The city-state that could?

Is Qatar suffering from that old ailment that afflicted ancient city-states which punched way above their weight: hubris and overreach?

Hisham Melhem

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The mediating role Qatar has played in freeing Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the last American soldier held captive in Afghanistan, in exchange for releasing five senior Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has raised once again skepticism in the U.S. Congress and media about Qatar’s commitment to monitor these hardened militants who should remain in their custody for a year, and suspicions about its complex relations with a myriad of radical Islamist groups operating in an area stretching from South Asia to North Africa.

The exchange occurred in the wake of unprecedented public tensions between Qatar and its three immediate neighbors and fellow members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and following what might be called the Annus horribilis (horrible year) in which Qatar was dealt a major setback when its ally Egyptian President Mohammad Mursi was ousted last July in a military coup, and when its allies in the Syrian opposition failed to dominate the newly formed leadership of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

To make matters worse, Doha is facing a potentially humiliating blow, if the new allegations that the 2022 Fifa World Cup – the seminal event that would elevate Qatar’s international stature exponentially – had been secured through shady schemes and bribery should be proven to be true.

These setbacks have led analysts and commentators to ask whether Qatar’s moment in the Middle East is over or if its influence is waning irrevocably or if it is suffering from that old ailment that afflicted ancient and medieval powerful city-states which punched way above their weight; that is the fateful combination of hubris and overreach.

The useful mediator

For a fleeting moment, Qatar was basking in a sea of American gratitude, with expression of appreciation from President Obama, American politicians from both parties and the senior brass at the Pentagon, that is before the torrent of harsh criticism directed at the White House because of the circumstances of Sgt. Bergdahl’s capture, and the release of high value Taliban prisoners. The Kabul government, with which Doha has good relations, added its voice to the critics’ choir.

Qatar’s crucial mediating role between the Taliban and the U.S. was in keeping with the tradition it developed in the last 20 years in building bridges and relations with disparate states and groups and using its fabulous wealth to buy influence, assists friends, allies and clients and to offer its services as a third-party broker to settle disputes among and within states. This strategy is designed in part to give Qatar an immune system vis-à-vis its larger immediate neighbors and also to support Islamist movements including very radical ones as we have seen in the Libyan and Syrian conflicts and by making itself indispensable as a regional power willing to invest its financial might, and diplomatic services to settle disputes in order to enhance its stature. In recent years, Qatar mediated disputes among Lebanese, Sudanese and Afghan factions while providing them and the state that sponsor them financial “incentives.”

The frenemy of many

One of the most important tools in Qatar’s ascendency as an influential city-state, driven by a large ambition to play a role incommensurate with its size and demography, was its pioneering Al Jazeera satellite channel. Al Jazeera quickly became the leading news channel for a significant number of the Arabic-speaking publics. Al Jazeera initially looked and sounded different and managed to break some taboos. More importantly, Al Jazeera became the first medium in history to put a small country on the world map. But Al Jazeera later on became synonymous with Qatar’s foreign policy and reflected the paradoxes and contradictions of this policy, that is acting as a friend and a foe simultaneously

The Egyptian-born, but Qatari citizen, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi was given plenty of air time on Al Jazeera to support the Palestinian cause and to occasionally engage in anti-Semitism, all the while Qatar was establishing political and trade relations with Israel . Al Jazeera was very harsh in its criticism of the American invasion of Iraq, while allowing the U.S. to use two air bases (after spending almost a billion dollars modernizing them to suit American standards) in its military operations in Iraq and the region.

Tough balancing acts

For Qatar to play such a role, it had to have a foot in any two warring factions, while trying all the time to represent and to support its Sunni Islamist friends, be they the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, el Nahda in Tunisia, various Islamists in Syria and Libya and at one time the Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran’s powerful arm in Lebanon and Syria. Qatar had old relations with the Taliban and their enemy the government in Kabul. It has close military and commercial relations with the U.S., but it tried to balance it by keeping its bridges open to Iraq when it was under Saddam Hussein and Iran. Qatar provides Hamas and its nemesis the Palestinian Authority with political and financial support, while maintaining its open and secret contacts with the Israelis.

Maintaining Qatar’s extensive relations with the world of radical Islam, requires at times tough balancing acts and creative schemes. Qatar, at one time gave the Jordanian authorities an offer they could never refuse, that was to host the leader of Hamas Khalid Mishal and some of his aides who were accused by the Jordanians of illegal activities, in Doha. The move helped Qatar burnish its Islamist credentials, which was useful to its policy of opening up to Israel.

Saving Sargent Bergdahl

Qatar was eager to save Sgt. Bergdahl from captivity because it needed a small victory to mitigate its relative isolation in the region and to prove that it is still useful to the U.S., something that will not be lost on its alienated Arab neighbors. Interestingly, the U.S., which realized the extent of Qatar’s political vulnerabilities following the public dispute with its Gulf neighbors, and the unprecedented withdrawal of ambassadors from Doha, moved quickly to extract some concessions from it. According to a well-placed official source, the U.S. pushed hard to get a strong commitment from Doha that it will stop completely arming the radical Islamist factions in Syria and that it will coordinate its activities there with the U.S. and its allies. The source said that preliminary indications show that the Qataris have kept their promise.

Powerful city-states in history

Civilizations are born and always flourish in cities. Some of the best known and most influential city-states that shaped Western Civilization developed on the coastline of the Mediterranean basin dating back to 1000 BC with the emergence of the Phoenician city-states such as Byblos, Tyre, Sidon, and, Arwad, on the Lebanese and Syrian coasts. Like all maritime city-states in history, the Phoenicians who mastered navigation and the building of fast ships, were the greatest traders of their time. The city-states that flourished later on in ancient Greece such as Athens, Corinth, and Thebes and later in medieval and Renaissance times in Italy such as Venice and Genoa owed much of their prosperity to maritime trade which necessitated the establishment of distant outposts and colonies.

Some of these city-states like Tyre, Carthage and Sparta were known for their military prowess, others like Athens were known for their production of knowledge, still others like Venice for their art. The city-states, particularly those who belong to the same region and or culture, often let their economic competition lead to violent conflicts. The Peloponnesian war, between Athens and Sparta, was “A war like no other,” as historian Victor Davis Hanson argues in his book of the same title, and shaped the subsequent history of Greece and the Western world and gave us The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, arguably the best historian of antiquity, and one of the best in history.

City-states in modern times

In the 20th century, some city-states flourished in Asia such as Hong Kong and Singapore, and since the 1960’s in the Gulf with the rise of Kuwait city and later on Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Qatar. And like all maritime city-states in history, they thrive on trade and on being centers of finance and banking as well as important energy producers particularly in the Gulf.

Among the Arab city-states, Qatar stands as the one driven by an outsize ambition that leads it repeatedly to punch above its weight. Before 1990 Kuwait played an important role politically and economically and contributed to the development of other countries. At one time Kuwait was the most vibrant society in the Gulf. Unfortunately, Kuwait has yet to recover from Saddam Hussein’s invasion, and has become obsessed with its own parochial domestic disputes and squabbles.

Among the Arab city-states, Qatar stands as the one driven by an outsize ambition that leads it repeatedly to punch above its weight

Dubai has developed into a unique and thriving magnet for international business, trade, tourism, services and finance. Abu Dhabi developed somewhat in similar fashion but without the flamboyance of Dubai and since it is the seat of political power it is playing a growing political role in the region and beyond. The UAE has a military contingent in Afghanistan and was militarily active in the conflicts in Bosnia and Libya.

Qatar and Venice

It is a stretch to compare Qatar to Venice at the height of its influence and wealth as the greatest of Italian city-state in Medieval and Renaissance times. Superficially they have few things in common. Both enjoyed fabulous wealth because of trade in the case of Venice and hydrocarbons in the case of Qatar. Both wanted to play major political roles in their region and beyond and both shared in the willingness to spend their resources to accumulate more influence and power. Both Venice and Qatar financed and used foreign powers and groups.

But there are also major differences. Venice developed a complex system of governance and although the ruler known as the Doge was powerful he had to contend with scores of powerful merchant families. In Qatar decision-making is in the hands of a few people. Venice developed indigenous art and distinct architecture and played a major role in the Renaissance; Qatar (like other Gulf cities) is trying to establish branches of American universities, not realizing that great universities flourish in open and liberal cities.

The sack of Constantinople

At its heyday, Venice acted like a superpower in the northern Mediterranean and feverishly competed commercially with Constantinople. Venice, like other Italian city-states and Constantinople benefited from the Crusades campaigns which opened up markets in the East for their goods. In its drive to control more territory and to crush Constantinople, Venice financed the Fourth Crusade, ostensibly to land in Egypt then moves to wrestle Jerusalem from Muslim hands, but the real objective was more sinister. On April 13, 1203, the combined forces of the Crusaders and the Venetians “took possession of the greatest Christian city in the world.” The sacking and the looting and the fires that ensued were so thorough that the city never recovered its former glory, even after the Byzantines recovered it decades later.

Qatar’s funding of the Islamists in Libya and Syria and its direct military participation in the fall of Tripoli while not on the same level as Venice’s role in the fall of Constantinople to the Crusades and the mercenaries, it is nonetheless emblematic of its intention to play a role incommensurate with its size and capabilities. Time will tell if the current setbacks will lead to serious introspection in Doha or the old policies will resume after a short interregnum.


Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

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