Time magazine named "The Protester" as the person of the year 2011 and paid special homage to Mohamed Al Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor whose desperate gesture triggered the Arab Spring. However, some analysts and diplomats suggest, only half-jokingly, that another contender could have shared this honor. A man whose ideology resembles the pragmatism of the Renaissance Venetian Republic: Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar.
The Arab Spring Patron
What if the mayor of Baton Rouge, the small capital of Louisiana, had the power to set the political agenda of the entire United States? Far-fetched as this scenario may seem, it is already taking place, only in a different region. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar and absolute monarch of fewer than 300,000 citizens, has been the driving force behind the most dramatic political moves related to the Arab Spring. Approximately 50m people watched the successive falls of Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak on Al Jazeera, the news channel the Emir created the year he seized power from his father in a bloodless coup d’état.
Revenge is a dish best served cold, and it is probable the Emir of Qatar remembered how Mubarak made his putsch difficult in 1995 when the Rais (president) ordered the Egyptian praetorian guard protecting Sheikh al-Thani’s father to fight until their last breath. In Libya, the Emir armed the Benghazi rebels, financed the war effort, and sent his special forces on the ground. He even provided NATO with official Arab support to prevent the military operations from being perceived by the "Arab street" as another neo-colonial war.
Under the Emir’s growing influence, the Arab League has woken up from its lethargic sleep and, most unexpectedly, has taken a hard stance against Syria. As a result, Bashar al Assad’s regime has been suspended from the organization and had to reluctantly accept independent Arab observers on Syrian soil. More recently, and after the failure of the observers' mission to protect civilians, Qatar suggested sending Arab soldiers to Syria to stop the bloodshed.
The ubiquitous Sheikh al-Thani has been active on all fronts and he significantly used the extensive network he patiently built (and bought) through a series of impossible contortions.
In the Forest of Paradoxes
When the French author Jean Marie Gustave Le Clézio won the literature Nobel Prize in 2008, he gave a title to his speech that aptly describes Sheikh al-Thani’s foreign policy: “in the Forest of Paradoxes.” Indeed, his tiny Emirate is home to the largest American military airport outside of US soil and may possibly be the location of the Taliban's first international office. He has discreetly initiated a diplomatic relationship with Israel (a blasphemy for the GCC diplomacy), and continues to heavily subsidize Hamas, whose members still vow to destroy the Jewish State. He decisively supported freedom aspirations of the Tunisian, Libyan, and Egyptian people using both hard and soft power (his army and Al Jazeera, respectively). However, he contributed to the five thousand GCC soldiers who were sent to Bahrain in order to help the Sunni Kingdom contain its Shia population's unrest.
The Sheikh's son was educated in the Saint Cyr French Military Academy and he purchased 80% of its military equipment from France, a country that banned the wearing of the niqab (full-face veil) in public places. At the same time, he offered asylum to controversial Islamic activists and thinkers such as Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Abbassi Madani, who were offered unrestricted access to Al Jazeera studios where they openly vilified the Sarkozy government's Islamophobia.
The pan-Arab news channel has itself attracted some criticism. Some say it is more an instrument of political influence than the impartial media it claims to be. The Emir insists he has erected 'Chinese walls' between his government and Al Jazeera, whose director general, Mustafa Souag, adamantly denies receiving orders from above. And yet, one of the Wikileaks' cables mentions a conversation the Emir had in January 2010 with his fellow GCC autocrats, where he explained how giving a voice to Al Qaeda on Al Jazeera helped him contain potential attacks on his soil. Analysts have also observed how the news channel ceased to target Saudi Arabia in 2008 after the House of Saud settled a territory dispute in favor of Qatar, hence reconciling the two monarchies.
But what is the Emir trying to achieve by courting both Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Barack Obama? The question still haunts foreign offices around the globe. Are those contradictory moves the mistakes of a novice in the centuries-old game of diplomacy or are they part of a well-thought out master plan?
The Rebirth of Pan-Arab Diplomacy…
Michel Aflak was the father of the pan-Arab ideology. His political vision was to unify people around a language, a culture, and a destiny. But it was Gamal Abd al Nasser who went down in history as the face of pan-Arabism. He articulated his program against Western imperialism and he created a radio station, Sawt al-Arab (voice of Arabs), to capture the imaginations of Arab people from Algeria to Iraq. Pan-Arabism died with Nasser in 1970.
His successor, Anwar As-Sadat, distanced himself from Arab nationalism. He strengthened his relationships with the US and Saudi Arabia and signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Saudi Arabia asked for US help in 1990 and Saddam Hussein lost the war in 1991. The "big" Arab countries increasingly refused to assume a regional role and started to look inwards. Aristotle famously said that "nature abhors a vacuum" and Sheikh al-Thani (with the US blessing) saw an advantage in filling this diplomatic void. Al Jazeera replaced Sawt Al Arab and the Turkish and Iranian "frenemies" replaced the imperialism Nasser fought in his time.
Indeed, it seems that the Arab League sanctions against Syria constituted a desperate attempt to emulate Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was the first political leader in the region to demand for Assad’s resignation and the first to impose trade sanctions on Syria. On another note, the expansionist Shia crescent (Iran-Syria-Hezbollah) led by Tehran, is closely monitored by the GCC countries whose populations include important Shia minorities (particularly Saudi Arabia and Bahrain). Their rapid intervention against Shia protesters in Manama was a clear message intended for Iran : "Don’t mess with us."
…Or the Pragmatism of Renaissance Venetian Republic?
Sheikh al-Thani understood the Arab Spring as an opportunity to compete for regional supremacy. Turkey, Iran, and Qatar are now jockeying for power. The Emir is doing everything he can to support the freedom aspirations of the Arab Street. However, this does not make him a democrat, but instead a pragmatic politician who understands the importance of being on the right side of history. By maintaining cordial relationships with the Taliban and the US, Israel and Hamas, Islamists and secularists, Omar al-Bashir and the South-Sudanese opposition, the Emir has turned his tiny and politically insignificant Emirate into a diplomatic titan. Sheikh al-Thani knows that "a nation has no permanent friends or allies. It only has permanent interests.
The real motive behind his regional ambition is self-preservation. Some say he was traumatized by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. It was on this day the Emir realized that Qatar could be swallowed by larger countries like Saudi Arabia or Iran and the world would shed no tears.
He understood the danger of anonymity and decided his country would be everywhere from sports (he bought the Paris Saint Germain football club and was chosen to organize the 2022 World Cup) to business (he acquired Harrods, owns 17% of Volkswagen, 15% of the London Stock Exchange, and 6% of EADS, the manufacturer of Airbus airplanes).Indeed, Al Jazeera is now one of the most beloved brands in the world.
Qatar imitates the Renaissance Venetian Republic and Sheikh al-Thani its Doge. Venice was a small and yet powerful Thalassocracy. Like Qatar, it was under perpetual threat of being absorbed by the Vatican to its West and the Great Turk to its East. Skillful diplomacy enabled Venice to flourish thanks to exclusive trade rights negotiated with the Ottoman Empire. Popes loathed Venetians but always acknowledged their usefulness as diplomatic intermediaries with the Muslim World. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and Obama must feel the same about their Qatari friend.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.