Robert Nolan is an editor at the Foreign Policy Association and producer of the Great Decisions in Foreign Policy television series on PBS.
While Americans may have difficulty pronouncing its name properly, that has not deterred the small Gulf emirate of Qatar from punching above its weight in a region critical to U.S. foreign policy. Over the past decade, Doha has taken a number of steps to ingratiate itself with the United States and help maintain a delicate balance of power in a volatile region. This includes assistance in major military operations, undertaking risky diplomatic measures, and providing a forum to help tackle global challenges.
While Qatar has a number of assets at its disposal—including lots of oil and natural gas—that help it play an outsized role in the Middle East, it's recent actions do offer a number of lessons for other nations with similar regional or global aspirations:
1. Join a coalition of the willing. When the U.N. Security Council authorized international military action to protect civilians in Libya in 2011, many foreign policy observers were surprised to see Qatari fighter jets flying sorties alongside those of NATO-allied France, Britain, Belgium, Denmark, and Norway. As David Roberts wrote in Foreign Affairs, the move signaled a "qualitative change" in an already activist foreign policy that involved assisting rebels with oil sales, arms, and being the first to recognize the new government there. While Qatar only provided six fighter jets, it's inclusion as the only Arab country to partake in air strikes will certainly not be forgotten in Washington and Brussels.
2. Mediate a crisis. Qatar has sought to play a similar role in Syria. Last week, it hosted a summit for the Syrian opposition with the aim of unifying various rebel groups in an effort to garner more international support. The meeting resulted in the appointment of Maath al-Khatib, an Islamic cleric, as leader of the new Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces and a pat on the back from the United States, which promptly announced a new package of humanitarian aid to Syrian rebels of $30 million. Qatar, along with Turkey and Jordan, has also been a major supplier of small arms to the Syrian opposition.
Still, Qatar's engagement with its neighbors—both politically and militarily—is not always welcome by its Western allies. Last month's visit by the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa to the Gaza Strip to meet with Hamas leaders ruffled feathers in Washington and Tel Aviv, as Time's Tony Karon notes. From a U.S. perspective, however, Qatar's ability to engage with democratically elected Islamists leaders in places like Gaza and Egypt could be a net benefit in the long term, offsetting influence from extremist elements in the region.
3. Lock into the global economy. These days, being an oil-rich country does not necessarily guarantee strong relations with the Washington. Indeed, as the U.S. becomes more energy self-sufficient (it's set to overtake Saudi Arabia in oil output by 2020) Gulf countries that embed themselves into the global economy will find themselves on a much more sustainable path. Qatar sees itself as a leader on this front too. It has diversified its energy output to include everything from natural gas to other petroleum related exports, has made strides towards developing a "knowledge economy," and has fostered a burgeoning financial services industry. Just last month, it announced it could acquire major stakes in seven ailing European banks.
4. Start a credible regional media channel. Though many were skeptical upon its launch, there is little doubt that Al-Jazeera is today a major media player in the region and around the globe. Established through a loan from Emir bin Khalifa in 1996 and owned by the Qatari government, the satellite broadcaster was a pioneer in a region where a majority of Arabs get their news from television, offering debate and discussion on controversial issues impacting the region for the first time. According to Shibley Telhami of the University of Marland, who conducts an annual poll on trends in the Arab world, 53 percent of all Arabs got their international news from Al-Jazeera in 2011.
5. Be a good host. Most Americans probably hadn't heard of Qatar until the launch of the Doha Development Round of the World Trade Organization in 2001. While this is perhaps due to the fact that the talks have gone well beyond their estimated time frame, it helped put Qatar on the map as an international destination for global summits. Later this month, it hosts a United Nations Climate Change Conference and in 2022 will be the first Arab country to host the FIFA World Cup.