Beneath Saudi officials’ tough talk on the Regional Headquarters Program lies a strong desire for constructive engagement with top global firms and attracting greater inflows of foreign investment.
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Many a warlord, dissident, diplomat, rebel commander, terrorist, or freedom fighter has seen the inside of the Sheraton Hotel in Qatar. One of the first hotels built in Doha in 1982, the Toblerone-like Sheraton Hotel came under the reign of former Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and his son, Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, to be a frequent center for Qatar’s mediation efforts. Most recently, the Taliban have stayed at the Sheraton in Doha, negotiating with the United States, Afghan counterparts, and other members of the international community the terms to end the multidecade Afghan war.
This mediation effort is emblematic of the approach of Qatar, which sees itself as endeavoring to encourage the resolution of a long-festering and deadly conflict. As a part of the mediation, Qatar engineered a meeting between the Taliban delegation and Doha-based Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the influential Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated cleric. It seems likely that Qatari authorities were attempting to use Qaradawi to guide, or at the very least advise, the Taliban on the process of reimagining the institutionalization of religion under their rule, a process said to be underway. To critics, this modus operandi is precisely the problem with Qatar: Engaging with, or at the very least hosting and facilitating, extremist actors, endowing them with legitimacy, furthering their ends in formal negotiations, and using its influence to proselytize the formal mixing of religion and politics.
Qatar has for centuries hosted exiles and assorted strays from the Arab world. The state’s founding father, Jassim bin Mohammed al-Thani, turned his inability to control Qatar’s borders into a virtue, crafting a sentiment about how Qatar was the “Mecca of the dispossessed” in his poetry. Emir Ahmed bin Ali al-Thani, who reigned from 1960-72, engaged in regional mediation between argumentative elites in the Trucial States (the modern-day United Arab Emirates), overseeing border demarcations in the 1960s, while he also lightly facilitated the final push for Algerian independence in 1962.
Engagement in mediation increased under Hamad bin Khalifa. In the early 1990s, as crown prince and de facto ruler, Hamad began involving Qatar in Israeli-Palestinian affairs by, for example, sending representation to the 1991 Madrid Peace talks (alongside representatives from all the Gulf Arab states), and Hamad himself attended the Oslo II signing ceremony in 1995. Qatar’s current deep involvement with Hamas in Gaza, where it frequently acts as an intermediary between the Israeli government and Hamas, is primarily predicated on this foundation.
Qatar’s 2003 Constitution emphasized the crucial role that mediation was to play in the framing of Qatar’s foreign relations. Since, Qatar has conducted a number of mediation efforts, with varied levels of success. In 2006, Qatar sought to leverage its relations with Palestinians, sponsoring an ultimately unsuccessful reconciliation initiative between Hamas and Fatah. In 2007, Qatar sought (though ultimately failed) to mediate a peace between Houthi rebels and the Yemeni government. In 2008, Qatar brokered a deal among feuding Lebanese factions ending an 18-month political crisis and embarked on a multiyear mediation effort in Sudan between the government and various Darfuri militias, resulting in agreements signed in 2011 and 2013. In 2010, with the help of the German government, the Qataris began negotiating the opening of a Taliban office in Doha. The office opened and closed over subsequent years, but the Taliban presence in Qatar was broadly maintained.
Pragmatism and Utility
With its mediation efforts, Qatar has three goals. First, Qatar wants to make itself a conspicuously useful ally to its key international partner state, the United States. In the early-2010s, the United States was looking to wind down its involvement in Afghanistan and needed a diplomatic exit strategy. More specifically, a U.S. soldier, Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured by the Taliban, became a pawn amid wider negotiations, mediated by the Qataris. Bergdahl’s return home to the United States was ultimately negotiated in exchange for prisoners from Guantanamo Bay.
Second, Qatar uses its foreign relations to create and burnish a reputation for itself as a peaceable, proactive, and contributing member of the international system. Al Jazeera, the Doha-based international news network, can also be seen as a tool trumpeting Qatar’s achievements. Hamad bin Khalifa’s tenure as emir was suffused with such an approach. Partly, this was a move rooted in economics, with Hamad reasoning that Qatar was in direct, often zero-sum, competition with many regional states for foreign direct investment and human resources, and any public relations edge was a bonus.
Third, Qatar, like others in the region, insists that it wants to promote regional peace and stability. Given that one of the key assets Qatar possesses is financial power, it has used this to host long-term, expensive mediations with dozens of different parties, frequently with the promise of investment as an inducement. That this was another way to circulate state hydrocarbon money around the local economy was an added benefit.
By pursuing such an activist foreign policy, Qatar leaves itself open to criticism over its motivations and interests. And the current Taliban negotiations bring together three strands of critique that are at the root of the boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt.
First, Qatar is accused of being meddlesome, involving itself in conflicts and other low-level political matters in Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Mali, Iraq, and various states in the Horn of Africa that do not directly affect Qatari interests. This would be a more powerful critique if other Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE did not have their own range of engagements in these countries. Kuwait and Oman, by contrast, have nowhere near the range of interventionist foreign policies as their Gulf neighbors.
Second, Qatar is criticized for supporting and spreading the ideology of Islamist or Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups throughout the Middle East and North Africa. However, while Qatar’s critics see its support of Islamists as an end in and of itself, Doha arguably views such support as a pragmatic means to forward its foreign policy goals.
Third, the most stringent critiques of Qatar view its consistent engagement with Islamists, and their fundamental empowerment, as a central problem, irrespective of Doha’s intentions. This sets up a Manichean split between opposing world views. Qatar broadly believes that Islamists need to be engaged in modern governance to give such often widespread sentiments legitimacy and to prevent those on this spectrum feeling radicalization is their only option. Ranged against this approach are states like the UAE, which believes that empowerment of Islamists reliably leads to worse sociopolitical and economic outcomes. This has embedded a zero-sum game in regional foreign policies, with each seeing the other as actively harming regional interests with their basic foreign policy orientation and choices.
This is precisely evidenced in today’s Taliban negotiations. Critics argue that, again, Qatar is engaging with a terrorist group on the Islamist spectrum. By hosting the Taliban, Qatar enhances its legitimacy and the chances it will play an outsized political role henceforth in Afghanistan. Moreover, Qatar is likely encouraging the Taliban to actively engage with Qaradawi, one of the world’s most influential Islamists. In this way, Qatar is accused of striving to proselytize its Islamist-orientated worldview to the Taliban as it considers how to incorporate Islam in its future institutional makeup.
There is logic on both sides. The Taliban is a powerful actor that needs to be contended with in efforts to stem conflict in Afghanistan, but it is also a deadly terrorist organization with retrograde ideas. When states engage on either side of this debate, they are not so much pursuing different political agendas as promulgating opposing ideologically rooted world views. Consequently, the room for deconfliction and de-escalation is limited. This conception of the differences makes the Gulf schism particularly challenging to resolve, requiring a transformative moment of leadership to break through the growing layers of norms, the bourgeoning history of mistrust, and fundamental disagreements.
is non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and an associate professor in the School of Security Studies at King’s College London.
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