With Gilad Shalit Deal, Qatar Shows its Middle Eastern Power

On Tuesday Khaled Mashal, the exiled leader of Hamas, announced that captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was to be freed in a prisoner swap with Israel. Mashal's announcement all but heralded the end of five years of captivity for Shalit, who was seized in a cross-border raid in 2006. 

In his speech, broadcast live on Al-Jazeera, Mashal made reference to the parties that had helped the deal, most prominently Qatar. Indeed, Qatar has in the decade since 9/11 emerged as the main powerbroker in a region historically dominated by heavyweights such as Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. In a recent article entitled "Small Country, Big Ideas," the Economist wrote that "Qatar's emir has stamped this Jamaica-sized patch of flat, scorched desert ... firmly on the map of international diplomacy." It is undeniable that the modern prominence of Qatar is remarkable for a country whose total population does not exceed 950,000, but it is not unexpected when taking into consideration its vast wealth and sustained ability to punch above its weight in matters of diplomacy and foreign policy.

The key explanation for this influence is, as with many GCC countries, to be found in the abundance of oil in the country relative to the size of its population. With a proven reserve of 15 billion barrels, Qatar ranks high in terms of oil production capability. This natural resource has given it the financial base upon which to grow its ambition. It has used its oil wealth to shrewdly invest abroad, create employment opportunities and education at home, and make Doha into one of the key transport and economic poles of the Middle East. It has also sought to use its wealth to attract investment to the country, by controversially winning the right to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022 and by bidding for the 2020 Olympics. In essence, Qatar uses its income as a form of patronage, to win friends amongst and influence nations; a policy largely underwritten by oil.

Equally, Qatar has largely sidestepped the Arab Spring at home but has sought to resolve conflicts brought about by it. This is most visible in the Libya conflict, during which Qatar has frequently hosted conferences with the Libyan opposition and international donors in Doha, aiming to rebuild a post-Gaddafi Libya. It also took part in the NATO no-fly zone, sending warplanes to interdict Libyan airspace. Qatar's role in Shalit's forthcoming release further underscores the Qatari desire to be involved in matters stretching beyond the Gulf region. The Emir of Qatar's close relations with Western leaders also serve to highlight Qatar's desire to maintain good relations with Western nations, forging key economic and political partnerships to further extend its foreign policy reach.

Doha is also the home of Al-Jazeera, arguably the most powerful media voice in the Middle-East, Africa and vast swathes of Asia. The fact that Qatar funds Al-Jazeera, a media outlet largely dedicated (except when issues pertains directly to Qatar) to reporting on major events in the Middle-East and beyond, largely unbridled by censorship. Since its founding in 1996 and specifically since 9/11, Al-Jazeera has been a major influence in the Middle-East. With the establishment of an English language service in 2006, Al-Jazeera is in a critical position to be able to cover key news stories across the world in real time for a truly global audience.

In many ways the decade since 9/11 has largely been that of Qatar's, a nation's whose influence has grown exponentially through its use of wealth, patronage, high-level networking as well as the kudos of having the Al-Jazeera franchise. Qatar has come a long way from independence in 1971, when most of the population when the country would have been unknown to the vast majority of the world. 

Today, it is a key financial hub of the Middle-East, sports a modern capital rivaling both European and Asian ones, and is able to enact its foreign policy freely through its use of media and wealth. This makes it an indispensable go-between for Western nations when dealing with the Middle-East. Qatar clearly punches above its weight in international terms; however the key test now is to see whether it can maintain its current form, whilst continuing to grow, or whether this will all turn out to be a desert mirage.

Photo Credit: Lazy Sam

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Will Birch

Specialising in Maghreb affairs, William has lived and traveled throughout the MENA region.

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