Qatar finds itself balancing a political tightrope between the US and Iran and hopes its influence as a negotiating power can bridge the gap between the two.
A lesson in diplomatic dexterity
DOHA // On a visit to Qatar this week, the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton met with the Qatari Emir, spoke at a conference on US engagement with the Muslim world and, during a discussion with students, said, "Iran is moving towards a military dictatorship". The next day, the Iranian frigate Bandar Abbas docked in Doha harbour and the head of the Qatari armed forces boarded the ship to chat with the captain about boosting military co-operation between the Gulf neighbours.
Considering that the US maintains two military bases here and that US-Iranian tensions have risen to a boil over the past fortnight, some might wonder if Qatar's left hand knows what the right hand is doing. But for Qatari leaders, maintaining friendly relations with two sabre-rattling rivals is nothing new. "This is their usual modus operandi," said Mark Farha, professor of comparative and Middle East politics at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Qatar.
"I don't know if they have much of a choice; If they had snubbed Iran that would open them to a lot of difficulties, and the same with the US," said Prof Farha, who analyses Qatari foreign policy in a research paper to be published this spring by the Center for International and Strategic Studies. "Qatar did not choose its delicate geopolitical location in the crosshairs of two behemoths." Along with considerable natural resource wealth, Qatar's vital geostrategic locale has helped foster the defining characteristic of its international profile: an openness to dialogue and co-operation.
Prof Farha is well placed to study the phenomenon. He grew up in famously diplomatic Switzerland, his father is Lebanese-American and he earned a PhD in history, Middle East and religious studies at Harvard University. He speaks fluent English and Arabic, along with German and French. In his forthcoming report, he links Qatar to small but influential states such as Switzerland and Singapore. "These micro-states share numerous common traits," writes Prof Farha, "including a limited size, high vulnerability to external shocks, diplomatic dexterity, a salient presence in conflict mediation, record numbers of imported migrant labor, export-led growth, as well as a drive to maintain an efficient infrastructure and a skilled human capital base in highly competitive economies."
Moreover, all have matured into progressive and stable regional leaders and learnt to punch above their weight internationally. The trio do have their differences. Switzerland is an established liberal democracy, while Singapore has a form of democracy. Although Qatar held municipal elections in 2007 and is scheduled to hold a legislative vote for Shura Council members in June, its government remains a monarchy.
In terms of economic development, too, Qatar lags behind. But because of a vast natural resource advantage - Qatar holds the world's third-largest reserves of natural gas - the gap is closing. One example is Education City, managed by Qatari First Lady Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned's Qatar Foundation and home to Gulf branches of six respected American universities. "This type of opening up, it is really to the advantage of the host country," said Prof Farha.
"Islamic civilisation itself, why did it flourish? It flourished because it was like a sponge, absorbing other cultures and integrating them into a new cultural model - and I think that's what we have here: there's a saying in Islam, 'seek knowledge, even if you have to go as far as China'." Qatar's sovereign wealth fund has ventured far afield as well, making major purchases from London to Ho Chi Minh City. In recent weeks the Qatari government has announced US$2 billion (Dh7.3bn) in mostly infrastructural investments in India and $12bn in economic and cultural investments in Syria.
But as the tensions between Iran and the US increase, it is Qatar's relationship with Syria's closest ally, Iran, that bears watching. The West looks increasingly likely to place sanctions on Iran. If those fail, the next step would perhaps be military action. Prof Farha advises the rivals to take a page from the Qatari playbook. "The basic Qatari stance - no military escalation, no nuclear proliferation - is not bound to change," said Prof Farha. "Of all actors, Qatar seems by far to be the most level-headed in this conflict. One can only hope that reason will prevail given that a war would be devastating for the vast majority of parties involved."
Another analyst pointed out that the US Central Command centre and largest regional air force base are in Qatar. "If there is any military showdown it won't be long before these two bases are involved in the conflict," said Riad Kahwaji, the founder and CEO of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, based in Dubai. "Qatar, like other Arab Gulf countries, would find themselves in the middle of any conflict, so it is in their interest to do all they can to get the situation resolved short of a military conflict."
Prof Farha sees a historical parallel in Switzerland, which co-operated with both the allies and the axis powers during the Second World War. But Qatar has made its mark with engagement as well as peacemaking. Over the past decade, Qatari leaders have burnished a reputation for diplomacy: from the 2008 Doha Agreement that ended Lebanon's political crisis to the Doha Round of world trade talks; and from the Doha Debates to ongoing negotiations toward a political settlement in Darfur.
The Qatari identity has become intertwined with an openness to progress and dialogue, according to Prof Farha. "It started with Sheikha Mozah and the emir and the prime minister, but they now have the support of their community," said Prof Farha. "Each Gulf state wants to leave its mark, wants to distinguish itself from the other, and this is Qatar's - If you've had one Sheikha Mozah now, you'll have a whole string of them down the line."