From 1995 until 2013, Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani had one of the best jobs a world leader could ask for. His state, Qatar, was tiny, both in land size and population. That meant, for his day job, he had to balance fewer competing interests; fewer people means fewer needs. His borders were secure, having allied with the United States and given them a very useful base they had no interest in walking away from. Beyond that, on three sides he was protected by the U.S. Navy, and his land border was with surly but ultimately toothless Saudi Arabia.
So Hamad could do a lot things that other world leaders couldn’t. He could experiment, pursue flights of fancy, and otherwise indulge his ambitions in ways few others could afford to. Hamid didn’t need to balance himself nearly as much; vast reserves of hydrocarbons in the form of natural gas kept his budgets flush, and his low population of Qataris could be bribed at a will. He didn’t have the headaches of Saudi Arabia, with its far larger and diverse native population, nor the sectarian divisions of Kuwait and Bahrain, which required picking winners and losings in the rapidly expanding winner-takes-all power games of Shi’a vs. Sunni.
And so Hamid did just about whatever he liked to make Qatar into…well, something
It’s not entirely clear if Hamad had a vision for Qatar in 2020 other than the weird artists conceptions that implied people would be flying zeppelins again. He turned Doha, Qatar’s capital, into a regional meeting hub for diplomats as the wars multiplied; he bid to become a sports capital, first by hosting the Asian Games in 2006 and then by winning the World Cup in 2010. Around the region, he sought to support marginalized Arabs by giving a voice to dissidents with Al Jazeera. When the Arab Spring came, he double downed on Islamists, seeing them as the future of the region.
Again, other than just keeping active, it’s not clear what Hamid meant to accomplish by doing all this. He certainly didn’t need the money or the security. While far from a terrible ruler, Hamid could not be said to be very responsible, either, for as he ran around getting his photo taken in various places and signing all sorts of proclamations, he made very serious enemies who did not like him rocking the boat.
And so Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the Sunni-run kingdom of Bahrain conspired to run Qatar’s agenda into the ground
As discussed before, Egypt was the heart of the Arab Spring, despite having started in Tunisia. Should Egypt have remained under Islamist rule, it would have been a serious threat to all the Gulf kingdoms and sheikhdoms, who ran a competing political model also based on Islam. (Their version basically said God wanted them in charge or otherwise they wouldn’t have been born, in the 21st century’s version of Divine Right). When Mohammed Morsi wobbled, the three Gulf allies helped the Egyptian military overthrow him. Qatar has been balancing Egypt’s budget under Morsi; that role almost immediately switched to the UAE and Saudi as soon as he was gone.
Shortly before Egypt was lost to Qatar, Hamad himself suddenly stepped aside and handed power over to his son, Tamim. Rumors abounded, but since palace politics in Qatar is opaque, the full story isn’t clear. What is clear is that Hamad found incentive to step out of the limelight and give his son a shot at running his agenda. Alas, his agenda was so disastrous that Tamim has done little more than damage control.
From being an open port to a port most shunned
The UK’s newspapers have taken delight in bashing Qatar over its labor rights record (and rightfully so; having lived there, I can personally attest to how wretched the human rights situation is). A few things are a play: some of it is the kind of class warfare against the rich that’s always been around and has been strengthened by the recession, but much of it these days is the unease many people in the West have with their Gulf allies.
15 of the 19 hijackers of 9/11 were Saudi; much of the money that supports groups like al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Jabaht al-Nusra comes out of the Persian Gulf; none of that is a secret these days. Having witnessed Pakistan’s ISI play a double game for over a decade, it can be hard to believe that the governments of the Gulf aren’t doing the same.
They probably aren’t. These terror groups aim to destroy them just as much as they aim for wipe out the West. But that being said, it’s well within the realm of possibility that incompetent, naive, or downright thick government men in many of these Gulf governments are throwing money and arms at places they shouldn’t.
If you don’t trust the U.S. government to get the job done, why assume Qatar’s is any better?
Rightfully we all question anything the U.S. attempts to do overseas when it comes to nation-building. That’s less because the U.S. is incompetent – it’s one of the more competent states out there – and more because nation-building is hard. As Qatar has now begun to experiment with the same idea, this time in hopes of building a more Islamist future, why should anyone assume it’s bright enough to know precisely what it’s doing? Qataris are just about as ignorant of Syria as Americans; the chances they foolishly armed the wrong sort is extremely high.
The Gulf is returning to its natural order whether Qatar likes it or not
Qatar would be under severe pressure without the U.S. to support it. Therefore, keeping America happy is a top priority. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have done a bang-up job of smearing Qatar in the media through various shadowy sources; that they have precisely the same sins as Qatar is irrelevant in the media war. All that matters is what’s noticed, and right now the spotlight is trained on Qatar.
Qatar can deflect most of this by returning to its bottom-of-the-power-barrel place. It must follow, not lead. That may be hard for ambitious al-Thanis to swallow, but swallow it they must. The last thing they can afford is the U.S. moving its airbase back to Saudi Arabia.
Money can’t buy happiness or, for that matter, power
Qatar assumed its wealth could buy influence. Really, all it could do was make waves, but not change the currents of the ocean. That was and is a hard lesson to absorb. Hamad is gone; he can turn his attention to decorating his palaces.
Now the Persian Gulf comes under its more proper master – Saudi Arabia. That should console no one; Saudi Arabia has its own severe problems. But at least this all was predictable.