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Qatar: Geopolitical Cosmopolitanism

Akshay Mathur, May 8, 2012

Qatar topped the Middle East rankings in the just-released 2012 MasterCard Worldwide Index for Consumer Confidence. To those who have followed the trajectory of this nation, it comes as no surprise that this tiny peninsula off Saudi Arabia has transformed into a city-state of commercial energy and urban magnificence. Less known is Qatar's growing role in international geopolitics, and those who are aware of its position are puzzled by what Qatar hopes to achieve from it.

Since the beginning of 2011, Qatar has raised its profile as an active participant in world affairs. During 2011-12, when Qatar simultaneously held the presidency of the Arab League and of the U.N. General Assembly, it used the platform successfully to oust Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi while independently providing Qatari military and monetary support to the rebels. Similarly, it supported the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt through the reportage of its state-owned Al Jazeera Network, which blanket-covered the protests. Qatar was the first country to recall its ambassador from Syria before calling for President Assad to step down, and was host to the peace accords between the Sudanese government and Darfur rebels in 2011.

Growing simultaneously with Qatar's international profile is a cosmopolitanism within the country. Doha is already home to the United Nations offices; the Al Jazeera Network, which is an established popular voice of the Middle East; the controversial office of the Taliban; the headquarters of the U.S. Central Command; the liberal U.S. think tank Brookings Institution; several multinational companies; and a rotating calendar of intellectual international conferences such as the Doha Forum and United Nations meetings. These institutional interactions—coupled with the grandeur of the city of Doha and its beautiful seaside esplanades, shining skyscrapers, refurbished ethnic villages and opulent theatres—is a magnet for international diplomats and executives.

Bold aspiration

Some indication of state strategy is evident in the Qatar National Vision 2030. It is a statement of bold aspiration, one that puts building a knowledge economy and international engagement at the same level of priority as oil and gas exploration.

The 2,500-acre Education City, supported by the government-owned Qatar Foundation, is the largest foreign cluster of American universities outside of the United States. Georgetown University teaches foreign affairs, Carnegie Mellon focuses on information technology, Northwestern University teaches journalism.

Where entrepreneurship, enterprise and cosmopolitanism are not instinctive, it is being enabled by creating forums that reward these skills. On Jan. 29, Enterprise Qatar, a joint initiative between Carnegie Mellon University and the Qatar Business Association, launched a business plan competition called Al-Fikra for identifying and promoting creative business ideas that would be based in Qatar. Similarly, the World Innovation Summit for Education organized by the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development began in 2009. It supports innovative ideas for raising awareness of education as a means to development, and has seen entries from Paraguay to Ghana. Every year, they choose six winning ideas to support with finance and advice. Nanhi Kali, an NGO that promotes education for girls in India, supported by Mahindra & Mahindra (which also supports Gateway House) won the award the first year it was launched in 2009.

Away from the limelight, geopolitics is being practiced from the bottom up. Georgetown University organized its first ever Young Leaders Seminar in Qatar in April. It brought together 18 leaders under the age of 35 from different regions of Africa, the Middle East and South Asia with varied backgrounds such as social activism, journalism, political dissidents and scholars for a healthy discussion and understanding of global developments. The same weekend, Reach Out to Asia (ROTA), an NGO set up by the Emir of Qatar for engaging the expatriate community in Qatar (80 percent of Qatar's population comprises expatriates on work visas), also organized a youth conference that brought participants from Yemen to Japan. The 350-strong student conference discussed how sports and conservation of the environment can provide a platform for dialogue between countries that do not engage with each other.

Power of energy wealth

Beyond the diplomacy and intellectual pursuit is the power of Qatar's energy wealth, used for its geopolitical goals. With the third-largest natural gas reserves and the 13th-highest oil reserves in the world, Qataris are the richest people on the planet, with a per capita GDP of over $100,000. At the April 21 World Investment Forum meeting in Doha, Qatar Investment Authority revealed that its Sovereign Wealth Fund is now over $100 billion and will have $30 billion more to invest in 2012 alone. So far, it has invested the money in European markets such as the French energy company Total, and in the London-based property of the tony Harrods department store. But now, many developing countries such as Sudan, Colombia, Djibouti, Namibia, Rwanda and Uganda are wooing Qatar for investments in food processing, infrastructure and agriculture sectors. Sudan has successfully even won a $2 billion loan in March that includes the purchase of government bonds that saved the country's sliding currency.

Geopolitical cosmopolitanism

All these developments exemplify a kind of geopolitical cosmopolitanism that is new to Qatar and the world. So far, all moves indicate that Qatar wants to go further in influencing the developments in the region—either as a neutral peacemaker or through the use of hard or soft power—simply because it can. It is a more anodyne stakeholder than perhaps any other in the region, where leadership is split between Western powers, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. Qatar seems determined to use its developing intellectual heft to play an active role in the region, even if not neutral, while it bulldozes its way to becoming a commercial hub like Dubai or Singapore. One direct benefit is its new friendship with the United States, which is happy to befriend another Sunni monarchy besides Saudi Arabia and increasingly depends on Qatar to communicate with non-state groups such as the Taliban.

Unfortunately, there are not too many successful precedents to follow. In the past, Jordan has played a similar role in the Middle East, mediating between Israel and Palestine. In fact, there is an uncanny resemblance between the royal couples—King Hussein and Queen Noor of Jordan, and Sheikh Hamad and Sheikha Mozah of Qatar—both glamorous, worldly and cultural icons. More recently, Turkey has played a similar role between Iran and the P5+1. But Jordan's role was limited to Israel and Palestine. Dubai and Singapore have largely remained commercial centers. India, Brazil and South Africa have only now started to identify and vocalize their global role after acquiring some economic confidence. Russia and China remain reticent about overthrowing authoritarian governments purely on Western pressure.

Norway is the only country that has had some success of being a neutral peacemaker. It did so with Israel and Palestine at the Oslo Accords in 1993, and then again with the Sri Lankan government and the rebel Tamil Tigers in 2002. Its history as a non-colonizer of economic strength gave it the necessary credibility to be a neutral participant with no direct stakes.

Challenge of diverging interests

As Qatar engages further internationally, it will face the challenge of absorbing and responding to diverging international interests and implications of its participation in the world. By training the Libyan military and flying bombing sorties, it won the accolades of NATO and revived an ailing Arab League but has certainly lost the credibility of a neutral peacemaker. Many at home and in the region are already troubled by the difference of coverage between Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera Arabic, as was obvious in the reporting of the recent protests in Bahrain.

Internally, Qataris remain satisfied with their leadership so far. No one but a few journalists showed up for the "Day of Rage" in Qatar on March 16, 2011, to protest against the administration of the ruling Sheikh Hamad. Women have the right to vote in national elections and have 100 percent literacy, and over 30 percent are part of the workforce. Some gender disparities remain with regard to marriage and travel, but Sheikha Mozah has promised changes.

Regardless of the uncertainties, the cosmopolitan education being imparted in Education City to domestic and international students will certainly help Qatar make and retain friends all over the world—at least just enough to maintain internal solidarity while it begins the learning process of playing the international role it aspires to. 

 

This article was written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, www.gatewayhouse.in. Akshay Mathur is head of research at Gateway House.

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