Qatar’s Belt

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The Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar is tiny, but it’s made a name for itself by placing big bets. Thanks to its vast reserves of natural gas, its 2.6 million residents enjoy the world’s highest per-capita income: $129,700 a year. It made huge investments to become the largest exporter of liquefied natural gas. Qatar has acquired more than $335 billion worth of assets around the globe, buying up stakes in trophies such as London’s Shard, the tallest building in Europe. The emirate has drawn international attention as an outsized power-broker in a volatile region, and it will be center stage globally in 2022 as the host of the World Cup. Qatar’s bets haven’t always panned out as it expected. A glut in production facilities worldwide has driven down LNG prices; Qatar’s support for opposition groups challenging other Arab governments has enraged its neighbors, and so far its soccer preparations have attracted mostly bad press. Now Qatar is figuring out whether it can lower its profile while remaining a player in Middle Eastern politics.

The Situation

With the downturn in Qatar’s fortunes, Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, who assumed the throne at age 33 upon his father’s abdication in 2013, has focused more on domestic affairs than foreign adventures. The fall in oil and gas prices has produced Qatar’s first budget deficit in 15 years, prompting the government to restrain spending. The government-backed satellite TV station Al Jazeera has shed employees and shuttered its U.S. operations, after irritating change-averse Arab rulers with its sympathetic coverage of Islamist groups. In a probe by the Federation Internationale de Football Association, Qatar successfully fought charges that it secured the World Cup through bribery. Still lingering are reports of abuse of migrant workers building the facilities. 

The Background

A peninsula off Saudi Arabia’s eastern coast, Qatar emerged from the shadow of its powerful neighbor in 1995 when Emir Tamim’s father, Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, overthrew his father in a bloodless coup and put Qatar on an ambitious course. Al Jazeera launched the next year, breaking regional tradition by including news that embarrassed Arab leaders. When in 2003 the Saudis, faced with public unease, ejected the U.S. air operations center for the region, Qatar took it on; today the emirate hosts 10,000 U.S. troops. In the Arab Spring uprisings that began in 2010, Qatar, uniquely among Middle Eastern governments, broadly supported groups agitating for change — so long as it was outside the Persian Gulf. In Qatar itself, political parties are prohibited and freedom of expression is severely limited.  Just 300,000 of Qatar’s residents are citizens; the rest are foreign workers with few rights. Still, in the early 2010s, the emirate’s leaders backed Muslim Brotherhood groups challenging authorities in Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Egypt, calculating that they would prevail and confident that Qatar’s own prosperous population would not rebel. Since then, Brotherhood groups have mostly foundered, and Qatar reeled back its support for them in 2014 when faced with diplomatic threats from its Gulf neighbors.

The Argument

Qatar now emphasizes its aspiration to become the region’s indispensable mediator. To its advantage, its diplomatically experienced leadership has connections with a wide range of parties, such as warring tribes in Libya as well as both the U.S. and the Taliban. On the other hand, by choosing sides during the Arab Spring revolts, it weakened its legitimacy as a neutral party. Its relations with Saudi Arabia remain cool, and its ties with Iran, once cordial, are tense. The capacity of Qatar’s leaders to focus on foreign affairs is being squeezed by the pressure of domestic concerns. Like other petro-states, Qatar is determined to diversify its economy to reduce dependence on finite fossil fuels. Qatar’s other industries and its economy are growing faster than those of many peers. However, that’s largely due to spending on infrastructure projects to prepare for the World Cup, and analysts question their value once the tournament is over. Still, Qatar’s gas reserves aren’t apt to run out soon: by one estimate, they’ll last another 135 years. The government continues to face very little open opposition, but it does have critics. And a planned reduction in public sinecures invites more citizens to question their riches-for-silence contract with the monarchy.

 

The Reference Shelf

  • A Carnegie Endowment paper examinesQatar’s bet on Muslim Brotherhood groups.
  • Scholar Kristian Coates Ulrichsen exploresthe emirate’s outsized role in his book “Qatar and the Arab Spring.” 
  • The Congressional Research Service reportson U.S.-Qatar relations.
  • Brookings Institution examinesQatar’s mediation efforts.
  • Human Rights Watchand Amnesty International focus on the plight of migrant workers in Qatar.
  • An article in the New Statesman looks atthe role of Al Jazeera in the Arab Spring.

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