Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Qatari Diplomacy: Complex and Expanding Regional Roles

Qatar diplomacy has triumphed over historical challenges, notably the 2017 blockade, to emerge as a pivotal force in regional affairs.

Qatari Diplomacy
Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani attends the North Field expansion project ground breaking ceremony in Al Khor, Qatar on October 03, 2023. Amiri Diwan of the State of Qatar / Anadolu Agency

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic to English

Qatari diplomacy has successfully established itself as an effective and highly influential force on the regional stage in recent years, particularly in navigating intricate and challenging political scenarios.

In certain conflicts, Qatar has served as a proficient mediator, facilitating crucial resolutions and agreements. In other instances, it continues to uphold its influential position, strategically awaiting opportunities to contribute to future settlements and initiatives.

To achieve this objective, Qatar has leveraged its economic and financial prowess, its prominent standing in energy markets, and its adept management of relationships with divergent and conflicting international entities. Furthermore, the country has actively contributed relief aid in regions affected by war and conflict.

Overcoming the blockade and expanding Qatar’s regional roles between 2020 and 2023

Historically, Qatar has consistently sought to assert its regional political influence, a pursuit that has led to well-documented tensions with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The latter, in its bid for regional dominance, has engaged in efforts to impose its political leadership on the Gulf states.

The culmination of this historical friction occurred in 2017 when a coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, the Tobruk government in Libya, and the government loyal to Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi in Yemen, implemented a comprehensive land, air, and sea blockade on Qatar.

With relations severed, over a period of four years Qatar suffered from the harshest diplomatic crisis since gaining its independence from Britain in 1971. The coalition argued that Qatar, despite being a small country, was assuming regional roles that surpassed its political weight, prompting the blockade as a means to politically and regionally isolate Qatar.

The demands articulated by Saudi Arabia and its allies underscored the link between the diplomatic and economic blockade and the desire to curtail Qatar’s regional influence. Notable among these demands was the call for Qatar to align itself with the foreign policy of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, rather than pursuing an independent foreign policy.

In 2020, Qatar began to gradually exit the crisis as signs of a resolution emerged, with Kuwait announcing a Gulf reconciliation agreement, effectively ending the four-year estrangement.

Subsequently, between 2020 and 2023, Qatar not only emerged from the crisis but also expanded its diplomatic and regional roles. This expansion manifested in Qatar’s mediation efforts, resulting in political deals and settlements in various regional conflicts. Furthermore, Doha’s engagement in the energy sector underscored its growing economic influence in the region.

Successful Qatari mediations and roles

In late February 2020, Qatar achieved a significant diplomatic milestone by successfully mediating between the Afghan Taliban movement and the United States. This effort resulted in a historic agreement signed in the Qatari capital, marking the end of a two-decade-long conflict in Afghanistan and facilitating the withdrawal of U.S. forces, paving the way for the return of Taliban rule in the country.

In 2021, Qatar continued its mediation efforts, playing a crucial role by mediating a settlement that restored diplomatic relations between Somalia and Kenya, which had been strained due to accusations of interference.

Furthermore, Qatar extended its diplomatic influence in the Horn of Africa by mediating internal disputes among Somali parties that allowed the country to successfully hold parliamentary elections in 2022. This move strategically positioned Qatar in the geopolitically important region near the Bab al-Mandab Strait.

In 2023, Qatar achieved its most significant political success by mediating between the United States and Iran. The resulting agreement led to the exchange of prisoners and the release of $6 billion of Iranian funds held by sanctions.

Qatar’s role went beyond mediation, involving practical steps such as receiving detained funds and released prisoners, indicating growing confidence in Doha’s mediation capabilities. The successful prisoner exchange set the stage for Qatar to facilitate negotiations on the Iranian nuclear issue, collaborating with the European Union.

Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdul Rahman Al Thani highlighted that the prisoner exchange deal created a conducive environment for addressing the nuclear issue. Qatar’s aspirations extended beyond the initial agreement, portraying a commitment to a comprehensive and ambitious diplomatic path.

Amid the Israeli war on Gaza in October 2023, Qatar, in collaboration with Egypt, emerged as a primary mediator between the Hamas movement and Israel/the United States.

In November 2023, Qatari efforts resulted in a seven-day truce, during which Hamas released 80 Israeli women, children and teenagers, in addition to 25 foreigners, most of whom were Thai farm workers. In return, Israel released 71 female prisoners and 169 Palestinian children in its custody.

During the Gaza War, Qatar gained Arab and Islamic legitimacy through its explicit support for the Palestinian resistance, especially evident in media outlets like Al Jazeera. Qatari diplomatic impact was palpable in international forums, advocating for a ceasefire in line with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s stance and the United Nations General Assembly resolution.

Simultaneously, Qatar positioned itself as a crucial intermediary for the West in communication and understanding with the Hamas movement, akin to its previous roles in facilitating negotiations with the Taliban or Iran. Overall, Qatar strengthened its role as a major regional player with unparalleled diplomatic influence.

Factors behind Qatari negotiating power

There are diverse factors behind Qatar’s negotiating power that have contributed to its expanded diplomatic and regional roles. Qatar has emerged as a significant player in international energy markets, particularly since European nations began relying more on Qatari liquefied gas as an alternative to Russian gas after 2022.

This energy dependence has bolstered Qatar’s negotiating position with Western countries, particularly the European Union and the United States.

For Washington, Qatar is a crucial strategic partner in the region due to its hosting of the Al Udeid Base, the largest American military facility outside the United States. Qatar’s unique position as an ally with strong ties to countries like Iran and groups like Hamas and the Taliban allows it to serve as a trusted mediator, facilitating deals to resolve conflicts in the region.

Qatar’s pragmatic association with Iran is grounded in shared economic interests that both nations are keen on upholding. A pivotal aspect of this collaboration is their joint involvement in the North Field, the world’s largest natural gas field situated between the two countries. It is noteworthy that Iran relies on Qatar for the expansion and investment in this field. In return, the Iranian government is entitled to its share of the profits generated from this venture.

Following Qatar’s partnership in the Lebanese gas blocks, there is now an increased focus on coordination between Iran and Qatar concerning the Lebanese file. This heightened interest stems from the influence of Hezbollah, a key ally of Iran, in Lebanon.

This dynamic became evident during the 2022 process of delineating the borders of offshore gas fields between Lebanon and Israel. Notably, Qatar played a behind-the-scenes role in facilitating the agreement on border demarcation.

Qatar’s influence in opposition-controlled areas of northern Syria, shared with its ally Ankara, is acknowledged by Iran, which holds a strong presence in the country. Despite Qatar’s continued non-normalization stance with the Syrian regime, Iran recognizes Qatar and Turkiye’s pivotal role in any future political resolution in Syria, affording Doha additional negotiating power regarding regional issues.

Qatar’s engagement with Islamic movements, including Hamas and the Taliban, has evolved over time through deliberate efforts to establish trust. Doha has hosted the Taliban’s representative office since 2013, eight years prior to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Similarly, the Hamas office in Doha was established in 2012, 11 years before the 2023 conflict in Gaza.

In light of their longstanding ties with Doha and the adept handling of Islamic organizations, it was only natural for these organizations to designate Qatar as the negotiator and mediator. Qatar’s extensive experience in dealing with Islamic groups, particularly those associated with the Muslim Brotherhood such as Hamas and certain factions of the Syrian opposition, further strengthened its suitability for this role.

Finally, Qatar’s track record of humanitarian and relief efforts in regions such as the Gaza Strip, northern Syria and Afghanistan has fostered a relationship of trust with the active Islamic organizations in those areas.

All these factors have collectively empowered Qatar with significant negotiating leverage across various fronts in the region, thereby enhancing and solidifying its diplomatic and regional influence. Through these efforts, Qatar has successfully realized its historical ambition of establishing an independent and impactful political presence in the region, distinct from alignment with any other major regional power.

Anticipating ongoing developments, it is likely that Qatar will continue to play more influential roles, be it in negotiations pertaining to the future of the Palestinian issue or settlements associated with the Iranian nuclear file.

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