Seeking More Baskets
To keep Qatar relevant on the world stage, meanwhile, Doha created a liberal media environment including state-funded news network Al Jazeera, sponsored global sporting events, mediated in Middle Eastern conflicts and made sizable investments worldwide, especially in Europe. Qatar has also pursued policies independent
of Saudi Arabia. It has shown a penchant for buying, or at least considering purchases of, Russian and Chinese military equipment. It has developed closer ties with Iran in recent years, as Doha and Tehran work out an arrangement to share the North Pars Gas Field, and has bolstered its military cooperation
with Turkey. Elsewhere in the Middle East, Qatar has inserted itself into Lebanese and Palestinian politics. What's more, it was the first GCC state to toy with normalizing relations with Israel. In short, the country maintains a vast network of relationships with states large and small to avoid putting all its eggs in the GCC's basket.
But its activities don't always suit its neighbors in the bloc. Qatar has hosted multiple Taliban negotiations and has become a second home for Muslim Brotherhood figures in exile from countries such as Egypt that have turned against political Islamist movements. Embracing Islamism enables Qatar not only to reaffirm its Wahabbi mores, but also to extend its influence beyond the confines of its small territory and population. For Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, however, the groups' politics pose a challenge to their leadership.
The Al-Thani Dynasty
At the helm of the country's foreign policy is the ruling al-Thani family. The al-Thanis, who have ruled Qatar continuously since the early 20th century (with help from other influential families), have proved effective at using the country's geopolitical position to its advantage. As in the rest of the Arabian Gulf monarchies, Qatar's ruling family retains control over the state's means of generating and distributing wealth. A small handful of elites directs all policy behind closed doors, in what Qatar calls a "consultative monarchy."
For the al-Thanis, succession is done through controlled internal coups, in which a cousin usurps a cousin or a son usurps his father. The transition takes place with the help of the institutional bureaucracy, whose loyalty a rising emir cultivates over the years before he takes the throne. The dearth of intertribal conflict in Qatar denies its GCC neighbors opportunities to meddle with the al-Thanis' dominance, though the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have tried.
Under Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who usurped power from his father, the al-Thani family became known for its independence from the GCC. Qatar's current emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, doubled down on this strategy, while also working to build his support among Qataris. The current GCC crisis has reinforced his popularity, despite his efforts to trim some of the extensive social benefits available to Qatari citizens. (In 2015 he said that Qataris would need to wean themselves off of a "dependence on the state for everything.")
Still, Doha's commitment to self-determination is a double-edged sword. Though on the one hand, it has enabled Qatar to forge a diverse array of international relationships, on the other, it has jeopardized its relationship with the rest of the GCC. And the longer the crisis in the bloc goes on, the more it will strain Qatar's ties abroad
. To solve the current crisis, Doha might be willing to oust some individuals tied to Islamist movements. But it won't budge on its sovereignty. The governing ethos of the al-Thani family may be complex and contradictory, but it leaves little room for Saudi Arabia to call the shots in Qatar.