar will become the first Muslim country to host the World Cup. Qatar's active diplomatic presence in recent years has often involved disputes that have very little to do with its own direct interests, such as working with Turkey in helping to form the Lebanese government and mediating between the Sudanese government and various rebels groups in the Darfur peace process. Qatar's integral role in supporting the eastern Libyan rebels is only the latest example of this trend. Whether Doha is acting according to U.S. directives is unknown, but it is certain that Qatar's efforts are in line with U.S. interests, and will bolster Qatar's image in Washington's view as a leader in the Arab world.

Moves in Libya

Despite the fact that Libya is nowhere near the Persian Gulf, Qatar has been the most ardent Arab state supporter of the eastern Libyan rebels since the beginning of the uprising. This was not an obvious decision for Qatar to make, since what happens in Libya does not affect the situation in Qatar's backyard. Still, Qatar remains the only Arab country to have recognized the National Transitional Council as the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people and was the second country to do so after France. Qatar is also one of just three Arab states that have contributed aircraft for the enforcement of the U.N.-mandated no-fly zone, sending six Mirage fighter jets to perform largely ceremonial over-flights alongside French warplanes. Qatar has also been flying humanitarian aid into the Benghazi airport in recent days. Displaying a desire to lead the Arab world in issues occurring in the region, Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani has openly called for Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to step down and has criticized other Arab states for not helping enforce the no-fly zone, saying March 31 that "the suffering of civilians in Libya led the international community to intervene because of the inaction of the Arab League, which was supposed to assume the role." Qatar's most important contribution to the Libyan rebels, however, could be in helping them market oil pumped from the Sarir oil field in eastern Libya, which would infuse the movement with much-needed cash to sustain its fight against Gadhafi. Doha also reportedly provided a small supply of weapons to the rebels in early March and sent free shipments of petroleum products into eastern ports when it was feared that supplies of gasoline, butane and kerosene were running out. But if the eastern Libyans were able to actually make money off the oil, which one rebel council leader — Finance Minister Ali Tarhouni — has vowed is ready for shipment, it would give Benghazi a more sustainable solution to its pressing economic problems than stopgap aid shipments. Tarhouni, who returned to Libya from exile in the United States in March, has made a variety of claims since March 27 regarding the oil-production capability in the east, ranging from an immediate level of 130,000 bpd to 300,000 bpd or more within a few weeks. According to Tarhouni, Qatar is on board with a plan to "facilitate" the export of oil from either the Sarir oil field or storage tanks around Tobruk, most likely for shipment to European customers wary of the political or security risks of doing business with the rebels. Tarhouni's claims have not been confirmed or denied by the Qatari regime or by state-owned Qatar Petroleum (QP), which would most likely be the firm that would help facilitate exports of Libyan oil. One anonymous QP official said March 30 that the deal was "just a political move" and emphasized the difficulty in actually seeing it through, saying that the time frame would surely be longer than the week or so that Tarhouni was asserting. But in making such a statement, QP has implicitly acknowledged that the deal is simply another case in which Doha wants to display its support for the uprising against Gadhafi. By taking part in the no-fly zone, Qatar did exactly that, while also demonstrating its utility to the West. Doha's support allows leaders in Washington, Paris and London to claim that an air campaign against a Muslim country has "Arab support." The statements made by Arab League chief Amr Moussa on March 20 showed how politically sensitive perceived support for such a bombing campaign can be in the region, which only makes Doha's support that much more appreciated in Western capitals. These measures, along with the critical role Al Jazeera played in bringing the world's attention to the situation on the ground in eastern Libya, have given tiny Qatar the reputation as a player in the Libyan crisis. This is no small feat, considering how insignificant the country is in relation to traditional Middle Eastern powers like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Qatar remains, in reality, a very weak country that relies on the United States for its security and on its dealings with other more powerful states, but presents itself as a country that can be a useful ally. One of the main reasons Qatar has been able to focus so much attention on eastern Libya is that it has not suffered the affliction that other Arab countries have since January. There has been no Arab Spring in Doha, notwithstanding a few failed protests organized on Facebook calling for a "Day of Rage" in Qatar in early March. Should unrest flare up in Qatar as it has elsewhere in the region — which is unlikely due to its wealth and lack of sectarian divisions but certainly not impossible — it will suddenly find itself much less concerned about the fate of eastern Libyans.

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