Qatar's Balancing Act

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In March 2009, John Kerry returned from a trip to the Middle East perplexed by the foreign policy of a tiny Gulf nation. "Qatar can't continue to be an American ally on Monday that sends money to Hamas on Tuesday," he said.

On September 5, Qatar's Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, revealed another enigmatic relationship: He hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Doha. It is widely known in the region that Iran and Qatar have become closer allies since Ahmadinejad
was elected. The Emir and Ahmadinejad are close friends.

But the Emir has another friend, too-- President Obama. U.S. Central Command has had a significant strategic presence in Qatar since 1996, and it built the current Army base, Camp As-Sayliyah - which has played a crucial role in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars - in 2000.  At the U.S.-Islamic World Forum held in Doha in February, Obama called Qatar "a place where our countries come together to forge innovative partnerships in education and medicine, science and technology."
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So how does the Emir maintain relationships with both Obama and Ahmadinejad without undermining the trust of either? And why is Qatar the only GCC country to attempt this seemingly strange balancing act?

"If people are confused about Qatar's role, they shouldn't be because it has worked," says Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. "It's not as baffling as it might be at first glance."A closer look into current regional geopolitics helps explain how the Emir can afford to keep both countries close. And why it has been so successful at nurturing each relationship. 

Geographically, the Gulf connects Iran to the West. But Qatar has by far the closest relationship to Iran of any GCC country. Saudi Arabia sees Iran as an enemy.  The United Arab Emirates, also close to Iran, is still angry about Iran's seizure of Abu Masa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb, three islands in the Strait of Hormuz, in 1971. Iran rushed to occupy the islands on the eve of the UAE's independence, right after the British guarantor left the region.

"If you are Qatar, you look across the water and you think, when Iran did have the opportunity to take a few Arab islands, they did it," explains David Roberts, a Qatari foreign policy Ph.D. candidate at Durham University in England who writes The Gulf Blog. "To me, that's one example of part of the underlying mistrust between the two [nations]."

Ahmadinejad carousel.jpg

Despite that latent distrust, Qatar needs to keep up good relations - its livelihood as a nation depends on it. Ras Laffan, or RasGas, Qatar's natural gas production company, maintains its gas terminal at the northern tip of the country - the part closest to Iran.

If a conflict erupts between America and Iran, Roberts says, Qatar would literally be caught in the middle. "Iran, if it wanted to, could click its fingers and sever Qatar's money," he says, adding that he thinks it highly unlikely that Iran would ever attack Qatar. But even so, "Qatar needs to have the ability to peacefully go about their business of sucking all the gas out of that giant field." Iran, he says, could make that process very difficult.

Notably, the Iran-Qatar relationship is symbiotic: Iran needs Qatar as much as Qatar needs Iran. Ahmadinejad doesn't want to appear isolated. Having friends makes him - and Iran as a nation--seem more balanced and less psychotic. And if America does attack Iran, it helps to have a rich, amicable neighbor to provide humanitarian support.

Qatar's wealth is also a key factor in its more flexible, creative approach to foreign policy. In September, Global Finance named it the richest country in the world, according to its GDP per capita. Unlike Jordan and Egypt, other regional U.S. allies, Qatar doesn't rely on U.S. aid. Its self-sufficiency means it can make its own decisions, and take policy risks, without seeking U.S. approval. Further, it's more stable than Egypt and Jordan: the Emir is seen as a legitimate ruler, and there are no reported opposition movements brewing in the country.

Still, the question lingers: how does the Emir pull off hosting Ahmadinejad and U.S. Troops in the same country without any visible backlash from either side?

First, the United States understands -implicitly--that Gulf countries must invest in self-preservation. "There's a recognition of the general tendencies of the Gulf states to hedge their bets," says Steve Cook, a senior fellow of Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "There's always a question in the back of the minds of the leadership--how much faith can they put in the U.S.?"

Second, Qatar's willingness to support the U.S. presence in the region indicates they are strongly on the U.S. side. Thus, the U.S. government trusts the Emir, it cuts him some slack. 

"Because they are so clearly in our camp, they have the flexibility to try to reach out and retain some kind of positive relationship with Iran," says Noah Feldman, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor at Harvard Law School, adding that it's also in the U.S. interest to maintain connections to Iran because of its strategic place in the region. 

But as the debate continues over a potential American strike on Iran, experts wonder increasingly how Qatar might be able to maintain the balancing act in the midst of conflict.
Would it force the Americans out of its country, and side with the Islamic Republic? Or would it back the Americans, and risk vulnerability to Iran's predatory policies?

According to Hamid, Qatar would come out against the strike, and likely wouldn't provide the U.S. with any type of support. However, the emergence of a conflict could give Qatar the chance to play its increasingly favorite role in the regional disputes - that of the mediator.
"Even if it does come to the point of violent conflict, Qatar is still going to be particularly well placed to help resolve it," Hamid says.

Photo 1: Getty Images, US President Barack Obama (R) with Emir of the state of Qatar, Skeikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani  at the United Nations General Assembly on September 23, 2010 at United Nations in New York City, New York.
Photo 2: Getty Images



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Elizabeth Weingarten is an editorial assistant at the New America Foundation. A former Slate editorial assistant, she also previously wrote for and produced the Atlantic's International Channel.

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