Why Qatar's new influence won't last
May 15th, 2012
10:34 AM ET

Why Qatar's new influence won't last

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.

Topics: Arab Spring • Middle East

soundoff (34 Responses)
  1. Patrick-2

    Whatever happened to George Patton? I sorely miss intelligent his posts here. Now we have a lot of right-wing idiots who spew their ignorance here without saying anything worthwhile!

    May 15, 2012 at 10:52 am | Reply
    • Willie12345

      More likely than not Patrick, George Patton has been censored because his posts were not "politically correct". These conservative fanatics cant stand to have other people express opinions other than theirs!

      May 15, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        It's not true, nobody censors George Patton's reactionary posts. He might assume another name now. A few posters in the past had also vanished but their language and style reappeared under new names.

        May 16, 2012 at 3:39 am |
    • Andrey

      Rajiv Shaw does not sound like right-wing idiot to me. He sounds like left-wing idiot.

      May 15, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Reply
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      May 16, 2012 at 2:49 am | Reply
    • Patrick

      George Patton, J. Foster Dulles, Joseph McCarthy, Marine 5484, Yacobi and Patrick-2 is the same guy.
      No matter whom he is pretending to be, he is a total i diot.

      May 17, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      If you want to check and see whom is using multiple monikers and you have an iphone or android, sign in to this site. You are assigned a colour based on the email you use.
      I discovered this when GP stole my moniker to paste some very stupid statements.
      I do not think GP et al. is a man, I think GP is a little girl, a very little girl .

      May 17, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      As a matter of fact, I just checked and you can add Willie12345 to George Patton, J. Foster Dulles, Joseph McCarthy, Marine 5484, Yacobi and Patrick-2.
      What a m o r o n.

      May 17, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Reply
      • Patrick-2

        Here's the nitwit who stole my original screen name. Now he's accusing me of being other people. This just goes on and on. These Tea Partiers only prove how stupid they are by mimicking the rest of us!!!!

        May 17, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
      • Patrick

        Patrick-2 et al. – you have the brain of a gnat.

        May 17, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  2. Rajiv Shaw

    One by one, these feudalistic societies will fall to Democracy. The present rule of an elite is only possible because they keep the majority in a primitive state with minimal education. Resentment is brewing, but is kept in check by basic respect for their perceived betters. This restraint will be eroded by education, and then will boil over into revolution. If the rulers do not take an enlightened view and help create a peaceful and evolutionary change, they will ( like in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria) face a deadly situation.

    May 15, 2012 at 11:53 am | Reply
    • Ryan Wenzel

      The present rule of the Qatari elite is sustained because the Qatari standard of living is higher than yours. Why would the people rise up just to spoil a good thing?

      May 15, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Reply
      • Levaz

        Highest GDP per Capita is great, but they will rise for this little thing called "FREEDOM", of which not a single citizen on any Gulf country possesses (with the obvious exception of the Royals and their minions). Freedom and Free will is something that every human has fought for eventually. It just takes longer is places where oppression of such thoughts is brutally clamped down.

        May 15, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
  3. Dy

    Okay the facts here are true but twisted 182 students, only 60 are Qatari IN GT True! that's roughly 1/3 of the population, right thats higher then the number of actual Qataris livening in the country by folds. Also the 2016 Northwestern Class of 60 students less then 15 are Qatari. Furthermore you can't expect leaders overnight, these people who are graduating from QF have only been doing so recently NUQ one of the main campuses had their first graduation this year. You must wait at least 10-15 years to see where these students end up. We have a global fashion magazine run by a person still in QF we have sheikh mohammed bin hamad al thani as a GT graduate. Also NUQ the media school has heard many times by executives personally calling the college to tell them how the interns they send are the best they have ever encountered. Qatar will continue to be a leader not in power of size but democracy because even though Qatar and the UAW have many problems environmental, human rights... they are progressive and leaning forward in trying to fix social issues. last but not least issues in Egypt, Libya ETC all have direct impact for the thousands upon thousands of EXPATS from these countries.

    May 15, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Reply
  4. joe the fumbler

    qatar has endless money, a benevolent dictator who has almost no internal dissent that can play a long game for the country. and the one thing that's most important, strong ties with the United States. Qatar will be a force to be reckoned with in the future, of course until oil and gas runs out, then it'll just be a desert again.

    May 15, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Reply
  5. Muzzie Muslim

    You wish Barfi!!! Jews always gotta hate on the muslims

    May 15, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      The blame game – your comment is akin to Kirstie Alley stating that KSA controls all the fudge.

      May 17, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Reply
  6. j. von hettlingen

    I don't think Qatar's "moment in the sun" is a "transient one". It's emerging as a regonal keyplayer. Indeed Qatar does enjoy ruffling feathers among members of the Arab League. The author has forgotten to mention that Qatar is harbouring Iraq's fugitive vice president Hashemi, who fled Kurdistan, where he enjoyed safe haven after fallen out with Al Maliki. Now the latter is demanding for his extradiction. The Arab League is driven by this curious duo: Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The two had had their border clashes in the past and Qatar did not send any of its troops to Bahrain alongside with the Saudis last year to quell the protests there. Moreover it has always kept a more balanced policy towards Iran. Qatar sings Frank Sinatra's "My Way" and we should keep an eye on what it's up to.

    May 15, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Reply
  7. But-What-do-I-Know

    If Qatar can continue to educate its people, develop a credible media source and direct US influence (by hosting a very large air force base) it will have a strong voice in the region. As long as the oil is there and the US has a strong military presence then "life will be good" for the Qataris.

    May 15, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Reply
  8. mary865

    let us always meet each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love, and once we begin to love each other naturally we want to do something.

    --《seniorconnecting.C^o^m》---,it is a nice place for over 40 people.

    May 15, 2012 at 11:40 pm | Reply
  9. M

    I'm not so sure that Qatar's days of influence are numbered. The country is pursuing a course similar to that of Switzerland–it has lots of money, it isn't in the sphere of influence of a single large nation, and it is keen to be a mediator of diplomatic disputes. Countries like Qatar and the UAE have a better chance of surviving oil's eventual decline if they continue to diversify their economies, unlike countries like Saudi Arabia, which have all their eggs in the petroleum basket. Qatar does need to reform itself into a democratic nation, since monarchies, by their repressive nature, can cause domestic tensions to build up, which can create dangerous instability, but, if it can put itself on a stable long-term political footing, then its future could be bright.

    May 16, 2012 at 1:03 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Qatar's foreign policies can't be compared with those of Switzerland, which tries to stay out of other countries domestic affairs. Yes, Switzerland tries to be neutral and mediate but not to side with any of the conflicting parties and annoy others.

      May 16, 2012 at 3:26 am | Reply
    • Patrick

      As a result of Saudi's diversification efforts, its non-oil sector now accounts for 62 percent of its GDP, with the private sector contributing 58 percent of that output.

      May 17, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Reply
  10. al

    the author is clearly bias and really sounds like he does not qatar. maybe hes an egyptian wishing for influence and dignity for his people and nation. egyptians have it very tough and i see no one in the middle east ever taking them seriously.

    May 16, 2012 at 9:01 am | Reply
  11. madu o.

    This is a typical cnn story. So long as it's Qatar and certain countries, no need to mention their democratic credentials and human right which are sticks reserved for countries not very friendly with u.s.a. CNN is just an arm of foregn office propaganda. CNN makes the job very easy for madam Clinton

    May 16, 2012 at 9:23 am | Reply
  12. Hahahahahahaha

    Towel Heads. That's why!! Hahahhahahaha

    May 16, 2012 at 10:53 am | Reply
  13. krm1007

    Perhaps Qatar can learn from the following Indian saga and influence of vested foreign interests in its affairs. Development on steroids has negative long term consequences and the deflation is demoralizing.

    "Experimental Democracy" has failed in India. An experiment that was being shoved down India's throat by western countries too eager to propagate their own values on a country that was trying to decolonize itself while trying to shed the communist skin of being a Soviet ally. India was thus trapped. What has become evident now is that this "Experimental Democracy" has marginalized the country. The marginalized groups of the country – Dalits and ‘backward’ castes/classes, indigenous ‘tribal’ people and religious minorities have been disenfranchised. "The belief that corruption is the important issue in the country is shared only by the minority living in urban areas and towns who have been beneficiaries of economic liberalization policies mandated by western countries. The most important challenges of Indian society remain as follows: justice, social and economic equality and equal access to certain standards of life for all Indians. “While India seems too eager to please its western masters and put on a progressive and softer face for CNN for public consumption, people see through it. The consequences of this "Band – Aid" approach will be brutal for India geo-politically when it realizes that the GDP statistics that it has been relying to gage its progress has not amounted to much in the long run.

    May 17, 2012 at 8:34 am | Reply
  14. alistairmd

    As one of the expats living in Qatar, I can confirm that "unrest" is absent from the daily living in Qatar. Unlike its neighbors, the focus on Education, Culture and Health should deliver democratic evolution over time rather than destabilizing revolution as seen regionally. Too many petrodollars in too brief a period of time are the greatest challenge to the kind Qatari people. The growth out-strips the rate of lessons learned. The population figures peak for themselves: 270k Qataris for a total population of 1.8M. Qatar is mostly a country of opportunist from every social class, from the labors that suffer in the burning sun to the rest of the expats that enjoy a standard of living well beyond the means of their countries of origin. How Qatar will integrate rather than isolate within their own country will have a strong baring on their future sustainability. The concern is for the generation-Q: young, impatient, unhealthy, endowed, avolutional and at risk of not being capable of passing on the transition to a knowledge economy.

    May 18, 2012 at 9:43 pm | Reply
  15. qwerty123

    I really disagree with this article. I think whoever wrote it really does not have any understanding of the country, or its potential, but is just looking at it from the outside. Perhaps some further research would do the reporter good. Many of the arguments made by this reporter are very superficial and irrelevant. For example, size has nothing to do with a country's power (take a look at Switzerland). I don't think the reporter has any concrete evidence, but is just bashing the country because they can (or perhaps have personal bias) and have nothing to support their statements.
    I am simply stating my opinion.

    May 25, 2012 at 9:50 am | Reply
  16. Cadiz

    Those dollars from its gas exports will give it a lot of influence for quite some time to come. Go ahead and write them off as a temporary phenomenon but they might surprise you.

    June 4, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Reply
  17. mark

    I love Qatar and I love her inhabitant. The Author should please leave politics to the experts.

    August 23, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Reply

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