Qatar, Middle East’s Rising Power Broker
International relations in the macro-area comprised between the Near East and Central Asia are undergoing a process of epoch-making change destined to shape Eurafrasia as a whole. The geometric center of Mackinder’s World-Island is increasingly moving East – the Middle East to be precise – and the merit of this rebalancing of power has several fathers. One of them is Qatar.
Geographical size should not mislead the readers. In the last four years, indeed, Qatar not only did manage to overcome successfully and unexpectedly the Saudi-led blockade but it got to turn itself into the Middle East’s powerhouse of diplomacy, that is a first-level deal-maker whose abilities have been tested and proved throughout Eurasia, from Turkey to Afghanistan.
The victory over the blockade
Only a bunch of countries in world history have a record of successful resistance to large-scale economic warfare. Qatar is one of them. Last January, on 5, the 3-and-a-half-year blockade against Doha ended officially via the Al-Ula Declaration signed on the occasion of the 41st Summit of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC). That Declaration was an admission of defeat by Riyadh and its allies, whose efforts to make Doha’s economy scream – paraphrasing Richard Nixon – didn’t achieve the goal.
Qatar won because it converted a life-threatening challenge into an useful opportunity to speed up the much-wanted diversification, mostly by increasing trade with Turkey and Iran and by expanding the now-pivotal Hamad Sea Port. In doing so, the Qatari leadership decoupled the national economy from the Gulf monarchies and made Doha more self-sufficient and world-oriented than ever before.
In order to understand what decoupling actually means, a look at the numbers is mandatory: Turkish exports to Doha amounted about $190 million in 2011 but they reached $1 billion in 2018 and exceeded $1.2 billion the year later. Written and explained otherwise, Ankara’s share in Doha’s total imports increased from 2011’s 1% to 2018’s 4%.
China’s relevance in the domestic market recorded an even more dramatic increase – the bilateral trade volume grew by 30% between 2017 and 2018 – and, again, the watershed moment has been the blockade. In short, Qatar managed to use at its own advantage the economic isolation from its major partners and is now ready to deepen its footprint in Asia’s fastest-growing and most-promising markets, like Azerbaijan.
The return to peace-making diplomacy
With the blockade over, Qatar resumed the ambition to reclaim for itself the enviable title of “Middle East’s mediator” specialized in the provision of peace-fostering and crisis-solving solutions. In the aftermath of Al-Ula Declaration, Doha approached Washington with the goal of becoming the mediator between it and Tehran on the nuclear issue, a role that it could play successfully for the reign is tied to both nations by a strong and intense relationship – never forget that the country hosts America’s largest military outpost in the Middle East.
Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani’s visit to Tehran on February 15, where he met his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, must be read in this context of post-blockade diplomatic dynamism. Qatari Foreign Minister, indeed, traveled to Tehran to present officially the mediation proposal.
Furthermore, Doha is seeking to de-escalate another crisis, that of Turkey v. the Gulf-aligned Arab countries. Again, Qatari diplomacy is leveraging the recent victory and the possession of privileged channels of dialogue with Ankara to achieve the objective and it seems to work. Rumours of a Turkish-Egyptian normalisation have been spreading since early March and this is no coincidence: Cairo is the access door to the Gulf monarchies. In other terms, whoever wants to reach Riyadh, and from there Abu Dhabi, must first set foot in Cairo.
An eloquent record
Why the Arab countries and the US may choose Qatar as an arbitrator to solve their issues is due to realpolitik. Doha, in fact, has a well-recognized and long-standing tradition of crisis management diplomacy and it is in the unique position to dialogue with each part with neutrality and without favoritism of any kind. History shows and proves this record: the ceasefire talks brokered in Yemen between 2007 and 2008, the Lebanon-focused 2008 Doha Agreement, the Darfur-related 2011 Doha Agreement and the April 2017’s release of twenty-six of its citizens from Iraq.
More recently, Doha got to chair the US-Taliban talks by taking advantage of the American strategic retreat from Afghanistan and its diplomatic footprint is being extended in other sensitive theaters touched by the great-power competition, like Syria and Libya, or heavily affected by turmoil and conflicts reflective of the regional divisions, such as the war-plagued Yemen.
However, the challenges are as numerous as the diplomatic qualities of Qatari leadership. First and foremost, Trump’s Middle Eastern legacy – especially the Abraham Accords – is likely to keep affecting the American-Iranian relationship for long and it complicated significantly the resolution process of the nuclear issue, which today is much more complex than in 2015.
For what concerns Ankara, Doha may get to convince Cairo and Riyadh of the need of a de-escalation, but even then the crisis would not be solved. Indeed, Riyadh’s regional primacy declined in the recent years in favour of Abu Dhabi, whose leadership is much less interested in the normalization with Erdogan as he is considered the major threat to the Emirati national security.
Things are different in Afghanistan, where the Biden administration would like to delegate to Turkey the Taliban dossier – hence to Qatar – in such a way to reduce the role and influence over the peace process of Russia and China. Here, Doha is unlikely to meet the antagonism of the major player, namely Moscow, with whom it has a record of fruitful and deep-rooted collaboration. Eloquently, Qatar hosted Syria-focused talks in early March, attended by Sergey Lavrov and Mevlut Cavusoglu, and achieved a tremendous result: the Kremlin fully recognized the legitimacy and importance of the so-called “Doha Format”, which was described by the Russian Foreign Minister as the complement to the “Astana Format”.