One of the more interesting stories in the Gulf in the past decade or more has been the expanding, paradoxical role of Qatar. When the emirate hosted the Lebanese dialogue talks in May, this was only its latest demonstration of a policy of counterpoint that has either pleased or infuriated those used to more predictable behavior from Arab states.
The dialogue helped one understand Qatar’s strange ability to place itself at the nexus point of contradictory regional interests. Why, many observers wondered, had the March 14 parliamentary majority agreed to the interchange with the opposition under the auspices of a regime with close ties to Syria and Iran, which has financed reconstruction in Hizbullah-controlled areas? Simply put, there was no one else. Tension between Saudi Arabia and Egypt on one hand and Syria and Iran on the other meant that the Saudis, traditional mediators in inter-Arab affairs, were unable to play that role in Lebanon. Egypt, in turn, had its own problems with Damascus and was anyway represented more or less by the Arab League secretary general, Amr Moussa. Jordan and the North African states were too preoccupied with other matters to intervene. So Qatar filled the gap.
In many ways, Qatar is the Venice of the Middle East. Not for the picturesque waterways or singing gondoliers; but because Qatar, like the Venice of the Renaissance, is a place constantly juggling and preserving a balance between its most improbable relationships, all the while protecting itself, increasing its profits, and enhancing its regional role.
While Doha has good relations with Syria and Iran, as well as Hizbullah, it has managed to do this while hosting the largest American military base in the Middle East, maintaining contacts with Israel, preserving more ambiguous relationships with militant Sunni Islamists, protecting itself on both the Arab nationalist and Islamist sides through its Al-Jazeera satellite TV station, and, more recently, working to paper over its previous rivalry with Saudi Arabia (partly by toning down criticism of the kingdom on Al-Jazeera).
Before the Lebanese dialogue in Doha, Qatari policies in Lebanon provoked much anger from March 14. In some ways the reaction was justified: Qatar sided openly with those most opposed to the government. However, at a broader level, Qatar is interesting because it has taken the lead in shaping what can only be described as a post-ideological approach to Arab politics. Certainly, most Arab states long ago gave up on ideological consistency, and Arab nationalist or Islamist regimes have, mostly, turned their ideological pretensions into little more than instruments to buttress dictatorships. But Qatar has taken this a step further, so that the emirate can openly ignore the most fundamental of Arab benchmarks, the isolation of Israel, while providing political and financial sustenance to Israel’s bitterest foes.
Is this something positive? In one way it is. Pragmatism is an ingredient that has long been in short supply in the modern Arab world. The region is more often defined by polarization, by its stubborn divisions, than by efforts to transcend differences and deal with all sides simultaneously. Pragmatism can also be an essential element of capitalist culture, where the market, whether the market of politics, economics, or ideas, is basically allowed to develop unfettered, free of preconception.
But a capitalist culture, and the pragmatism underlining it, becomes self-defeating when it bolsters autocracy. Take the case of Iran or Hizbullah. That Qatar seeks to deal with both to its advantage is understandable; but if Iran or Hizbullah were ever to impose their will on Qatar, or on Arab states behaving like the emirate, the latitude for that pragmatism would collapse. Would a hegemonic Iran in the Gulf, for example, allow Qatar to continue to serve as a headquarters for U.S. power in the region? A Syrian return to Lebanon, while it might not disturb officials in Doha, could significantly strengthen those regional forces with an interest in obstructing Qatar’s open ways.
In other words, by basing its political actions purely on self-interest, a post-ideological state like Qatar might find itself helping unleash those forces in the Middle East that suffocate the interesting possibilities in a post-ideological state. The same would doubtless apply if pressure came from, let’s say, the United States, except that there are limits to what the U.S. can do. For example, despite its hostility to Al-Jazeera, Washington has understood that it cannot much change the station’s tone. In late 2001, the then-U.S. secretary of state, Colin Powell, tried, and was promptly condemned at home for this.
Gulf politics are so personalized that it may be difficult to reach the conclusion that Qatar represents the way of the future — or a way of the future. The possibility always remains that when leaders change, so do a state’s policies. However, the tightrope act the emirate has pursued in recent years is working for the moment. Not everyone is happy, but it may be a model that Gulf states begin adopting, perhaps to their detriment. Perhaps not.