Qatar Steps out of the Shadows to Take Centre Stage: a new power in the Middle East

Qatar has become increasingly assertive in its attempts to dictate affairs in the Middle East. Not one of the region’s historical powerhouses, Qatar has sought to use its economic clout and the media resources at its disposal to play a leading diplomatic role in several areas of political importance.

Qatar is seeking to match its economic power with political clout
Qatar is seeking to match its economic power with political clout

The ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas has intensified security concerns in the region. A dispute often managed and mediated by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, however, now partly rests on the negotiating skills of the Qataris. Having alienated Hamas over its treatment of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s new government has been supplanted by Qatar at the mediation table. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has faced-off against Hamas by proxy in Syria and has also been unable to bring a swift end to the deadly violence in Gaza.

Qatar is ruled by the House of Thani which has controlled the peninsula since the mid-19th century. This was at the time of the ‘Great Game’, when British and Russian imperialists sought decisive influence over Central Asia and the Middle East. It was the ‘British Raj’, based in India, that came to exert a dominant influence over the Persian Gulf creating a maritime truce amongst its states that gave Britain a crucial economic advantage.

In 1971, David Holden wrote:

There is little doubt that as long as the current régimes in Bahrein, Qatar and the seven Trucial States remain in power they will continue to follow the habits of the past 150 years and look to Britain for help and advice, even if direct military protection is denied them.

Qatar only achieved independence in 1971 after years of British dominance in the Persian Gulf
Qatar only achieved independence in 1971 after years of British dominance in the Persian Gulf

Qatar was seen as trapped in Britain’s shadow, even in the post-colonial world. Such a theory has not been borne out. As early as 1957 Qatar had provided a refuge for Yasser Arafat and other leaders of the burgeoning Fatah movement after an agreement between General Nasser of Egypt and the UN to expel guerrilla groups from the Gaza Strip (Rouleau, 1975).

As the country’s oil wealth grew rapidly in the second half of the 20th century, Qatar began to exert greater influence in regional affairs. Any notions that it may remain in the British, or even Saudi, shadow, failed to materialise. 

Offshore oil fields are Qatar's lifeblood
Offshore oil fields are Qatar’s lifeblood

The founding of Al Jazeera in 1996 further strengthened the regional and international prowess of Qatar. Funded by the Thani Emirs, it has become the Arabic mouthpiece across the globe, with news disseminated to suit the priorities of Qatar’s rulers.

Support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other popular Islamist movements in the Middle East has helped Qatar’s rulers dismiss any accusations of arrogant aloofness and provided an important bargaining chip in negotiating on behalf of Hamas. Whether Qatar has the assertiveness to use the tools at its disposal remains to be seen.

To think, however, that a formerly British-Saudi dependent sheikhdom on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula could come to exert such influence in a war-torn region through the use of resources, a powerful media outlet and aid to populist Islamist groups is quite staggering.

Whether this influence will be used for the common good or, as Qatar’s neighbours accuse, national gain, may soon be known.

Sources

Holden, D. ‘The Persian Gulf: After the British Raj’, Foreign Affairs (July 1971)

Rouleau, E. ‘The Palestinian Quest’, Foreign Affairs (January 1975)

Saab, B.Y. ‘The Dishonest Broker: Why Qatar’s Peacemaking Shouldn’t be Trusted’, Foreign Affairs (July 30, 2014)

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Turkmen Elections Offer Hopes of Change: political development initiated

The Turkmen people were not meant to be tamed, beholden to anyone or anything other than the land. Nomads of determination and skill, the Turkmen of history were notoriously difficult to conquer. Seljuks, Mongols and Uzbeks failed to subject them into an acquiescent bondage.

The open mountain plains of Turkmenistan have a long history of nomadism, trade and war
The open mountain plains of Turkmenistan have a long history of nomadism, trade and war

As soldiers, horsemen and traders, the Turkmen formed an influential constituent part of successive dynasties and Khanates. Brought into service they may have been, but the Turkmen retained an autonomy of character which only Russia would end.

In the 19th century the conquests began; striking out from the Caspian Sea, the Tsarist forces achieved what no civilization had achieved before. The nomadic Turkmen were tamed. 1881: the Battle of Geok Tepe confirms Russian victory.

Russian forces lay siege to Geok Tepe during the 'Great Game'
Russian forces lay siege to Geok Tepe during the ‘Great Game’

Since this point, the Turkmen people have been subject to the whims and demands of a select group of people. First, it was the bureaucrats of the Tsarist imperialists; then it was the stooges of the Soviet Union, the eloquently titled General Secretaries of the Communist Party of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic.

The last of these scions of Moscow was Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov. Eccentric, deranged, impulsive, Niyazov became the first President of an independent Turkmenistan. Surely the years of subjection and repression were over? Not so; bloodthirsty meglomaniac that he was, Niyazov drove the Turkmen people further into the ground. Renaming months after his family, commissioning hideously overpriced artworks of his bloated figure, he ruled for personal pleasure.

His successor, the laboriously named Gurbanguly Mälikgulyýewiç Berdimuhamedow, dispensed with the cult of personality and vulgar cultural works but his authoritarian control of the Turkmen was undimmed. In 2012 he was re-elected with 97% of the vote.

On Sunday, multi-party parliamentary elections were held for the first time. Yes, the contesting parties were all government sanctioned; yes, it may be a ruse to detract attention from Turkmenistan’s undemocratic state; yes, it may be an attempt to attract foreign investment.

A rubber stamp for the government it may be but turnout for the Turkmen elections were high; people yearn for political participation
A rubber stamp for the government it may be but turnout for the Turkmen elections were high; people yearn for political participation

To simply dismiss this development, however, would be naive. Political development is a slow process. Democratic change does not simply occur overnight, despite the desperate hopes and beliefs of the Western world. Look at Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt and Libya; overthrowing authoritarianism and replacing it with democracy is too destabilising.

Initiating political change, however limited, is the key starting point. Think of the Great Reform Act of 1832 in the United Kingdom. Changes to the electoral system and the franchise were limited, supposed to appease the agitators without giving anything away, yet they set in motion a lengthy political process that ended with universal suffrage. People get encouraged by change, it makes them hungry for more.

For the Turkmen people, it has been a long time coming. Indentured nomads, they yearn for freedom. Do not be surprised to see the streets of Ashgabat bedecked with the demands of a people destined to seize this sliver of hope.