Qatar’s Need for Adaptation: Shifting Foreign Policy in the Middle East

Author
Dr. Moran Zaga writes about Qatar's foreign policy and analyzes the new dilemmas Qatar is facing in the post-war landscape. This article is part of "The Struggle for Stability: Arab Reactions to the Hamas-Israel War", a joint MDC/KAS publication surveys conservative Arab reactions to the war, focusing on emerging trends and preliminary reactions to the war's first 3-4 months (October 2023-January 2024).
Date

The war in Gaza has highlighted Qatar’s influential role in the Middle East. However, the evolving geopolitical order may be challenging the principles that have guided Qatar’s foreign policy success thus far. This paper aims to outline the key principles that have shaped Qatar’s foreign policy and analyze their effectiveness in light of changing conditions. It will then discuss the new dilemmas Qatar faces as it seeks to maintain its influence in the post-war landscape.

Over the years, Qatar gradually became the most significant external actor involved in Gaza. Its involvement spread over four significant dimensions: political support, media endorsement, economic sponsorship and energy supply [see figure 1]. Much of this support has been directed directly towards the Hamas leadership. Qatar’s ability to wield such influence can be attributed to its three-pillar foreign policy approach: (1) backing political extremes, (2) seeking monopolistic advantages, and (3) operating as a "lone wolf".


Figure 1: Qatar’s versatile influence in Gaza
Figure 1: Qatar’s versatile influence in Gaza

Backing political extremes

This principle entails forming strong ties with actors on the opposite poles of regional conflicts. Qatar strategically engages with extremist players such as Hamas, Iran and the Taliban, and at the same time with some of the most powerful actors in the international sphere like the US (which defines it as a Major Non-NATO Ally) and Israel. This positioning allows Qatar to leverage and maximize its influence in mediating between conflicting parties. Middle powers and non-hegemonic states are accorded less priority in Qatar’s diplomatic calculus.

Seeking monopolistic advantages

In many cases, the Qatari economic aid and foreign investments intersect with those of other financial patrons in the Gulf. Within the competitive landscape of the Gulf States, Qatar strategically aims for monopolistic control over exclusive political and economic assets. It meticulously selects its investment targets and channels to maximize its advantages. For example, Qatar’s acquisition of a major stake in a prominent media company allowed it to significantly influence regional media narratives. A more exclusive channel that Qatar promotes in its foreign policy is its focus on the LNG (liquefied natural gas) market, which sets it apart from its neighbors who primarily rely on the oil market. This approach not only empowers Qatar to wield substantial diplomatic leverage but also enables direct involvement in the daily lives of people on the ground.

Operating as a lone wolf

Qatar’s foreign strategy is based on its inclination to be a forward player rather than a team player. Its long-standing tensions with its neighbors (that goes beyond the 2017 crisis) among other factors, have driven Qatar to develop an independent foreign policy and use ad-hoc partnerships for each of its projects. It’s almost impossible to draw a systematic picture of Qatar’s regional alliances, except for its commitment to the US and to regional bodies such as the GCC and the Arab League. Its closest semblance to a strategic alliance can be seen in its relations with Turkey, which have evolved since the 2000s to encompass economic, political, security, and military cooperation.

Under this strategy, Qatar has emerged as the only Gulf country, and perhaps one of the few in the Arab world, to fully endorse and support Hamas, even establishing an embassy in Gaza. Apart from physically hosting its political leadership and providing financial aid to Gaza, Qatar has assumed the role of representing Hamas’ aspirations and demands in international affairs, as well as in local Palestinian politics. Furthermore, Qatar was the only Arab country to supply energy to the strip and had planned to deliver natural gas from Israel to Gaza’s sole power station. These efforts and other infrastructure development that Qatar had invested in Gaza, including roads and neighborhoods, unmatched by any other investment in Gaza, granted it exclusive access to important assets and bolstered its political importance in the region.

The war proved Qatar’s strategy to be beneficial. From the outset, Qatar emerged as the key diplomatic nexus for negotiating hostage releases, and as far more. It has been a major broker in coordinating the safe evacuation of foreign nationals from Gaza, facilitating humanitarian access, maintaining vital infrastructure, and addressing other pressing concerns. Despite Israel’s potential preference for Egypt or other mediators, Hamas has remained steadfast in its allegiance to Qatar.

Recognizing its own vulnerabilities, Qatar sought and secured commitments from the key stakeholders involved. Israel reportedly pledged to refrain from targeting Hamas leaders on Qatari soil. The United States extended the lease for its military base, Al-Udeid, by 10 years, providing Qatar with a crucial security buffer. And Qatar likely obtained an assurance from Hamas regarding their exclusive partnership. On a broader scale, Qatar solidified its position by signing at least five major gas deals, including agreements with China and Germany. These deals not only bolstered Qatar’s economic standing but also enhanced its political leverage on the global stage. They assure, for example, that Germany will not strongly oppose or pressure Qatar for at least the next three years, given its significant energy reliance on the Qatari resources.

At the same time, substantial shifts in the geopolitical landscape are now challenging Qatar’s strategy and potentially impeding its progress. A key development is the growing sentiment among leaders in the Arab Gulf States towards collaboration and reconciliation. Qatar’s Emir, Tamim bin Hamad, has notably increased his visits to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, signaling a thaw in relations. The personal dynamics between Gulf leaders have been closely watched since the onset of the war. This shift is particularly significant for the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, all of whom had valid reasons, both individual and collective, for severing diplomatic ties with Qatar in 2017 and renewing them in 2021. In addition, as relations between these countries and Turkey and Iran are normalized, the uniqueness of Qatar’s close relations with them has dwindled.

Furthermore, with the conflict escalating, the United States has taken a more active role in Middle Eastern affairs, particularly in dealing with terrorist organizations like Hamas and its supporters. Qatar, heavily reliant on the United States, may need to reassess its support for radical actors, notably Hamas. It is not blind to the fact that in

the wake of October 7, significant criticism has been directed at its Hamas policy in the U.S. political system.

At this junction, Qatar has to make crucial choices to its foreign policy and strategy – In this new era of potential collaboration, Qatar might choose to make the transition from a unilateral player to a team player. By moving into that direction, Qatar will enhance its credibility with neighbors that can result in greater maneuvering abilities. Also, such a shift would benefit the Gulf region by fostering a more stable and less tense environment. However, cooperating with regional countries also means that Qatar will have to relinquish its monopolistic aspirations.

Moreover, if Qatar will support and sponsor a moderate Palestinian leadership instead of Hamas it will win greater U.S., international, and perhaps even Israeli trust and legitimacy for a continued involvement in the close region. However, without Hamas, Qatar would lose a significant advantage in its role as a mediator during both routine and crisis situations, since it is assumed that a moderate leadership will diversify its partnerships in the Arab World.

In conclusion, Qatar is in the process of reevaluating its foreign policy approach in the aftermath of the Gaza war. While its previous strategies have yielded considerable influence and success, shifting geopolitical dynamics and heightened US involvement in the region may be prompting Qatar to adapt. In navigating these dilemmas, Qatar must carefully weigh its options to ensure its continued relevance and influence in the Middle East.

Qatar’s choices will have significant implications for Israel. A Qatar that embraces collaboration and supports moderate Palestinian leadership could contribute to stabilizing the Palestinian arena, which aligns with Israel’s interests. Furthermore, Qatar’s shift towards moderation could facilitate Israel’s integration efforts in the Gulf, potentially leading to enhanced regional cooperation. Yet, removing Qatar’s support for Hamas could also pose challenges for Israel. The loss of Qatar as a mediator, coupled with the potential for a diversified set of partnerships among Palestinian factions, could complicate Israel’s efforts to manage the Palestinian situation.


*This article is part of The Struggle for Stability: Arab Reactions to the Hamas-Israel War.

**For a full version of this article that includes source citations, please see the original publication file.

***The articles in this collection were written in January 2024 and prepared for publication in early March, before the most recent developments regarding Iran and Israel.