In the tumultuous Middle East, a small but well-positioned country is building a political foundation behind the scenes. The oil-rich nation of Qatar is rising to prominence following the Arab Spring uprisings. By using its vast wealth it has flooded Tunisia, Libya and Egypt with billions of dollars. It is amassing so much political “capital” that some analysts fear they will effectively control these countries they are financially supporting.
With the 25 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and the world’s third-largest reserves of natural gas, Qatar has the most affluent population in the world. With this vast wealth Qatar is free to spread its form of political Islam around the world.
“I think the key motivation for Qatar is political ambition,” said Lina Khatib, head of the Arab Reform and Democracy Program at Stanford University. “Qatar wants to be seen as one of the major, if not THE major, political brokers in the Middle East, and this ambition motivates Qatar to try to have a stake in whatever conflicts the region faces, as well as try to influence the political processes and actors, especially right now in countries in transition.”
Not only has Qatar invested in the Arab Spring but it has mediated conflicts in Lebanon, Sudan and Yemen. Qatar even gave aid to the victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“This is part of Qatar’s aim to influence political processes while appearing neutral,” Khatib said. “And that involves basically working with multiple political actors who may sometimes be in conflict with one another or share even widely different political agendas.” This could explain rather conflicting behavior such as sharing the world’s largest natural gas field with Iran and building a football stadium in Israel.
Simon Henderson, with The Washington Institute, believes Qatar is just being opportunistic. “They see in the Middle East that Egypt, which used to be one of the main leaders, has declining energy and certainly very little money to play a very major role, and Saudi Arabia, which does have money, is ruled by a very old King...and apparently at the moment seems to lack the energy to maintain its paramount leadership role. And so Qatar is competing, particularly with Saudi Arabia, to achieve a greater diplomatic and political prominence in the Middle East,” he says.
Bernard Haykel, Professor of Near East Studies at Princeton University, rejects the idea that Qatar is trying to install Islamic governments around the world. “I believe that its policy, which is driven almost exclusively by its emir, the leader of Qatar, is to basically make Qatar valuable in the region by having a key role as mediator, as a sponsor, as a patron for different political forces, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that it has been cultivating since the 1950s,” he said.
“I think it's just doing it out of what it sees as its pragmatic national self-interest, which is just to have very strong connections with powerful and dominant political forces throughout the region and then, through them, seem even more important to the outside world,” he added.
The question of Qatar’s support of Islamists in Libya and Syria still needs to be answered, though. Stanford University’s Khatib believes Qatar is motivated by the need to protect itself.
“Qatar perceives groups like the Muslim Brotherhood as allies and wants to maintain influencing those allies,” she said. “Aid is a way to maintain a degree of power over those groups. At the same time, when it comes to other Islamist groups that are of a more, let’s say, non-moderate leaning, Qatar’s support of those groups—again, it’s not because it wants to promote them as much as it is interested in controlling them and keeping the danger away from its own borders.”
Tawfik Hamid, a Senior Fellow and Chair for the Study of Islamic Radicalism at the Potomac Institute for Policy studies suggests that by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar is actually working against Islamic extremism.
“In the case of Egypt, Qatar’s support is generous, but only to the extent that it might prevent complete economic collapse, not ensure the long-term building of Egypt,” Hamid said. In other words, Qatar is allowing the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to survive but not flourish.
For all of Qatar’s dealing amid staggering amounts of financial support it still maintains that it isn’t trying to interfere in regional politics, and is not looking for visibility. Qatar says it is only working to support the people of the Arab Spring and their right to make their own choices.
Regardless of their motives, it is apparent with their vast resources they will be a significant influence within the Middle East community. For good or bad, they will be a player to watch as they operate just under the surface to establish a foundation for future growth, both political and economic, in the region.