What next? This is the question that policymakers and analysts in major capitals have been posing for the past three days as they pondered the severance of diplomatic ties between Arab states and Qatar.
Though no one knows what the future may contain, three points are already clear.
The first is that the new crisis isn’t likely to fizzle out on its own. The reasons that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt have cited for their decision to isolate Qatar are too vital for their national security and the broader “war on terror” they propose to wage in alliance with the Western democracies to be buried under any diplomatic fudge.
What they require is a fundamental re-thinking of national strategy in Qatar, abandoning and even reversing major policies that the state has fashioned and pursued since the 1990s.
Some analysts in the West try to compare the current crisis with the one, also involving Qatar, which the region witnessed three years ago. At the time, Qatar was able to re-weave its way back into the regional fold with a thorough change of personnel at very top of its leadership strata.
This time, however, there is no guarantee that such a sweeping reshuffle may be on the cards or, if it is, would produce the desired end of the crisis. A more realistic outcome may be a reorientation of Qatar’s national strategy in directions desired by the Arab powers confronting it.
To support its national ambition of hitting above its weight, Qatar developed a three-pronged strategy which did ensure some success but has now led it into deep waters.
The first element of that strategy consisted of developing ties with the major regional and global powers through investment, soft power moves and, in some cases, outright bribery. Today, Qatar has investments in more than 50 countries including the United States, the United Kingdom Germany and France.
The most dramatic aspect of that strategy was to invite the United States to locate it Central Command in Qatar, after being asked to leave Saudi Arabia. At the time, then Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem boasted that Qatar had brought “the policeman into the house” to ensure maximum safety.
However, that position has not led to a show of support by the governments of the countries concerned. Neither the Western powers nor Turkey which has also attracted vast Qatari investment, have been prepared to take its side in the current imbroglio. The reason is not hard to divine: Qatar has almost no friends in its own natural geo-strategic habitat which is known as the “Arab world.”
The second element of the strategy was to cast Qatar as a point of light in an “Arab world” struck by centuries of historic darkness. Qatar hosted numerous international conferences, introduced a number of cosmetic domestic reforms and forged de facto relations with Israel. Attracting branches of famous Western universities and museums and funding joint ventures in cultural, scientific and humanitarian projects became the hallmark of Qatar’s international profile, leading to its success in securing as host the 2022 World Cup of football.
However, that strategy, too, has not produced the desired results.
The Western universities that have opened branches in Qatar have done almost nothing to develop a truly native scientific and academic base. Most academic staff, and almost all students, are non-Qataris. So far there is no sign that the global academic, intellectual, cultural and sports elite are prepared to mobilize in favor of Qatar in the current tussle.
The third element of the strategy was to court and, in some cases, host and generously fund, radical groups of all ilks both to ensure they do not target Qatar itself and, on occasions, as a means of exerting pressure on real or imagined adversaries in the region. Thus, Qatar offered the Egypt-based Muslim Brotherhood a platform from which to propagate its message, especially against President Hosni Mubarak’s government.
At the same time the Aljazeera satellite television was developed to channel the message of radical groups, including Al-Qaeda then led by Osama bin Laden, and the Sudanese Popular Islamic Congress led by Hassan al-Turabi.
Qatar was the only country to host an unofficial embassy of the Afghan Taliban right to the 9/11 attacks on the United States. It also persuaded the European Union to part fund the so-called Fatwa Council headed by the Muslim Brotherhood’s leading televangelist Yussuf al-Qaradawi.
Qatar also part financed a series of media outlets and other operations launched by exile activists against several Arab countries including Algeria and Egypt.
More importantly, perhaps, Qatar worked hard to woo the Islamic Republic in Iran through which it maintained a channel of communication with the Tehran-led branches of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere. Qatar used its influence with some Syrian armed groups, including the Jabhat al-Nusra to negotiate the release of over 30 Iranian military captured by anti-Assad combatants. It was also instrumental in helping bring back the bodies of 13 Iranian elite officers killed in Khan Touman and abandoned by their colleagues in the streets.
Last year Qatar went even further by signing a mutual security accord with Tehran that would enable Islamic Republic forces to operate in Qatari territorial waters, ostensibly in pursuit of smugglers and terrorists.
However, that element of the strategy, too, has not borne the fruits desired. Tehran has used the cover provided to create deep cells inside Qatar itself, a fact acknowledged by former IRGC commander General Mohsen Rezai who, on Monday, offered to help the Qataris.
The grand strategy devised and initially implemented under Qatar’s former Ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, has been tested on a grand scale for almost two decades. It has produced small benefits for the sheikhdom in the form of international name-recognition and in terms of image.
However, some analysts believe it has failed in its main objective which must have been to ensure Qatar’s long-term security. Instead, it may have gotten Qatar involved in adventures it simply cannot be underrated, let alone control and lead.
Qatar tried to be something other than itself and may end up becoming something less than it could be. The best outcome of the current crisis would be for Qatar to learn to become Qatar again.