On a Tuesday morning in September, three buses full of Libyan tribesmen milled around the gilded lobby of the Ritz Carlton hotel in Doha, the shimmering glass capital of Qatar. The tribesmen were dressed in a mixture of suits and ties and sweeping white robes, and they had come to personally thank the emir for helping them to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi. Yusef Mansoori, a member of the delegation, told me earnestly, “We would like to thank him very, very much for everything he has done for us.”
Certainly, the Libyans had plenty to be grateful for. Qatar was the first Arab state to recognize the National Transitional Council as the country’s legitimate government. It also assisted the rebels by marketing Libyan oil, and hosting and underwriting their Radio Free Europe-style TV station. What’s more, Qatar sent a steady supply of aid to anti-Qaddafi forces, including six Mirage fighter jets, an array of military vehicles, fuel, ammunition, weapons, hundreds of millions of dollars in cash, and a team of Western-trained special forces, who taught the rebel fighters how to shoot—and, according to The Guardian, fought beside them in Tripoli in August.
Had Libya’s revolt stalled, had Qaddafi hung onto power, or had Arab public opinion turned on the rebels, this could have turned out very badly for Qatar. Instead, the tiny Gulf state was praised all over the world. In Libya itself, the Qatari flag briefly flew over Qaddafi’s abandoned compound, and framed portraits of the emir and the crown prince replaced those of the former dictator in a Misrata hotel. Libyans even re-named a square in the center of Tripoli after their newfound ally. The image couldn’t have been clearer: Qatar was on the side of the liberators.
It isn’t just Libya where Qatar has recently sided with rebels. The country also made headlines when it called for Yemeni President Ali Abdulla Saleh to step down in April, and when it became the first Gulf nation to close its embassy in Syria in July. Needless to say, none of this is exactly conventional behavior for an autocratic hereditary monarchy that regularly receives critical marks from human rights groups. How did Qatar end up in this incongruous foreign policy role?
SPEAK TO ANY government official in Qatar these days, and you’re likely to hear a lot of talk about “branding.” Doha is dotted with soaring palaces of soft power: the vast “Education City,” which hosts Western think tanks, research labs, and the campuses of six prestigious American universities; the spectacular Museum of Islamic Art, designed by I.M. Pei on a man-made island in the harbor. For the last few years, Qatar has also been bidding on almost every international conference and sporting event around, culminating in its successful campaign to host the 2022 soccer World Cup. Qatar’s name now appears in gold letters across the chest of every Barcelona soccer player, right where UNICEF used to be.
Changing the country’s international reputation has been a preoccupation of the current emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, ever since he came to power in a bloodless coup against his father in 1995. One of the new emir’s first acts was to launch Al Jazeera, the government-backed satellite TV network. And he quickly set about becoming friends with every major and minor actor in the region. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah all have strong ties to Qatar. The country is also host to U.S. Central Command, and Israel maintained a trade office there between 1996 and 2009.
In the last five years, Qatar has sought to leverage these numerous ties by conducting mediation efforts in Sudan, Yemen, Djibouti, and Eritrea. Its most notable success was engineering a resolution to the 18-month-long stalemate in Lebanon in 2008, in which it acted as an interlocutor between Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, and used its financial resources to add a few sweeteners to the deal. When talks at the Doha Sheraton broke down after five days, the emir telephoned Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to remind him of all Qatar had done for him in the past, according to Mehran Kamrava, the director of Georgetown’s Center for International and Regional Studies in Qatar, who has studied the Lebanese mediation extensively. Within a few hours, the Hezbollah negotiators were prepared to sign on to an agreement.
Recently, the United States backed the idea of the Taliban opening an office in Qatar—making the country a likely site for future negotiations over Afghanistan. Says Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha branch, “As the U.S. shifts to a political solution in Afghanistan, Qatar can provide contacts and a level of relations there that are useful to the U.S., which wouldn’t want to talk directly to certain actors at this point in time.”
Of course, Qatar’s attempt to befriend everyone has not always gone perfectly. Some of Qatar’s fellow members in the Gulf Cooperation Council have privately expressed concern about the emir’s close relationship to both Al Qaeda and Iran, according to U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks. Meanwhile, relations with Israel have cooled considerably. “Qatar can’t continue to be an American ally on Monday that sends money to Hamas on Tuesday,” John Kerry said in 2009.
Qatar’s strategy may or may not succeed—and its ongoing involvement in Libya could certainly end up being a bridge too far. But it’s clear what the emir is trying to do. Other Gulf players, like Dubai or Abu Dhabi, have sought to secure their future by transforming into the investment-cum-consumption capitals of the Middle East. Qatar, it seems, has something a little different in mind: a meticulous bid to build its geostrategic brand. Understood in this context, its embrace of the Libyan rebels makes a lot more sense.
Haley Sweetland Edwards is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. This article appeared in the December 1, 2011, issue of the magazine.