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Qatar: The little country that could

A picture taken on 20 April 2023 shows a general view of the West Bay skyline in Doha corniche at sunrise in Doha,Qatar on 20 April 2023

A picture taken on 20 April 2023 shows a general view of the West Bay skyline in Doha corniche at sunrise in Doha,Qatar on 20 April 2023

Noushad Thekkayil via Reuters Connect

It has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, is one of the biggest landowners in the UK, boasts a sovereign wealth fund of $475 billion, and even owns a sizable piece of the Empire State Building. And yet its population is smaller than Madrid’s.

Of all the countries in the Middle East, there’s perhaps no other that punches above its weight more than Qatar. The tiny, exorbitantly wealthy Persian Gulf nation of roughly 2.7 million people has garnered incredible regional and even global influence – and constantly seems to be involved in the biggest stories of the day.

In 2022, the eyes of the world were on Qatar as it hosted the FIFA World Cup. More recently, Doha has been at the center of cease-fire negotiations in the Israel-Hamas war that began in October. It’s also been tied to less flattering stories, including new allegations of corruption against US Sen. Bob Menendez, who until recently chaired the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

But how did Qatar become so powerful?

It’s all part of the plan. In the mid-1990s, Qatar set itself on a strategic path to build its wealth and increase its international influence, says Raad Alkadiri, former managing director for energy and climate at Eurasia Group.

Qatar invested heavily in liquified natural gas (LNG), bringing in US and European companies as part of this effort. It’s now one of the top exporters of LNG in the world.

The Gulf state also invited the US to set up an air base within its borders after Saudi Arabia refused. Al Udeid Air Base, which the US has been operating since 2001, is the largest US military base in the Middle East.

All of this was about “national security as much as anything else,” says Alkadiri. Qatar is situated in an often volatile region, and is surrounded by larger, potentially threatening neighbors like Saudi Arabia and Iran. Building relationships with powerful countries such as the US serves as a layer of protection for Qatar.

Hedging its bets. Qatar has been “very careful not to put its eggs in one basket,” says Alkadiri, and “agility” has been key to its success.

Nowhere is this more clear than in its striking diplomatic agility: at the same time that it hosts a major US military presence, it also maintains close ties with Washington’s biggest regional foe: Iran. Qatar and Iran share the world’s largest natural gas field, the North Dome/South Pars, which for years has helped fill Doha’s coffers – giving it ample reason to stay on Tehran’s good side.

Doha has also long cultivated ties with Islamist political groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and the Taliban. Qatar, for example, has pumped millions of dollars into Gaza over the years (with Israel’s approval), while also hosting exiled Hamas political leaders.

By being open to dialogue and engagement with a wide array of actors, Qatar has put itself in a unique position to serve as a mediator in a number of conflicts. Qatar helped foster a temporary cease-fire in Gaza late last year that coincided with the release of hostages taken on Oct. 7. Doha has also served as an interlocutor between Washington and the Taliban, both before and after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Doha has gone hard on soft power too. It’s invested in everything from art to sports as part of a deliberate strategy that gives it the ability to “pull different levers when it needs to.”

Qatar Sports Investments, a subsidiary of the country’s sovereign wealth fund, owns the Paris Saint-Germain Football Club (PSG) in France – one of the most prestigious soccer teams in Europe (Kylian Mbappé, widely considered one of the best players in the world, is on PSG).

The Qatari state also helped put itself on the international map by founding Al Jazeera in the mid-1990s. Al Jazeera’s critical reporting on an array of issues in the region has also made the outlet, and Doha by association, a target of various governments – but it’s also given Qatar outsized influence in its neighborhood and the wider world.

“They have always sought to give themselves room for maneuver and have used energy, the media, money, and long-standing relations with Islamist groups as a way of being able to achieve that,” says Alkadiri.

No absolutes. It’s no secret that Qatar’s insistence on charting its own path has led to blowback from its neighbors at times – most notably in the form of a 2017-2021 blockade involving Saudi Arabia and several other Arab countries.

The blockade was influenced by Qatar’s relatively amicable relations with Iran, a longtime rival of Riyadh. Its relationships with Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which pushes a conservative interpretation of Islam and is considered to be a terrorist group by the Saudi government, also drove Qatar’s neighbors against it. The US played a role in ending the blockade, which ultimately did little to nothing in terms of altering Qatar’s foreign policy.

Qatar used the various measures at its disposal to ensure it has the level of independence and international support necessary to withstand the blockade, says Alkadiri.

And though Qatar leveraged its connections with Hamas to help secure the release of hostages last year, Israel and the US have also criticized Doha for continuing to host Hamas officials amid the war in Gaza. “The Israelis, up to Oct. 7, were quite happy to rely on Qatar's relations with Hamas as part of Israel's policy in the region,” says Alkadiri.

But Alkadiri also emphasized that none of this is to say that Qatar does not have an “ugly underbelly.”

The Gulf state is, after all, led by an emir who has absolute power and has often faced criticism on human rights issues. But with ample cash to splash out and a diplomatic rolodex that also serves as an invaluable form of currency, Doha has managed to avoid much censure over these issues.

Qatar has “never had absolutes,” says Alkadiri. “It’s always had wavy edges. That’s served it well.”


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