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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Religious Revival vs Religious Extremism: blurred lines in Egypt

The remarkable rise and fall from power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt since its legalisation in 2011 remains one of the most prominent talking points in the Middle East. Egyptian people, meanwhile, remain prey to the whims of their country’s ever-influential military, which overthrew democratically-elected Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi earlier this year.

The Muslim Brotherhood treads the blurred line between piety and extremism
The Muslim Brotherhood treads the blurred line between piety and extremism

In 1981, President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, an affiliate of Al-Qaeda with possible links to members of the Muslim Brotherhood. This came at a time when observers claimed Egypt to be going through a process of ‘Islamisation’.

What this term means is contentious yet, as early as 1978, it was enough to worry British diplomats. A Foreign Office cable reported that Islamic extremism was the biggest potential problem for Sadat, a Western ally. The rising popularity of the banned Muslim Brotherhood in student elections was particularly noted. The cable went on:

There is confusion between religious extremism and fundamentalism and a religious revival, which are not necessarily the same. The latter may involve little more than an increase in the numbers and devotion of believers, the construction of more places of worship and the political benefits of appearing pious. On the other hand Islamic (or any other religious) extremism involves fundamentalists seeking to impose their views of correct behaviour on others.

This is a valuable acknowledgement of the difficulties in determining the difference between religious extremists and those that appear extreme to others because of their piety, religious conservatism or opposing beliefs.

The rise to power of Morsi, backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, led to suggestions that Egypt was undergoing a period of ‘Islamisation’ once more; i.e. a religious radicalisation of society. This may be true but, equally, it could simply have been a reflection of the opportunity for political and religious expression provided to conservative Muslims by the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.

A Muslim celebration at Cairo's Saida Zeinab mosque. Like most Middle Eastern countries, the majority of Egypt's population derives great personal strength from their religious convictions
A Muslim celebration at Cairo’s Saida Zeinab mosque. Like most Middle Eastern countries, the majority of Egypt’s population derives great personal strength from their religious convictions

Similarly, attacks on Coptic Christians were suddenly highlighted in media sources as proof that Islamic extremism was on the rise in Egypt. However, it should be noted that the Christians make-up a minority of the population in Egypt and, as such, are likely to be vulnerable to discrimination at the hands of the religious majority in any case. Simultaneously, there are both Protestant and Catholic denominations of Egyptian Copts who hardly see eye-to-eye.

Dismissing Egypt’s troubles as a symptom of increasing ‘Islamisation’ (whatever this means) is too simple. Non-religious factors, such as the economy, provision of services, gender equality, bureaucratic waste and corruption need to be acknolwedged as contributors to the ongoing tension and political malaise.

As the British cable noted in 1978:

The search for a synthesis of traditional Muslim society and the challenges of the modern world has been going on since the Ottoman Empire began its retreat before the advances of Europe in the eighteenth century.

Such sentiment could apply to any religion which, whilst an often contradictory concept in the modern world, provides people with belief and strength during desperate times. It is important that we refrain from judging people apparently alien to ourselves as extremists. It can too easily be used as a legitimisation of unjust acts.

Source: National Archives ref FCO 93/1430

In Egypt’s instance, overthrowing a democratically-elected leader because of his supposed Islamic extremism only divided an already-fractured society further. One person’s extremist is another’s devout believer.