Tiny Qatar Goes Its Own Way

6 MINS READJul 7, 2017 | 09:15 GMT
A paraglider displays a flag depicting Qatar's leader, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.

The current standoff with the Gulf Cooperation Council has boosted popular support for the leader of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, shown depicted on a flag displayed by a paraglider in honor of the country's National Day.

Forecast Highlights
  • Qatar's vast wealth of liquefied natural gas (LNG) will enable it to weather economic pressure from Saudi Arabia as Riyadh tries to limit Doha's foreign policy.
  • Doha will continue to balance its relationships with Saudi Arabia and with Iran while working to forge ties with larger powers such as Turkey, Russia and the United States.
  • The ruling al-Thani family will not face threats to its power from within Qatar, so long as it keeps the wealth flowing.
Qatar has distinguished itself from its peers. Among the world's oil-producing states, it is one of the richest. Among developed countries today, it blossomed more quickly than almost any other. And among the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), it is one of the few states that dares to push back against Saudi Arabia's ideas on culture, on economics and especially on foreign policy. But in the country's dazzling growth and development lie the seeds of its current dispute with three fellow members of the Gulf bloc. Thanks to its extensive natural gas reserves and the ruling family's resistance to Saudi control, Qatar will continue to challenge Riyadh and the United Arab Emirates in their attempts to dominate it.
Photos from the Qatari capital of Doha in 1953 (top) and 2014 (bottom) showcase the country's rapid development.

Photos from the Qatari capital of Doha in 1953 (top) and 2014 (bottom) showcase the country's rapid development.

(Keystone Features / Stringer, Francois Nel/Getty Images)

A Small Country With Big Riches

Qatar's significant natural gas wealth sets the country apart from its prosperous neighbors, which mostly depend on oil. By selling its gas to a wide range of partners abroad — currently mostly in Asia — the country has managed to establish economic security that reaches beyond the GCC.
But what Qatar has in money and resources, it lacks in people and territory. Its native population is only 300,000 people; foreign workers from Asia and the Middle East account for 89 percent of the total population of 2.6 million. With such a homogenous and small native population, Qatar doesn't face the same kinds of sectarian divisions that plague Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. (The lack of sectarian strife also helps Doha avoid domestic backlash when it gets involved in religious conflicts such as the Syrian crisis.) Nor does it have to worry about supplying enough jobs to its native population. Saudi Arabia, by contrast, is struggling to employ its 22 million native citizens while undertaking economic reform, and other GCC states, such as Oman, don't have the money to provide for their people as abundantly as Qatar does. 
Qatar's GDP Per Capita
The tiny population has its downsides, however. Qatar's demographic size pales in comparison with that of Iran or Saudi Arabia. The country's leaders, moreover, have found it difficult to construct a shared aim and civic identity as they pursued nation building. Wahabbi Islam offered a sense of common purpose during the 20th century, but the state has become more secular in recent years. And though Qatar is a majority-Sunni state, it eschews the Sunni-Shiite divide between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Because its geography makes it so vulnerable — Saudi Arabia sits on its only land border and the contentious Persian Gulf surrounds the rest — Qatar seeks the protection of stronger nations. As it developed into a modern state, it was firmly under the sway and protection of the United Kingdom. It joined the GCC in 1981, a decade after the British relinquished their protectorate. U.S.-Gulf relations were acrimonious throughout the 1970s largely because of Washington's pro-Israeli policies. But the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 drove home the reality of Qatar's perilous position. Doha needed the protection of a more powerful ally. Qatar signed its first military agreement with the United States in 1992, and since then, the countries' military ties have flourished.
Qatar's Strategic Location

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.

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