x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Foreign policy could be first test for Qatar's new leader

After three years of supporting the changes in the region, Doha has now provided its own brand of change. But beyond the euphoria, what does the move mean for Qatar and the wider region?

The handover of power was smooth and cordial, in a way unprecedented in the Arab world, as Qatar's emir passed the throne to his son yesterday.

Anticipation had been building for weeks, but the sight of the former and current leaders smiling and joking as they welcomed pledges of allegiance from their citizens was no less historic for that.

It was a big day for the Qataris. And the move, in the context of the changes elsewhere in the region, will likely win Qatar still more soft power abroad. After three years of supporting the changes in the region with both political influence and money, Doha has now provided its own brand of change.

But beyond the euphoria, what does the move mean for Qatar and the wider region?

Will Doha under the leadership of the new emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, change tack in terms of foreign policy? The tiny state has played an out-sized role in regional politics, from Yemen to Lebanon to Afghanistan to Mali. Some of these policies have been popular in the region, others less so. Qatar's controversial close ties to Islamist groups, for instance, have not been welcomed in the Arabia Gulf region.

Some expect the new emir to focus more on internal development and less on foreign policy. Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a political-science professor at UAE University, for example, believes Sheikh Tamim is likely to be "much more inward looking" as he takes over.

The new emir might also consider his regional and international relations. It is believed that the new young emir has strong relations with other Gulf leaders. Saudi Arabia was the first Gulf country to congratulate him.

Last Wednesday, five days before the handover announcement, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, visited Qatar and met with the would-be emir to discuss bilateral relations.

With Islamist groups in Egypt and elsewhere steadily losing popularity at home, Doha's new leaders may reconsider their relationships with these groups. Indeed, Islamists may well be a losing bet and Qatar has an opportunity to change horses midstream. While the former emir had little leeway to change that environment when he took over in 1995, the new emir has the choice to mend his ties with his neighbours.

Regional political and security blocs can benefit from diverse policy opinions. And in the context of the Gulf, the six states' foreign policies can complement each other to provide dynamism to deal with the changing tides in the wider region.

But Qatar's leadership needs to find a way to maintain an independent agenda while avoiding policies that seem to pose a threat to some of its Gulf allies. After all, the five Arab states in its immediate neighbourhood are proven allies; Qatar would be ill-advised to abandon them for friends elsewhere.

Doha's policies have often been perceived as being somewhat out of sync with those of its Gulf neighbours. Indeed, in this neighbourhood, Qatar can be perceived as a meddlesome, reckless state that supports or hosts hostile figures and groups.

There are reasons to believe that Qatar's foreign policy will continue in the same way, or at least with little change, under the new leadership. According to media reports citing diplomatic sources, Sheikh Tamim has long had an important role in most domestic and foreign policy decisions. He recently sent five free cargoes of liquefied natural gas to Egypt, for example.

Additionally, Qatar's perceived clout in the region has been a source of pride for Qatari citizens; continuing on the same path may help his popularity at home.

Still, shifting its foreign policy would be feasible. Under regional and international pressure, Qatar has recently toned down its involvement in regional conflicts - especially in Syria. Also, the outgoing emir, Sheikh Hamad, had a signature policy even before he came to power: to follow a foreign policy independent of Qatar's larger neighbour Saudi Arabia. His son may now seek to establish his own policies without feeling the need to act against the interests of his neighbours.

To be sure, any change of policies is a two-way street. Regional governments can benefit from the transition period by engaging Doha and seeking to settle differences. Doha's ties with religious groups and individuals can be utilised to broker consensus in countries where Islamists have ascended to power.

Make no mistake, countries like Iran and Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood are closely watching the power transfer and will seek to build stronger ties with the new leadership. According to informed Gulf sources, Qatar has been trying to maintain close ties with Iran - despite a worsening relationship due to divergence on Syria - through Egypt's Brotherhood. That is even more possible with new leaders in both Iran and Qatar.

Sheikh Hamad built his country of 1.9 million people almost from scratch. But his foreign policy, with its selective support of Islamist groups, has upset the very people he said he was helping - in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria.

Endorsing change and passing the torch to the younger generation must be bolstered with support for the people of the region, and not the groups that spew hatred and bring back tyranny.

 

hhassan@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @hhassan140