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Qatar's Regional Positioning: Balancing Relations and Practicing Mediation

Middle East Analyst

Qatar, a small Gulf state with a population of approximately 2.8 million, has emerged as an important regional actor and mediating power, most recently exemplified by its prominent role in negotiations between Hamas and Israel following the attack on October 7th and Israel's subsequent war in Gaza. However, unlike other key regional actors, Qatar's domestic and foreign affairs are particularly interesting because the Gulf state has adopted a policy of non-alliance that it has massively used to its advantage. Therefore, analyzing the Gulf states' regional ties and the fluctuating nature of its foreign policy is crucial to better understand whether Qatar can and should be considered a viable mediator in the region.

Initially, it is essential to shed some light on Qatar's policy of non-alliance and what this subsequently means for its interests and strategy in the Middle East. Here, it is equally important to touch on Qatar's relationship with various conflicting actors, demonstrating how this contradicts the nature of most regional alliances. Starting with the U.S., Qatar has historically strong ties with the U.S. following Operation Desert Storm - as the U.S. and Qatar strongly cooperated during the Gulf War in their retaliation against Saddam Hussein's regime. Further, the region's largest U.S. military base, Al Udeid Air Base, was relocated to Qatar. Interestingly, despite the events that unfolded on October 7th and the Qatari-Hamas relationship, the U.S. decided to extend the presence and operation of its largest military base in Qatar in January 2024 for ten years, reiterating the regional-strategic importance that Qatar serves to the U.S. Further, the U.S. has notably strong economic ties with Qatar, being its most significant foreign direct investor and with many American companies operating in Qatar.

Further, Qatari-EU relations have also become highly important, particularly following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the E.U.'s turn to Qatar as a key gas supplier - especially Germany. The tiny emirate state has equally played a role in hosting international forums and events; key examples are the WTO Doha Round, which officially began in 2001, COP 18 in 2012, and most recently, the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Qatar is considered to be a major non-NATO ally. Thus, Qatar has maintained a degree of legitimacy, which has enabled it to become a key player in international forums and develop important ties with the West.

Conversely, Qatar has equally had a history of developing close ties with extreme Islamist and terrorist groups. Key examples include the Muslim Brotherhood - which has caused Qatar substantial issues in the region, as exemplified by the Gulf Crisis of 2017, wherein the GCC countries of Saudi, UAE, and Bahrain - plus Egypt, severed economic and diplomatic ties with the emirate state. Ties were restored in 2021, as Qatar had agreed to limit its funding and the extent of its relationship with the Brotherhood, a GCC reconciliation that was highly influenced by the Trump administration's interests in reintegrating Qatar into the regional alliance against Iran

and Iranian proxies. However, the Muslim Brotherhood is not the only Islamist group that Qatar has engaged with. Qatar has also been a sponsor of Al Nusra Front - a U.S.-designated branch of Al-Qaeda in Syria. Further, Qatar equally has extensive ties to Hamas, and many prominent Hamas officials reside in Qatar - a dimension of the current conflict which has made Qatari significance and mediation inevitable.

Further, Qatar has actively sought to adopt a mediating role in the region - a plan initially developed under former Emir Hamad Bin Khalifa. After his rise, Hamad showed a commitment to Qatari independence in its foreign policy pursuits, exhibited by its mixed alliances, including close ties with both the U.S. and Iran, and mediation efforts in Lebanon, Darfur and Yemen. The growing influence of Al Jazeera is also notable, having become a key and seemingly legitimate news platform for those both within and beyond the Middle East. Qatari non-alignment enabled the Gulf state to facilitate negotiations between Iran and the U.S. in 2023 regarding Iranian nuclear development, highlighting a fascinating aspect of Qatari foreign policy which sets it aside from other regional actors. Unlike many countries in the region, which have essentially 'taken a side' in the Iran-Saudi regional divide, Qatar has maintained relations with groups on both sides and thus, in many ways, is independent of the overarching influence of regional and international superpowers. In light of this, it is helpful to consider how Qatar has maintained its non-alliance policy and whether it is positioned to be an effective mediator in the region.

As mentioned above, the role of Al Jazeera is yet another interesting dimension of Qatar’s regional power. Al Jazeera has gained extensive legitimacy and is one of the most-watched news channels in the Arab world. Al Jazeera is unique in that it adopted a Western model of journalism through its public attempts to reduce bias and provide a ‘dual approach’, as well as its coverage of an array of issues and live broadcasting - setting it apart from its Arab news competitors. Indeed, the extent of Al Jazeera’s regional influence is exemplified by recent concern from the U.S. that Al Jazeera's coverage of the Israeli-Hamas war could heighten anti-Israeli sentiment in a manner that would lead to a greater regional outbreak of hostility. Thus, this demonstrates a type of power that Qatar monopolizes in the region and adds to its importance in the Middle East: informational power.

Two-fold policy: dependency and non-alliance

As mentioned above, Qatar has struck an interesting balance in its foreign policy by maintaining relatively 'good' ties with key regional actors - particularly after the end of the Gulf Crisis in 2021. Here, it is useful to consider the nature of Qatari foreign policy in the region through the lens of dependency and non-alliance. The core of Qatar's relationships with key external actors is based on the premise that these actors depend on the emirate state in some sense. Under these conditions, Qatar can pursue its 'multidirectional balancing act'. Qatar's non-alliance reinforces this 'dependency' in many regards, as many key international and regional actors are wary of Qatar's relationship with Iran.

This Iran-Qatar relationship was strengthened during the Gulf Crisis through Iranian food shipments to Qatar to ensure that the emirate state would not face a 'food security crisis' and a significant increase in Iranian exports, which reached $250 million between 2017 and 2018. Crucially, Qatari-Iranian relations are of high importance to Qatar as well, given the two states share the world's largest natural oil field, and therefore, ensuring minimum tensions is key to Qatari and Iranian economic interests. Nonetheless, the nature of Qatar's positioning in the region and its support of various Islamist groups that do have connections to Iran - such as Hamas, does seem to strike fear in GCC and Western countries and is key to understanding Qatar's balancing act where - if abandoned by U.S. allied countries or key GCC actors such as Saudi Arabia, Iran could supplement this support as exhibited in the Gulf Crisis.

A viable mediator?

In light of the complexity of Qatar's regional positioning, it is worth considering whether the nature of its foreign policy makes Qatar a viable regional mediator. Given its current role in facilitating negotiations between Hamas and Israel, Qatar is - particularly in this conflict - vital to the communication between different actors. Indeed, Qatar played an essential role in facilitating the seven-day 'pause' in hostilities between Hamas and Israel, which was crucial for the influx of humanitarian aid and has facilitated a channel of communication with many top Hamas executives residing in Qatar.

The duality of Qatari foreign policy has also proved important to past mediation efforts, as was exhibited in the case of Yemen - when Qatar played a major role in facilitating negotiations between the Houthis and the Yemeni Government - formerly led by President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Through these negotiations, which were initiated by Qatar in 2007 following continuous rounds of violence from 2004, Qatar was able to facilitate a communication channel between the Yemeni Government and the Houthis due to its stable relationship with Iran - the Houthis' main benefactor. Crucially, these negotiations and the peace deal signed in Doha in 2008 were in no way a success, partly due to disagreement between the Qatari and Yemeni governments on the control of funds. Nevertheless, the role of Qatar and its ability to include both Houthis and Yemeni Government officials further highlights how the nature of Qatar's foreign policy, which some argue hinders its legitimacy in the West, has actually enabled it to emerge as a key mediator with extensive reach.

Crucially, Qatar’s mediation should not be considered in isolation from greater GCC conflict management efforts and influence, which had initially initiated a ‘stronger’ foreign policy stance among GCC members towards Yemen - particularly in 2004 after the rise of Al-Qaeda. In this regard, although Qatar has clearly tried to set itself apart from other GCC states through taking on a highly proactive role in mediation, it is not immune to the influence of other GCC members and their regional interests which in turn could limit Qatar’s success.

To this extent, it is useful to highlight how Qatar benefits from its mediation efforts - as although the Gulf state does not seem to pursue its own interests through mediation processes - i.e. through pushing certain policies forward, Qatar does instead benefit from the legitimacy it attains through meditation. This is evidenced by the U.S. recognition of Qatar as an ‘experienced diplomatic mediator’ and key regional partner. This speaks to the extent of Qatari soft power - as Qatar’s dependence on media, regional balancing through non-alliance, and mediation have carefully crafted the Gulf states’ foreign policy and positioning as an independent player in the Middle East. Further, this demonstrates the ‘reinforcing’ nature of Qatari foreign policy, where through its increased legitimacy western actors will in turn depend more on Qatar for mediation and negotiation with more extreme actors - such as Hamas.

Crucially, recent developments show that Qatar might not see through its mediation efforts in Gaza - due to an ‘abuse of this mediation in favor of narrow political interests’ - according to Qatar’s foreign minister. Seemingly, this criticism is in response to excessive pressure from the U.S. Congress - as many members of Congress have been calling for increased pressure on Hamas from Qatar. To this extent, as the war in Gaza continues to unfold, western dependency on Qatar may become increasingly evident - due to its privileged position in facilitating mediation with Hamas which - at this moment, no other regional actor shares. Thus, a full understanding of Qatar's unique foreign policy is crucial to understanding the state’s viability, which correlates with its increased legitimacy. Equally, it is crucial to distinguish between meditation and peacebuilding efforts - as although Qatar may indeed sustain the role of a mediator and support a form of conflict management or negative peace, it has not yet demonstrated the ability to facilitate any form of positive peace and fully address the underlying grievances in conflicts - an additional necessary layer to conflict resolution.


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