In September 2011, after the overthrow of Gadaffi, and the take over of Libya, by the NTC, there was a “Friends of Libya” meet hosted in Paris. Hosted jointly by Nicolas Sarkozy, French President and the British PM, David Cameron, it was primarily meant to be a bonding exercise between the NTC and the nations that supported it. France taking the lead was not a surprise, it was the first country that officially recognized the NTC and played a major role in getting the UN to approve the NATO led military campaign against Gadaffi.
On the stage were Ban Ki Moon, Sarkozy, Cameron, Md.Jibril and Mustafa Jalil of the NTC, Angela Merkel of Germany, it was however the figure in white robes on the stage that caught the attention, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani of Qatar.
The image of the Qatari sheikh rubbing shoulders with Sarky, Cameron and co, in one way, just summed up the fact, Qatar was slowly rising on it’s own as a regional power. In a Mid East that has traditionally been a battleground for influence between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Qatar has been the rather silent dark horse, that has been punching much above it’s weight, silently.
Consider this, after France, Qatar was the second nation to recognize the NTC in Libya, and the first Arab,Muslim nation to do so, much before Egypt, Jordan or Saudi did. It was not just being the first to back the NTC, Qatar actually went out of it’s way to provide support to the Libyan rebels battling Gadaff. Acknowledgment has been made of Qatari boots on the ground, of Qatar forces fighting hand in hand with the Libyan rebels.
Qatar pumped in the money, the arms to the rebels in Libya, enabling them to sustain the losses, as also providing the channel of communication for the arms to flow in. In one stroke, Qatar has actually managed to upstage Saudi Arabia, as the major influential player in the region.
So what made this tiny nation, which would fit into the entire NCR, where the expatriate and migrant population outnumbers the native population, become such an important player in recent times?
The demographics of Qatar
It would be hard to locate Qatar on the map, pretty much a tiny nation, overshadowed like most of the Gulf nations by Saudi and Iran. Of it’s entire population of 1.6 million, just 20% is native Qatari, the rest is made up of non Qatari Arabs( primarily Yemen, Egypt, Jordan), South Asians( large number of Indians and Nepalis), along with Fillipinos, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis making up the rest of the number.
Thanks to it’s petroleum riches, Qatar is the richest country in the Muslim world, coupled with zero taxation, it has the highest standard of living. In recent times, the country has been making strides as a sporting nation too, hosting the 2006 Asian Games, winning medals in track and field, has hosted the World Youth Soccer Championship, and Qatar Open is one of the premier tennis championships. Add to it the crowning glory, getting the rights to host the 2022 World Cup Football. Add to it, high literacy and life expectancy rates among the countries in the Muslim world.
Qatar has a society, that falls somewhere between the medieval puritanism of Saudi and the hedonism of next door Dubai. The country is predominantly Sunni Muslim, but has a sizable Christian minority, which includes the Coptic Christians, and churches are permitted here, though missionary activities are banned. Again while being a conservative Muslim nation, women are allowed to drive and go out in open. The nation has been an absolute monarchy since its freedom in 1971, and still practices the death penalty.
Surprisingly though the Arab Spring, does not seem to have affected Qatar, there have been no calls for democracy and freedom.
Either it’s high standards of living, mean freedom and human rights are not really much of a priority for the population or there is an undercurrent of dissent, that has not been allowed to come out. Not that all is well in Qatar too, like most of the other Gulf nations, the abuse of migrant labor is high, as also the dreaded visa system, which turns the migrant workers into bonded labor. Not to mention, the sexual abuse maids regularly face here, as also the allegations of corruption and cronyism against the ruling elite.
Yet there has been no major protests, or even online rumblings much. I guess it has to do with the structure of the population itself. Considering that a whooping 80% of it’s population is made up of outsiders, again most of them just migrants and expats wanting to make a living, and send money back home. The primary concern of them, would be to make a decent amount of money, that they could send back, and they would not really be wanting to rock the boat, the status quo satisfies them. While the visa system in Qatar is pretty much a bonded labor type, they are helpless to do anything much about it.
But even considering it’s oil wealth and high standard of living, what has made Qatar play a major role in the recent events in the Arab world, in fact more than Saudi? Why have Oman, UAE not been able to have such a major impact, if we leave out Bahrain that has been grappling with it’s own uprisings?
The role of Al Jazeera
Traditionally oil money has been the factor in a nation’s clout in the Gulf and Middle East, and for decades Saudi has been doing that. In the 21st century, there is one more factor, however that determines a nation’s clout, more than it’s financial muscle, something called Information. Qatar has an ace up it’s sleeve, Al Jazeera, the TV network, that orginates from Qatar and is funded partly by the Qatar Govt itself.
The Gulf nations follow a rather schizophrenic policy towards the US, generously accepting funds and expertise from them, and in turn propping up Islamist organizations that are rabidly anti American, Saudi has been a past master at the game. Qatar did it more smartly, it just propped up Al Jazeera against the US, funding it to a large extent. It was Al Jazeera’s coverage of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, that made it the defacto choice of viewers across the Arab world.
It also helped that most of the staff and management of Al Jazeera were former BBC employees, they bought in their professionalism and expertise, in a region dominated by staid state TV channels, that only broadcast the Govt version of news. The US was beaten in two ways in Iraq, on the ground, but more importantly by Al Jazeera on the information front.
Yes, it is a channel that is overwhelmingly biased in favor of the Muslim world, and against US, Israel. But to a population, denied a voice, by their governments suppression of media, Al Jazeera was the best outlet.
The Arab Spring owed a lot to Al Jazeera, as it telecast non stop the protests from Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, to the extent that other news networks had to depend on Al Jazeera feed for the news. Al Jazeera had the resources, the familiarity with the Arab region, the personnel, and it’s non stop broadcasting of the events from Egypt, Syria, Libya played a major impact on the people’s mood. For sure, Al Jazeera would not have gone forth so deep, without the funding and support from the Qatar Govt.
Qatar and the WTO
It is not just the Arab Spring though, Qatar’s influence started right from the Doha Round of the WTO in 2001. It was the first WTO talks on negotiating trade barriers around the world. Much more than the Doha Round, would be what happened in November 2008, when the emir of Qatar proactively stepped into resolve the 18 months long political crisis, that had rocked Lebanon.
It was the Emir’s involvement and troubleshooting which ensured that Lebanon would not again slip back into anothern chaotic civil war. Qatar had been one of the few Arab states having commercial ties with Israel, though in recent times, it has again gone into a deep freeze. Right now Qatar’s strategy seems to be two pronged, support the uprisings with financial and military aid overtly or covertly, and use Al Jazeera to gain the information edge, smartly.
It seems to be working, though it remains to be seen, how much of interference will other nations take. Syria has already accused Qatar of undue interference, and while the NTC acknowledges Qatar’s assistance, its wary of that nation,playing too large a role in Libya. Add to it Saudi would not want it’s influence to be diminished in the region. What is undeniable is that Qatar is slowly and unobtrusively turning out to be a major player, punching much above it’s weight in a region traditionally dominated by Saudi and Iran.