by Graham E. Fuller
Speculation has run high over the past several years about what Qatar is up to in the Middle East. At first blanch its foreign policy seemingly contains a mass of contradiction: a Wahhabi state; good ties with Iran; hosting a major US airbase; support for the Muslim Brotherhood; support for armed revolutionary change in Libya, Yemen and Syria; good ties with Turkey; bad ties with Egypt; a solid monarchy yet the seat of the iconoclastic Al Jazeera satellite network—what’s going on here?
It may not be so mysterious if we consider a few key factors that may help the pieces to fall in place a bit more. Qatar enjoys a distinctly moderate form of Wahhabism as its state religion, putting it at odds with the extremely reactionary Saudi version. Qatar aspires to be “modern” in a way that few other monarchies do in the Gulf, except for Dubai. More notably, it appears to believe that Islamism of some sort will continue to be the guiding moral/ideological principle in Middle East governance for a long time to come. For this reason it prefers a more modern variant of Islamism, namely the Muslim Brotherhood which is largely non-violent (except for the Palestinian variant, Hamas, that is involved in a national liberation struggle); the Brotherhood also generally accepts the principle of democratic process in ways that so many other Islamists do not (and is therefore generally viewed as blasphemous and dangerous by Riyadh.) Qatar sees the Brotherhood in its various forms across the Muslim world as relatively progressive and representative of the wave of the future far more than the Saudis or other Gulf states and religious establishments that indeed reject democratic process and popular government. In this way Qatar is sharply at odds with the reactionary policies of Egypt and the other Gulf monarchies who fear the revolutionary implications behind Brotherhood politics.
Perhaps the map reveals Qatar’s most important reality: it is a tiny appendage on the massive body of the Saudi-dominated Arabian peninsula. Riyadh could snap it up militarily in short order. If Qatar is to protect itself from some kind of Saudi annexation or “manifest destiny”—not a far-fetched threat judging by several Saudi military sweeps to the Gulf waters in the past—then it needs to be firmly on the world map with a powerful and vivid international profile that cannot be easily ignored should its existence be threatened in the future.
Qatar is close to Turkey as well, on both economic and ideological grounds. The very moderate Islamic government of Turkey also sees the Brotherhood as a force to be encouraged for political progress in the region. The reality is that secular liberalism shows little promise of mass support in the region for quite some time to come whereas slowly evolving forms of Islamic governance do. The Brotherhood represents a credible transition process and perhaps a way to combine Islamic values with some democratic processes, progress, and free enterprise. Of course, the Brotherhood is still feeling its way on a long learning curve, but it is way ahead of almost any other Islamist movement in the Arab world.
Qatar is very likely to remain a maverick in the region for some time to come, angering the Saudis and its neighbors in the process. There are indeed some contradictions in its policies, but while the Saudi future would seem bound up in sclerotic and reactionary leadership and a defensive, retrogressive vision, Qatar’s young and nimble leadership offers a notable contrast that looks with some greater openness and confidence to the future.
Qatar is of course in no hurry to adopt broad democratic process at home, but its bold, even radical approaches to regional policies and its sponsorship of the iconoclastic Al Jazeera might well help sustain its progressive image for many more years, especially compared to most other Gulf states. (For more detail on this fascinating maverick state, see Chapter 15 in my new book, “Turkey and the Arab Spring.”)
Graham E. Fuller is a former vice chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council. His latest book is Turkey and the Arab Spring: Leadership in the Middle East. This article was first published on Graham E. Fuller’s website and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright Graham E. Fuller.