Qatar Lite: The Mideast maverick may be retreating

The Middle East’s most provocative, profligate microstate seems to be entering a more subdued stage. In a development Qatar’s neighbors should try to expand, the country’s new emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, just ended his first year in office having moved in a direction that looks somewhat less flamboyant.

The most obvious shift in Qatari policy comes in the form of “draconian” budget cuts. One of Sheikh Tamim’s first speeches since coming to power was on the anodyne subject of fighting inflation.

The Qatar Foundation, a multibillion-dollar nonprofit run by his mother that hosts branch campuses for foreign universities, is the target for particularly steep reductions. FT reported that “many Qataris welcome the changes” complaining that these sorts of initiatives “pander to foreign tastes.”

Qatar’s museums have also been targeted for “deep cuts,” such that an employee recently claimed “everyone is in fear for their jobs.” The Doha Film Institute, founded by the Emir’s sister, has already fired a third of its staff, and the private Katara Arts Center recently went under without a royal rescue.

Qatar will still need an activist foreign policy to compensate for its miniscule armed forces

David Andrew Weinberg

Even the government’s coming out party, the World Cup, is not immune from the chopping block. Qatar sheepishly asked soccer federation FIFA if they could build a third less stadiums by 2022 than promised.

Overseas spending has also become more restrained. Doha’s sovereign wealth fund, the Qatar Investment Authority, was previously notorious for snatching up equity in famous brands such as Volkswagen, Tiffany’s and Credit Suisse. But economists now believe “QIA has taken a less activist investment approach.” When a Qatari investment vehicle purchased a multibillion dollar equity share in Deutsche Bank, it was for the country’s former premiere, not the state.

Back to basics

The al-Thani government is also going back to basics on religious regulation. A directive in November banned hotels in Qatar from serving alcohol at pools or beaches, and a campaign supported by the country’s Islamic Cultural Center (described on its website as a “governmental organization”) reportedly has been aiding a campaign that urges foreigners to dress modestly, admonishing that “leggings are not pants.”

Even the firebrand preacher Yusuf Qaradawi has been laying low. Despite continuing to make provocative statements in other settings, Qaradawi has apparently not delivered his regular Friday sermon for months. This is a very positive development that requires outside encouragement if it is to persist. And although Al-Jazeera has been as provocative as ever over Egypt, Qatar’s newest state-backed media conglomerate has been framed as a “counterweight” to Al-Jazeera’s sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Qatar’s approach to Islamist proxies such as the Brotherhood has seen a more limited retrenchment but even these reductions should be reinforced from abroad if possible.

Brotherhood members from Egypt still appear to be operating in Doha, but some Islamists in Qatar may have been deported to Libya earlier this year. The “historic” agreement reached by GCC foreign ministers in April reportedly contained a Qatari commitment to expel and stop granting citizenship to Brotherhood dissidents from other Gulf states. Although Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini ambassadors have not yet returned to Doha, mediators insist that progress has been made, and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah just authored a surprisingly warm message congratulating Emir Tamim on the anniversary of his coronation.

Foreign meddling

Qatar sent an ambassador to President Sisi’s inauguration in Egypt, and the two rulers exchanged cordial messages. Egypt then stopped detaining an Al-Jazeera employee on hunger strike, soon after which the network informed its remaining Egypt employees their positions were being liquidated, feeding speculation Doha had cut a deal with Cairo. However, the subsequent conviction of three other Al-Jazeera employees suggests Qatar’s overtures went unreciprocated.

Similarly, Doha is continuing to be penalized for having backed the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic radicals in Libya, where renegade general Khalifa Heftar has blamed Doha for an assassination attempt against him and called for Qatari citizens to flee eastern Libya immediately.

Meanwhile, several observers claim Qatar has agreed to stop backing extremist rebels in Syria, including the Islamic Front. Given Doha’s mixed track record, these pledges should be independently verified.

The Qataris have also doubled down on their U.S. alliance, signing a Defense Cooperation Agreement for joint exercises and allowing Washington to lift the veil on its Combined Air and Space Operations Center near Doha. Although Qatar has historically purchased nearly all its military equipment from France, the government agreed in March to buy $7.6 billion in U.S. hardware, with the understanding that American citizens will provide years of training and logistical support on the new systems.

Controversial roles

Even Qatar’s role in the controversial exchange of U.S. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo represents a possible retreat from its Arab Spring doctrine of taking sides, instead reprising its earlier role as the amoral Switzerland of the Middle East. It is no coincidence that Qatar also fell back onto this pattern immediately after the GCC spat in March by mediating the release of captive Syrian nuns.

These tentative shifts may suggest an effort by the country’s new emir to make his own mark on Qatari policy. Yet it is worth recognizing that Sheikh Tamim played a prominent role in some of his father’s most controversial strategies, including support for the Brotherhood and Hamas, which unfortunately still continues. As UAE political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla puts it, Tamim seems “torn between his desire to have his own style of power and adhering to the policies set by his father.”

Qatar will still need an activist foreign policy to compensate for its miniscule armed forces. The Emir is not starting from a blank page, but rather he is splitting the difference between a more subdued approach and Doha’s problematic old habits. His neighbors should try to advance this relative shift: Qatar will always be Qatar, but they might be able to elicit something more like “Qatar Lite.”

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David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He previously served as a Democratic Professional Staff Member at the House Committee on Foreign Affairs at U.S. Congress. David holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
 

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:42 - GMT 06:42
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