Qatar's Foreign Policy: Strategy versus Geography

The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies has published Qatar's Foreign Policy: Strategy versus Geography by Marwan Kabalan. The book deals with Qatar's foreign policy, its regional role, and more specifically with the roots of its dispute with Saudi Arabia. This issue has preoccupied the Gulf and Arab region for nearly three decades and the book lies sheds light on an almost unique case in international politics. Qatar is a small country that has overcome its security dilemma by playing major roles in a highly competitive region. The book also monitors the exciting interaction between the structure of the regional and international systems, and the aspirations of the Qatari ruling elite to play an influential role in international politics. It also investigates how Qatar has become a force for change in its regional system, and has managed, with varying degrees of success, to push for profound regional changes. This has put it in a state of confrontation with its powerful neighbours, especially Saudi Arabia, as well as with Iran, Egypt and the Emirates. Although the blockade has served as a potent reminder of the importance of geography, Qatar has once again been able to use effective strategies to bypass it without much cost.

The book consists of ten chapters. In the first chapter, which traces the ascension of Qatar from its independence, Kabalan says that the regional and international environment that prevailed between Qatar’s independence and Sheikh Hamad coming to power prompted Doha to join Saudi Arabia in pursuit of the protection that was absent with the exit of the British from the region and the reluctance of the Americans to find solutions. Qatar also moved closer to Saudi Arabia after the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the declaration of a revolutionary Islamic republic that seeks the export of its model abroad. Qatar joined the rest of the Arab countries in the Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia, in a regional coalition to confront the danger coming from the other side of the Gulf. Throughout these years, Qatar was part of the GCC consensus to confront the threat of Iran and support Iraq in the eight-year war against it. This situation changed dramatically after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the 1992 Saudi attack on the Khofous border post, which caused a profound change in Qatar's perception of the threats it faces, planning its own policy and searching for to independently enforce its security, which put it in a state of conflict with Saudi Arabia.

In the second chapter, Kabalan argues that Qatar finds itself, by virtue of geography, sandwiched between two major regional powers, vying for hegemony in the region. Saudi Arabia is the status quo state, and Iran is seeking change compatible with its regional project. Qatar seeks to carve out a regional role that meets its ambition at the highest level, without jeopardizing its existence, because both of the big neighbours see that the role that Qatar seeks as a threat to their interests. In the third chapter, Kabalan explains that the Qatari elite, in its endeavour to adopt an independent foreign policy and build an influential regional role, encountered a geopolitical reality that it could not change or control. But it also discovered that it could devise strategies inspired by the great advances in technology and ideas (soft power), to maximize its strengths and reduce its weaknesses represented by its presence among larger regional powers. The Qatari elite, in its quest to preserve its independence, also benefited from the advantages offered by the nature of the regional system in which it lives, represented in the major contradictions between its poles, and from its possession of energy resources that upset the balance of power.

In the fourth chapter, Kabalan writes about demise of the tripartite alliance (Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria) that had spent years antagonizing Qatar after the invasion of Iraq. A new political scene formed based on two axes: the axis of resistance, which included Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, and the axis of moderation, which included Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE. In the atmosphere of polarization that crystallized more after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, and then the July war in Lebanon, Qatar moved closer to the axis of resistance, out of a need to maintain regional balance. This represented a major trump card for it in the face of Saudi-Egyptian pressures, as the conflict between these two axes reached its climax in the July war, and Qatar supported the resistance axis politically and diplomatically at the United Nations, in the media through positive coverage by Al Jazeera, and financially through Qatar’s pledge to rebuild from the destruction of the war in southern Lebanon.

In the fifth chapter, the author demonstrates how the Arab Spring revolutions, in Egypt, especially and to some extent in Syria, represented a major point of contention between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. While Qatar supported the Arab revolutions, Saudi Arabia in particular (and Iran in Syria as well) found them a major threat to their security and regime continuation. This major geopolitical conflict that the two countries fought along the arenas of change in the Arab region was a major reason for the outbreak of the 2014, and then the 2017, crisis. In the sixth chapter, Kabalan notes that the shift in Saudi foreign policy was accompanied by the consolidation of the authority of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The new crown prince faced internal political challenges, seeking to strengthen his rule, imprisoning the religious figures who led the political opposition in the early nineties and championed the protests of the Arab Spring.

In the seventh chapter, the author draws a parallel between US foreign policy regarding the Gulf crisis, manufactured in the White House and led by the US President’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and the Saudi-American contacts were specifically passing through a channel that directly reaches the White House through Kushner himself, especially since Washington did not have an ambassador in Riyadh during the first two years of Donald Trump’s administration. While Kushner's position on Qatar was determined by personal and financial interests, other elements of President Trump's administration were driven by ideological factors; Chief Adviser to the President, Steve Bannon, saw that the United States was engaged in an existential struggle with the forces of radical Islam, and justifying tensions with Qatar, claiming its proximity to some Islamic currents, even if they were classified as moderate, like the Muslim Brotherhood. The author goes on to discuss the future of the GCC in the eighth chapter. Once considered one of the most successful joint Arab regional action systems, the GCC’s prospects have become questionable.

In the ninth chapter, the book asserts that Qatar responded quickly to efforts to end the crisis after Riyadh dropped the thirteen conditions it had set before Qatar for approval. Qatar had focused from the beginning on bringing about a change in the Saudi position, in isolation from the other parties, given Saudi Arabia's importance, geographical location, and the fact that Qatar's only land crossing passes through Saudi Arabia. The major breakthrough in the crisis wall occurred during Kushner's visit to Riyadh and Doha in early December 2020, when the two sides agreed on a joint declaration. Saudi Arabia persuaded the other three countries to agree to it. In the tenth and final chapter, Kabalan concludes by saying that regional and international interactions present Qatar with major opportunities and challenges that strongly affect its foreign policy and its political and security options, especially in light of the decline in US interest in the region, which is encouraging regional and global powers. The Gulf region is at risk of a vacuum, and if a major power, the size of the United States, withdraws from an important theatre, the absence will attract all stakeholders, pushing Qatar to act automatically on the threat to its security and existence.

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