New POMED Policy Brief: The Arab World’s Unlikely Leader: Embracing Qatar’s Expanding Role in the Region
Against a backdrop of political upheaval and unrest throughout the Middle East, Qatar has appeared remarkably stable in its internal politics. In contrast to that internal quiet, however, has been an aggressive and changing foreign policy through which Qatar has pursued a new role of power in the region.
Since the 1990s, Qatar has been forced to rethink its position in the region due to geopolitical changes. With the ascendancy of Emir Hamad to head of state in 1995, it has redefined its image by pursuing a distinct foreign policy that has elevated its visibility throughout the world. Previous to the Arab Spring, this foreign policy focused on playing the role of neutral mediator in regional conflicts; events in Libya and Syria have shown that Qatar has abandoned its staunch neutrality and is now willing to take sides and lead efforts to support protest movements. Regardless of its support for movements against autocratic leaders, Qatar’s lack of democratic credentials in its own politics continues to plague its image as a champion for democracy, as has its relative silence on events in Bahrain — a country in which Saudi Arabia’s policies prevented Qatar from playing a more active role.
Underlying Qatar’s foreign policy has been a commitment to easing tensions between Sunni and Shi’a sides of the Gulf. Wedged between two regional powers, Qatar seeks to strike a balance in its policies that antagonizes neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia. This embrace of all political actors and willingness to negotiate with all sides has irked the United States at times, but it is this very feature of Qatari foreign policy that the U.S. should capitalize on. With well-founded relationships in the region, Qatar can help the U.S. to accurately navigate the rapidly changing political landscape in the region.