Editor's note: Barak Barfi is a research fellow at the New America Foundation. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Barak Barfi.
By Barak Barfi, Special to CNN
With Middle East heavyweights such as Egypt rocked by instability, Qatar has helped fill the leadership vacuum in the region.
The tiny Persian Gulf emirate has been hyperactive on the diplomatic front, leading the campaign to topple the regime in Libya and now working to do the same in Syria.
Its moment in the sun, however, is likely to be a transient one. The convergence of factors that have fueled its rise are sure to unravel as fallen Arab powers regain their stature. And Qatar lacks the intrinsic qualities that have made perennial regional titans such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Qatar has been able to carve out its sphere of influence through petrodollars and shrewd diplomacy.
The emirate serves as a bridge between the Western world and adversaries such as Iran and the Taliban. Its government-funded satellite news network, Al Jazeera, is the voice of the Arab street. Closer to home, Qatar has mediated between warring regional factions in Lebanon, Sudan and Yemen, and Doha’s doors have always been open to Israelis shunned by their Arab neighbors.
Qatar has also rolled out the red carpet to international organizations and conglomerates. Prestigious American institutions, such as Georgetown University, and prominent research centers, such as the British Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, have established satellite offices in the emirate.
Yet for all the praise Qatar has received in the international media, its policies have fomented a regional backlash, according to American diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks. The Bahraini king told an American official that Qatar’s behavior “is an annoyance.” Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh told U.S. Gen. David Petraeus the emirate was working “against Yemen” and ruled out its participation in a regional conference to rebuild his country. And Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed accused Qatar of supporting the terrorist organization al-Shabaab.
Regional powers such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia can afford alienating neighbors who need their political backing. But smaller nations like Qatar, who have nothing beyond bottomless coffers to entice aggrieved parties, cannot. It is unable to provide the Palestinians the political cover Egypt can to make territorial concessions to Israel. Unlike Saudi Arabia, which is the spiritual epicenter of the Muslim world by virtue of its control of Islam’s two holiest sites, Qatar cannot offer the Palestinians the religious bona fides they will need to concede parts of Jerusalem’s Old City.
Factions that benefited from Qatari patronage have turned on the emirate when they found its demands overly cumbersome or decided it was politically expedient to do so.
In 2009, Israel refused Qatar’s offer to re-establish ties in exchange for cement earmarked for use in Gaza housing projects. Jerusalem’s fears that Hamas would appropriate the cement to build underground bunkers outweighed the benefits of reducing its regional isolation.
Also, Libyans who praised Qatar for its financial aid and political support during last year’s revolution now scorn it for backing political parties that have weakened the rebel government that emerged victorious.
Qatar’s domestic ambitions have encountered similar challenges, rendering it little more than a house of cards. The sprawling Education City, where six American universities have established regional campuses, is a cutting-edge scholastic park. But its facilities are not churning out future generations of Qatari leaders. They are instead exploited by expatriates looking for a subsidized American education. Of Georgetown’s 182 students, only 60 are Qatari.
More culturally sensitive institutions are equally imported. The country’s Islamic museum contains geographically and temporally diverse pieces ranging from Mamluk Egypt to Moghul India. But none of its treasures originates from Qatar, a nation with no significant Islamic history. Al Jazeera, the crown jewel of its empire, is managed by foreigners. Even Qatar’s royal family is imported from Saudi Arabia.
Qatar’s recent ascent mimics those of smaller nations that proliferated in the Ancient Near East. From 1200-900 B.C., regional powers such as Egypt and Assyria were on the decline, leading to what scholars sometimes refer to as the “Era of Small Nations.” As the great dynasties waned, minor Biblical peoples such as the Arameans, Israelites and Phoenicians flourished. King David unified the Israelites, and his son Solomon extended his empire east across the Jordan River.
But after a 300-year slumber, the Assyrians emerged from hibernation to gobble up their neighbors. The kingdom of Israel was destroyed, as were the other minor nations that sprouted up during the interregnum.
Once Egypt and other regional powers recover, expect Qatar to be brushed aside. With little more than wads of cash to entice afflicted factions, the emirate will discover that its influence is as fleeting as the waves that crash under the shadows of Doha’s skyscrapers.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Barak Barfi.