Qatar's Big Ambitions: An Interview with Dr. Mehran Kamrava

Mehran KamravaMehran Kamrava, Professor and Director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar, sat down with the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs to discuss his recent book, Qatar: Small State, Big Politics. GJIA: How is Qatar unique or, as you write in your book, experimental?

MK:  Qatar is unique in a number of ways. It is a small state, but it exerts a level of influence incommensurate with its size, history, demography, and, seemingly, its capabilities. Although there are several rich countries in the Persian Gulf, such as Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, Qatar stands apart. It has been able to use its wealth and particular political structure to project a certain type and amount of power and influence.

GJIA: How does Qatar exercise its political and economic influence on its neighbors and in general?

MK:  Qatar tries to create an environment and a set of conditions in which it can be consequential and exert its influence and power. Qatar provides a certain context, and does this through combining several means. First and foremost, the leadership is extremely motivated and has a very clearly articulated and focused vision. That vision is not only to place Qatar on the global map, but also to ensure that Qatar’s interests, regionally as well as globally, are furthered. On the other hand, there is a foreign policy of hedging whereby Qatar tries to maintain open lines of communication with multiple different actors, not all of whom always talk to one another. Qatar tries to position itself in a beneficial, advantageous way, in a manner that allows it to serve as a useful conduit between groups and actors that may not often communicate.

At the same time, Qatar is embarking on a very aggressive branding campaign in which there is a very particular image of the country that is being promoted and advertised aggressively across the world.  This is done through the national airline; through simple advertising; though Al Jazeera, a television station which has recently come to the United States; and through a variety of showcased projects such as hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2022, having a world-class museum of Islamic art, and inviting world-class American universities. So there are a variety of efforts that go into projecting a particular image and brand of Qatar.

The other ingredient that gives Qatar a certain amount of influence is international investment. Although the Qatar Investment Authority is not one of the biggest sovereign wealth funds in the Persian Gulf region, it is by far one of the most aggressive. For example, whereas the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, one of the biggest sovereign wealth funds in the region, often engages in long-term investments, the Qatar Investment Authority often engages in short-term investments and buys and sells in order to capitalize on emerging opportunities or create opportunities on which it can in turn capitalize. All of these factors combine to give Qatar a certain amount of influence and ability to form contexts advantageous to its own positioning regionally as well as globally

GJIA: Do you think that Qatar is in the process of choosing from among competing priorities, or is there a vision for maintaining a balance between these hedged positions in the long term?

MK: Hedging, on the surface, may look contradictory. Many people have described Qatar’s foreign policy as maverick. But there is indeed a logic to what appears like a chaotic and idiosyncratic foreign policy. What Qatar does, as part of its hedging, is place one big bet one way and a number of smaller bets the opposite way. For example, Qatar has placed its security bet firmly with the United States, and at the same time maintains fraternal relations with Iran, maintains relations with Hamas, and interestingly, up until 2008, had an Israeli trade office in Doha functioning as a sort of embassy. It is a very carefully calculated foreign policy meant to ensure that nobody gets alienated.

Recently, Qatar tried to mediate between the United States and the Taliban by sponsoring the opening of a Taliban embassy of sorts in Doha. That office came to naught because the Taliban then displayed a big banner saying “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” and pretended to be the official representatives of Afghanistan, which created an international row. But that in itself shows the intricacy and the challenge of hedging. It requires careful balancing and attention to multiple competing, often contentious, actors. How do you position yourself between these contentious actors so that it doesn't alienate the other ones? It takes very careful diplomacy. But Qatar has, at least since the mid-1990s, been very careful at positioning itself in a way that hedges its bets.

It is interesting to compare Qatar with some of the other regional states, like Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. They all engage in what might be called bandwagoning, seeking shelter almost exclusively in the embrace of a larger potential threat: Bahrain in the embrace of Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in the embrace of the United States. Qatar goes one step further by maintaining friendly relations with Iran, the Taliban, Hamas, and other groups that may be archenemies of the United States.

GJIA: Do you see fault lines emerging in that strategy? Do you think it is a practical strategy in the medium term?

MK: It was a strategy mastered by the former emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who, a few months ago, abdicated and retired in favor of his son. I think the contours of the foreign policy of the current emir have yet to emerge. We have yet to see whether the new emir and the new handful of policymakers in Qatar's state will pursue a decidedly different foreign policy line, or whether they are simply different in style rather than in substance. The old emir, who came to power in 1995, took a couple of years to put his mark on Qatari politics, both domestically and internationally. We have yet to see how the new emir positions himself and his country domestically and internationally.

GJIA: In your new book, you delve into international relations policy and theory, describing Qatar as a small state that exerts influence incommensurate with its size through what you call “subtle power.” What does this model of subtle power suggest about the kinds of strategies that either Qatar or other small states in the region or around the world might adopt in the future?

MK: We see manifestations of what might be called “subtle power” emanating from places like Singapore and Switzerland, both relatively small states that have been able to make themselves immune to pressures from abroad and exert an amount of influence incommensurate with their history, size, and stature. Small states often find themselves at the receiving end of power, particularly in an arena inundated with so-called great powers. We see that Qatar has in many ways positioned itself to become immune to pressures from outside.

The center of gravity has shifted in the Middle East. Ten years ago, the consequential actors were Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, probably Iraq and Syria. For a variety of reasons having to do with regional as well as domestic developments, these actors have either become marginalized or are now at the receiving end of influence rather than being sources of influence themselves. Through development and the convergence of a series of dynamics, Qatar was propelled to a position of prominence.

Qatar has offered to other regional leaders and political actors a model they would love to emulate but are not in a position to. The Kuwaitis would love to do what Qatar is doing, but they simply cannot because Kuwait has a very dysfunctional political system with a parliament that continues to undermine policy for a variety of reasons. Bahrain has major domestic difficulties and there are major internal tensions.

GJIA: As we get closer to the 2022 World Cup to be hosted by Qatar, more attention may be given to labor conditions in the country, as anti-gay law was the cause of heated debate for Russia and the Sochi Olympics. How do you think the Qatari government would handle a similar situation were it to arise?

MK: We really have to wait and see. There are a few things to take into account as we look to see how the government will handle this attention. With influence comes something that might be called the “power curse”: you attract negative attention the more you become involved in regional affairs. One of the reasons Qatar was able to become such a consequential actor in places like Libya, Egypt, and, early on, in Syria was that it did not have the baggage that other regional states had. It was the new kid on the block. Five years from now, Qatar will not be the new kid on the block. It will have collected certain barnacles along the way. It has collected certain liabilities based on what has transpired in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere. All of these are bound to attract negative attention or scrutiny that the Qataris are ill-prepared to handle. Having said this, an important aspect of Qatar’s profile is the image it is trying very carefully to project to the outside world. The Qatari leadership is extremely concerned about the Qatari brand, and wants to address questions about the conditions of labor head on in order to not get as bruised an image as it might get otherwise.

Dr. Mehran Kamrava is Professor and Director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar.

Dr. Kamrava was interviewed by Ian Philbrick and Henry Shepherd on 24 October 2013 in Washington, D.C.