Qatar’s Return to Mediation Diplomacy: What Changed?
Abstract: This research elucidates characteristics of Qatar’s mediation diplomacy, one of the basic pillars by which the small state gains greater influence in regional and world politics. Qatar’s brokerage before the Arab Spring was largely successful and helped it obtain new friends and become known as a reliable partner by conflicting parties.
However, switching to an interventionist foreign policy during the Arab Spring caused strife with other Arab states that wanted authoritarian regimes to remain in power. Though being on the right side morally, namely with the people against dictatorial regimes, the sheikhdom suffered from the hostilities of its rivals, particularly during the blockade. With the Al-Ula Declaration that ended the three and a half year blockade, Doha resumed mediation diplomacy to re-gain its pre-Arab Spring reputation.
While Qatari officials act more assertive and professional in the new era, whether they will be successful in actualizing the goal of making Doha a hub of diplomacy depends not only on the Qatari government, but also external factors and rival countries. This study tries to shed light on Qatar’s mediation diplomacy by analyzing positive and negative aspects of the venture.
One of the basic goals of small states is to ensure their security and sovereignty and make up for their small size by other means, whether armament, climbing on the bandwagon of a great power or improving good relations with other countries. Qatar, a small state in the Persian Gulf sandwiched between hostile countries, faces the same challenges to maintain its existence as any other small state. Yet, unlike similar countries, it follows a maverick foreign policy that sometimes annoys and provokes regional countries such Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt.
However, despite its proactive foreign policy, the Sheikhdom guards against external threats thanks to its subtle use of soft power in its foreign policy. One method it adopted was mediation diplomacy. Indeed, acting as a mediator between conflicting parties helped it gain new friends, enabled new investments abroad and improved the country’s reputation. Yet, rivalry with other Arab states sometimes halted Qatar’s progress and exposed it to sanctions.
Despite the impediments, Qatar did not deviate from this path and even supported popular revolutions during the Arab Spring. Yet, this study argues that its interventionist policy failed as it was blockaded by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt for several years. Moreover, all of the Arab spring revolutions failed. On the other hand, with the lift of the blockade in January 2021, Qatar seems to have returned to its pre-Arab Spring days.
In light of this context, this research paper sheds light on Qatar’s mediation diplomacy by analyzing it through different periods. It investigates why and how mediation diplomacy was implemented, why Qatar switched to an interventionist foreign policy, and why it has now returned back to mediation diplomacy.
The hypothesis of the research is that mediation diplomacy and generally active foreign policy is a tool for Qatar both to ensure its sovereignty and to have political and economic gains, not mentioning gaining the hearts of foreigners. Yet, given the fierce rivalry with other states, active diplomacy may continue to hurt Qatar. Methodologically, both qualitative and quantitative research methods were used to prepare this study. To this end, a literature review was made and a few interviews were conducted.
QATAR’S MEDIATION DIPLOMACY BEFORE THE ARAB SPRING
The expectation of Qatar as a small state is that it would try to ensure its sovereignty by not getting involved in international politics. Yet, the Sheikhdom followed a maverick foreign policy in the Middle East. Particularly, its mediation diplomacy launched by former Emir Hamad Bin Khalifa lured attention as it was effective enough to change the course of conflicts. Doha’s mediation diplomacy indeed brought benefits to the small country until the eruption of the Arab Spring.
It then lost influence as Qatar followed a more interventionist foreign policy. While mediation continued even during and after the Arab Spring, Doha’s reputation of being a reliable broker was damaged by uprisings. Yet, the small nation revived and revised its mediation diplomacy after the blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt was lifted.
Characteristics of Qatar’s Mediation Diplomacy
Many scholars and analysts have studied why a small country like Qatar, which has existential problems, would want to solve conflicts by mediating between parties. Several views are conspicuous about Qatar’s attitude. First, Qatar expected recognition and credibility in international politics. The Sheikhdom is small enough to be difficult to find on the map, leading observers to believe its foreign policy ambitions would be similar in scope.
However, through mediation, it aimed to become a reliable partner that solves other countries’ problems so it could gain more prestige, voice and friends in world politics. To this end, the Doha government relied on mediation diplomacy so much that the term also officially entered the Qatari constitution in 2003. In addition, desiring to be the “Geneva of the Middle East,” Qataris introduced the term “preventive diplomacy”, aiming for it replace the term “preventive war” coined by Americans[i].
Second, according to Kamrava, Qatar’s aim in mediation diplomacy was not only international prestige, nation-branding, and enhancing Qatar’s soft power, but also to maintain its survival as a small state[ii]. Located in a region with continuous religious and military conflicts, Qatar takes advantage of mediation to prevent it from reaching its borders and neutralizing its enemies regionally and internationally[iii].
Third, Qataris also see mediation as a moral duty. According to Barakat, Qatari officials stress mediation as a moral, cultural, and religious duty, emphasizing that the Qur’an orders parties to use wasata (intermediation), sulh (traditional reconciliation), and musalaha (conflict mediation) to resolve disputes[iv]. Underlining the importance of conflict resolution, former Qatari Foreign Minister said in a conference that:
This dedication to resolve conflict stems from the longstanding Qatar tradition of mediation. Our cultural norms also emphasize tolerance and openness, especially towards those in difficulty. In the words of our founder, Sheikh Jassim: [in Arabic], “Qatar is the destination of the oppressed”[v].
We should note that conflict resolution as a religious norm is rarely mentioned in international theories. Rather, they look at the subject from a materialistic perspective that does not include moral beliefs. While moral duty is common in Muslim and Eastern countries, it is rarely a matter of discussion in the Western literature.
Fourth, Qatar’s socio-political and economic conditions were also suitable for mediation. Barakat ascribes five factors that led the Emirate to become a mediator in regional conflicts: (1) financial and domestic stability; (2) pragmatic foreign policy; (3) Al Jazeera’s broadcasts that cast Qatar as a relatively free and open country in the Arab world; (4) No historical baggage (conflicts, wars, enmities, etc.); (5) the former Emir’s personal interest in conflict mediation6 .
Fifth, there are also some significant motivations that force Qatar to mediate. First, it wants to maintain its security and survival through containing conflicts and lowering threats of terrorism. Second, Qatar wants to manage Iran’s rising influence. Given that it shares the North Field natural gas field with Iran, it cannot afford to jeopardize its relations with Iran.
Third, Qatar desires to expand its influence in the region vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia. Fourth, Qatar wants to improve its international profile by creating an image of itself as an honest broker and a diplomatic powerhouse7 . Besides political goals, Qatar mediates because mediation has financial and commercial benefits and serves state branding8 .
On the other hand, Qatar’s mediation diplomacy had/has some disadvantages that impede the success of efforts. For instance, some scholars claim that Qatar has some structural weaknesses that limit its diplomatic capacity. For one thing, Qatar’s diplomatic team is too small to follow up on post-agreement processes and monitor the implementation of terms, according to Ulrichsen, “The country lacks a large professional diplomatic corps to translate initial engagement into the sustainable implementation of agreements.”9
For example, during the Darfur and Lebanon cases, Qatari diplomats built bridges between parties and solved superficial problems, but deeper problems remained untouched because of the inadequate capacity of Qatari diplomacy. Moreover, Qatar’s decision-making is centralized as only highlevel individuals are involved in mediation. Thus, Qatari diplomats and NGOs have a minimal role in decision-making and do not have much effect on the result10.
Therefore, analysts argue that the Emirate’s mediation produces short-term solutions alone while basic problems continue to remain unsolved. For example, Felsch argues that besides the lack of diplomatic corps, Qatar’s small military power is not capable of enforcing agreements, asserting that soft power is hardly effective without military power11.
In the case of Qatar, the lack of military power deprives Qataris of playing a security role as guarantors of agreements they help broker, which in some cases potentially reduces its capacity to enforce the negotiated deals. As such, what Qatar actually does is alleviate tensions and enable the conflicting parties to negotiate, with a permanent solution to the conflict beyond the capacity of Qatar’s foreign policy12.
Another idiosyncrasy of Qatar’s mediation diplomacy is its lack of secrecy. All of its efforts can be learned through news reports by regional and international media outlets, which are filled with Qatari diplomats’ interviews and breaking reports about the case13. Particularly, Al Jazeera features all the efforts made by Qatari diplomats. Kamrava once said:
Qatari foreign policy parallels that of Oman. But Omanis do it silently, without attention, etc. which is more effective. But Qataris do mediation as a show. They do it in Sheraton, call Al Jazeera, and turn it into a show. While Omanis are interested in the result, Qataris are interested in the process itself or let’s say reputation14.
Pre-Arab Spring Mediations: Yemen, Lebanon, Darfur, and Inter-Palestinian Dialogue
Based on above reasons and characteristics, Qatar tried to mediate between conflicting parties in the first decade of the second millennium, literally until the beginning of the Arab Spring. While viewing the major conflicts it intervened in, Qatar’s brokerages in Yemen, Lebanon, Darfur, Palestine, and Afghanistan are salient in the context of its influence.
In Yemen, a civil war broke out between the Yemeni government headed by Ali Abdullah Saleh and Zayidi Shiites called Houthis in Saada province in 2003. Having credibility with both sides, Qatar began the mediation process with Emir Hamad’s visit to Yemen in 2007. When the Emir arrived in Yemen, the fourth war between the parties was already ongoing15. The Qatari Foreign Ministry, with a team of Yemeni experts began talks between the two sides, eventually reaching a ceasefire agreement that was signed in Doha in February 2008.
The agreement stipulated that the Yemeni government would release prisoners, grant amnesty, and re-construct war-torn areas. In return, the Houthis were to disarm. As part of its carrot diplomacy, Qatar pledged to invest more than $300 million in Saada province16. However, soon after the agreement both sides resumed fighting and blamed the other for breaking the agreement. Qatar then declared that it would not fulfill its pledge of financial assistance.
Qatar appeared on the scene for negotiations in 2010 again but failed once again. Yet, the Saudis, who were backing Ali Abdullah Saleh, were disturbed by Qatar’s involvement and its payment to some Houthi leaders. Eventually, Qatar’s efforts to resolve the conflict in Yemen failed for several reasons. First, there was a lack of effective follow-up mechanisms and established channels to regulate and monitor disputes during implementation.
Second, Qatar’s mediation diplomacy did not follow traditional means of diplomacy. For example, while the Doha Treaty asked Houthis to disarm, it did not include comparable provisions for the Yemeni government17. Third, the process was left to low-level diplomats in the embassy in the course of time. Fourth, Saudi Arabia’s support of the Yemeni government and at times direct involvement were reasons for the process’ to fail. Saudi Arabia had a geopolitical interest in Yemen and saw Qatar’s efforts as a challenge to its power18.
A second notable mediation case in Qatar’s foreign policy was its endeavor to end the strife among leading Lebanese parties in 2008. After the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war, Lebanon was plunged into a political conflict in 2008, when then Prime Minister Fouad Siniora dismantled Hezbollah’s communication structure. The Shiite group and its ally, the Amal Party , responded by seizing Western Beirut and blocking roads, bringing Lebanon once again to the brink of a new civil var.
Qatar stepped in again before any other mediator in 2008 and brought the conflicting parties to Doha for negotiations. The Qatari Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohammad bin Abdulrahman, called Qatar’s mediation in Lebanon “preventive diplomacy”19. The Doha Agreement, which enabled actors to reconciliate and put forth a power sharing mechanism, was signed on May 21, 2008. Besides achieving conflict resolution, Qatar provided financial aid to Lebanon for post-war reconstruction, including predominantly-Shiite towns.
An interesting point about Qatar’s involvement as a mediator in the Lebanese case was that Saudi Arabia supported the step rather than opposing it. The Saudi support was due to the rapprochement between the two countries at the time and since they saw a credible effort from Qatar to preserve their camp’s presence and power in Lebanon. Thus, since the Saudis did not intervene in Lebanon as they did in Yemen, Qatar succeeded in its mediation efforts.
Qatar’s mediation in Lebanon is generally regarded as a success. Both parties had trust in Qatar and gave the emirate the space to act freely in solving the problem. Moreover, Qatari mediators’ engagement and insistence were influential as Lebanese actors were unable to solve their problems when left to themselves20. A further factor was Qatar’s promise of additional investment, which was necessary for a war-torn country. Qatar promised an additional $300 million investment that encouraged the parties to deliver an agreement.
Another salient mediation led by Qatar was in Darfur in 2008. In 2003, rebel groups attacked Sudanese troops, claiming that the Darfur region was economically and politically discriminated against by the government. According to UNICEF, 200,000-300,000 people were killed during the clashes, leading the United States Congress to call it a genocide. Qatar, already in Sudan for relief activities through its Red Crescent, was named as the representative of the Arab League to mediate between Sudan and various rebel groups.
There were also envoys from the African Union and the United Nations. After several failed attempts, the Sudanese government agreed to a ceasefire agreement with the biggest rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), and other rebel groups separately, in 2010. The final agreement between the government and the rebel groups was signed in 201121.
Qatar, again, as a pivotal tool, utilized its financial resources and pledged to establish a development bank to invest $500 million in Darfur, and buy Sudanese state bonds22. In addition, it signed an agreement with Sudan to invest $4 billion in the Red Sea Port at Sudan’s Suakin coast23.
Qatar’s mediation in Darfur is assumed to be an achievement, but the credit should be shared with other involved actors, such as the African Union, United Nations, and the Arab League24. Meanwhile, Egypt, viewing itself as the primary patron in Sudan, was infuriated by Qatar’s mediation in what it considered its own backyard25.
The fourth and final major mediation effort that should be discussed is the one between Palestinian groups and, in association with it, between Israel and Palestine. Qatar does not deny that it supports the Palestine cause. Former Qatari Foreign Minister, Khalid Mohammed Al-Attiyah, said in a conference: “We emphasize that the Palestinian cause is our cause and the first cause of the Arab people26. We reject all forms of Israeli settlement.” Thus, Qatar decided to get more involved in the Palestinian cause. From 2006 onwards, Qataris have been trying to broker peace between Hamas and Fatah factions.