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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Qatar Racing Ahead

The tiny Persian Gulf nation of Qatar is becoming a global player on a range of issues. Within the past week, Qatar pulled off three high stakes events -- Qatar convened an international meeting focusing on recent developments in Syria attended by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the Taliban signaled it was coming back to the negotiating table in Doha, and Qatar had an unprecedented peaceful transfer of power. Superpowers would wish to be so productive. 

Qatar has evolved into an indispensable nation. It has actively supported Syrian rebel groups fighting Bashar al Assad and is a major player in the politics surrounding the Syrian Opposition Coalition. Regarding Afghanistan, Qatar is in the middle of U.S. negotiations with the Taliban by hosting their office. In Egypt, analysts suggest that it is Qatari riyals propping up the government of President Morsi. Qatar played a significant role in the Libyan revolution and worked within the Gulf Cooperation Council and Arab League to secure their assistance and support for the Libyan rebels. 

How did Qatar find itself at the center of global politics? 

50 years ago, no one would have seen Qatar’s rise. Qatar has a population of 2 million, but only 250,000 are actual Qatari citizens. The Al Thani family has ruled the peninsula since the 1800s. Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani came to power in 1995, after a bloodless coup overthrew his father, and has handed power to his son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. 

One source of strength is Qatar’s stability. It does not have the sectarian divisions found in neighboring Bahrain or Saudi Arabia and has enjoyed politically stability. Another source of Qatar’s strength is its great wealth. Despite an impoverished past, its coffers overflow due to the discovery of large quantities of oil and gas after its independence from Great Britain. 

Checkbook diplomacy brought Qatar to into many exclusive conversations, and it has leveraged its wealth to raise its profile on a number of global stages. Several examples: 

  • Information: Qatar is perhaps best well known as being a global leader in information by funding and hosting Al Jazeera since 1996. 

  • International meetings: Over the past decade, the Foreign Ministry of Qatar has partnered with the Brookings Institution to host the U.S.-Islamic World Forum, boasting participants such as Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Hamid Karzai. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted 15 conferences in 2012 and 2013, ranging from interfaith dialogue to climate change. 

  • Finance: Through a range of acquisitions, the Qatar National Bank (QNB) has become the largest bank in the region by some estimates. 

  • Development: In 2012, Qatar was found to have the world's highest GDP per capita, and Qatar has the highest human development in the Arab World according to the UN Human Development Index.

  • Interfaith issues: A Roman Catholic Church, Our Lady of the Rosary, was consecrated in Doha in 2008, marking the return of an openly functioning church on the Arabian Peninsula in 1,000 years. The Emir gave a block of land where other churches are being built too. 

  • Sports: Qatar will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The normal June-July schedule may be moved to winter to avoid the heat, seriously interrupting European soccer teams, such as Britain’s ManU, Germany’s Bayern Munich, and Spain’s FC Barcelona (sponsored by the Qatar Foundation). 

Yet Qatar’s continued ascendancy is not assured, especially if the new Emir is confronted with depressed hydrocarbon prices and/or internal instability. While oil and gas prices remain high, government efforts to jail a poet questioning the family’s position is a troubling sign. Qatar has been criticized on other human rights abuses, including the prohibition of political parties, poor treatment of expatriate workers, and limitations on religious freedom for Muslims and non-Muslims. The new Emir will have to decide whether to reform or maintain the static status quo. 

Overall, Qatar’s approach to international affairs parallels its involvement with horseracing, which became apparent when I visited the Racing and Equestrian Club on a recent trip to Doha. Having attended the Kentucky Derby on several occasions, I was curious to see how the Kingdom of Qatar hosts the sport of kings. To my surprise, the track is a small facility, not having the size or history of Churchill Downs, which has hosted the Derby for the past 139 years. 

Not many things in Doha can be described as modest. However, the Club fits the level of involvement of the former Emir, who doesn’t compete in the high stakes horse buying scene in the same way as Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the emir of nearby Dubai. Sheikh Mohammad has invested millions to buy top colts and fillies, supercharging the horse buying industry in Kentucky and the United Kingdom. Yet for what the Qatar Racing and Equestrian Club lacks in stature, it gains by sponsoring the prestigious Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe race in Longchamp, Paris. 

This approach tracks with Qatar’s diplomacy – the country is not large enough to force other powers to act, but rather uses its resources to buy access and influence. This strategy is working well and tiny Qatar will continue to race ahead as a global player. The new Emir’s leadership will ultimately decide whether Qatar can sustain this pace, but for now, traditional powers will need to make room for Qatar. 

Knox Thames is the Director of Policy and Research at USCIRF, and the views expressed here are his own.

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