Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City-State

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By: David B. Roberts

Publisher: Hurst

London: Hurst & Company. 284pp. $45.00, ISBN: 9781849043250

Volume: 5 Issue: 11

November 2017

Review by:

Calvin H. Allen, Jr., PhD

Shenandoah University

Winchester, VA

David Roberts is an assistant professor of defense studies at King’s College, London, and a former director of the Qatar office of the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies. This book is a revised version of his Ph.D. dissertation at Durham University that analyzes modern Qatari politics through Gerd Nonneman’s (Analyzing Middle East Foreign Policies, Routledge, 2005) tripartite typology which examines state policies and actions within the context of the interplay of domestic, regional, and international factors. Roberts argues that modern Qatar is the creation of Emir Hamad b. Khalifah Al-Thani (r. 1995-2013) who initiated revolutionary, ahistorical changes that profoundly changed both the day-to-day lives of Qataris and Qatar’s reputation in the rest of the world.

Roberts begins with a brief historical background emphasizing three dominant themes in the emirate’s history: rotating alliances to secure Qatari independence, the regional dominance of Saudi Arabia, and Qatar’s position as the “Ka’aba al-Madiyum” (Ka’ba of the Dispossessed) or a place of refuge for regional exiles. Chapters 2 through 8 focus on specific policy issues that have defined the modern state, including close relations with the United States, emphasis on the development of natural gas, Qatar’s role as an international mediator, the development and maintenance of relations with both Iran and Israel, international investments through the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), the development of the Al Jazeera television network, and “soft power” policies focusing on meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions (MICE); international sporting events; cultural institutions; and education. In Chapter 9 Roberts discusses Qatar’s role in the Arab Spring, identified as a major turning point in the Emirate’s history, and Chapter 10 examines the reign of Tamim b. Hamad, who succeeded his father in 2013. Roberts ends with an assessment of Hamad b. Khalifah’s reign looking at the continuing impact of the Saudi role in the region and continuing dependence on natural gas, and other regional considerations as Qatar seeks to maintain its global ambitions.

The case for Hamad b. Khalifah Al-Thani as a transformational ruler is compelling, and Roberts does an excellent job of supporting his contention that Qatar changed more during his reign than under any previous ruler. Since independence in 1971 and prior to Hamad’s reign, Qatar had been a relatively prosperous state that operated internationally within the Saudi orbit and was unknown to the rest of the world. For most, just pronouncing its name proved a major challenge. Hamad initiated major changes very quickly, including breaking out of the Saudi orbit and establishing a close relationship with the United States, establishing relations with both Israel and Iran, and becoming actively involved in the Arab Spring and subsequent conflicts in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Domestically, the launch of Al Jazeera gave voice to Qatar’s position as a place of refuge and further enhanced the emirate’s global reputation as did such “soft power” activities as the development of Education City and winning the bid to host the 2020 soccer World Cup. Symbolic of both the revolutionary and ahistorical nature of these policy actions was the public role of Sheikha Moza bint Nasser al-Misnad, Hamad’s wife and head of the Qatar Fund, in education and other activities, including appearing by Hamad’s side in an Al Jazeera interview.

Nonneman’s typology also provides a very useful framework for analyses. Roberts does an excellent job of identifying key factors, with the end of the Cold War, the Iraq War, and the Arab Spring critical international/regional events. Domestically, Qatar’s small population benefitting from the highest per capita income in the world, a conservative Islamic culture, and generally inactive royal family all serve to give a small governing elite relative freedom of action, although consideration must be given to continued dependence on natural gas exports. The balancing of these variables helps to explain, for example, Qatar’s strong support for the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt, whose conservative Muslim ideology closely allied with popular feelings in Qatar, while at the same time providing a powerful potential ally against Saudi Arabia and investment opportunities to help diversify Qatar’s economy. Similarly, Qatar’s seemingly close relations with Iran are dictated by their shared control of the North Field gas field while also balancing Saudi influence and contributing to Qatar’s soft power interests as a potential intermediary between new ally United States and the Islamic Republic. Roberts does point out that while there have been few constraints on either Emirs Hamad or Tamim, Qatar’s limited institutional infrastructure provides little risk assessment for policy decisions, and Tamim’s decisions to re-establish Arabic language instruction at Qatar University and require military service for men indicate some recognition of public pressure.

Although published before the recent moves by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, and Egypt to isolate Qatar in the region with their breaking of diplomatic relations and economic boycott based on claims of Qatari support for terrorism, Roberts’ description of Qatari policies is especially timely in helping one to understand the continuing diplomatic spat. In analyzing the “revolutionary” policies of Hamad b. Khalifah he first reminds us that this is not the first time the Saudis have lead an effort to isolate Qatar, having recalled its ambassador from 2002 to 2008 and, this time in conjunction with Bahrain and the UAE, again from March to November 2014 to pressure new Emir Tamim, but also provides a broad analyses of Qatar’s recent political activities. Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City-State is highly recommended.

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