How Qatar turned gas wealth into effective diplomacy
Many sparsely populated countries play roles beyond their nominal status. These are the countries which offer their “good offices” for the settlement of disputes and play the role of interlocutor between nations which clash or are at war.
The most important are the European countries which set up peace talks and offer backchannel communications. Think of the Nordic group, Ireland and especially Switzerland.
Now add a new name: Qatar.
The Persian Gulf Emirate has long been a prominent oil producer, holding 1.5 percent of the world’s proven reserves; and especially natural gas, holding 5 percent of the world’s proven reserves. He managed to turn his huge oil and gas revenues into diplomatic muscle.
It was Qatar that allowed the United States to talk to the Taliban, and it set up the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Qatar has taken in more Afghan refugees than any other transit country. And it is Qatar that manages the Kabul airport for the Taliban. Qatar looks east and west, and deep into the region.
Low lifting costs
The great wealth of the emirate – it has the highest per capita income in the world after Monaco – is based on its small population and the very low price of its oil and gas. The gas is in shallow and easily accessible basins. Qatar has used this abundance to build sophisticated natural gas liquefaction facilities and has a unique position of strength in the global LNG market.
To understand Qatar, one must first realize that it sits on a desert thumb-shaped peninsula jutting out into the Persian Gulf. It’s about the size of Connecticut. The population of Qatar is estimated by the United Nations at 2.88 million, but only 400,000 are citizens. Most of the population reflects guest workers from South Asia.
The only city in Qatar – a brilliant masterpiece where silver meets architecture – is Doha, the capital. It is quickly becoming one of the gems of the region with spectacular buildings and a popular coastal promenade, the Corniche. It is postmodern with a strong Islamic influence.
International travelers may note that alcohol is available, unlike Saudi Arabia. I enjoyed the libations at the Ritz Carlton in Doha. This hotel plays a role in Qatari diplomacy: its diplomats meet their counterparts there, and this is where business is often done.
Qatar is best known for being the country that created a global television network, Al Jazeera, which is an anomaly in a region where ruling families seek to control the media, not promote it. The independence of Al Jazeera, which broadcasts in English and Arabic, has been one of the causes of the quarrel between Qatar and the Arab Quad: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
In 2017, these four countries imposed a blockade of Qatar. The country’s only land border, with Saudi Arabia, has been sealed and Qatar has been denied overflight rights in all four. The causes included Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere, Al Jazeera’s coverage of issues deemed critical to Quad members, and Qatar’s friendly relations with Iran. The Quad considered this diplomatic opening as a betrayal.
Gulf America’s best friend
With its giant Al Udeid Air Base, home to US Central Command and US Air Force Central Command headquarters, Qatar can be said to be America’s best friend in the Gulf. But he has also been a friend of the Taliban in Afghanistan and gets along well with Turkey, Iran and Israel. Turkey wants Qatar to assist it in its attempts to drill for oil and gas off Cyprus, which Greece opposes.
Due to the Quad blockade, the past few years have been difficult for Qatar. But it has become stronger and as the preferred location for diplomatic assistance.
Last January, the blockade ended with a deal negotiated by Kuwait and Qatar was back in favor. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greeted Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani at Saudi Arabia’s airport, visibly for cameras and social media, they hugged each other.
Qatar has returned to the fold and Arab countries have gone from years of grievances and grievances to a new year of diplomacy. Suddenly the Middle East is full of diplomats, going back and forth and seeking to achieve their goals through negotiation.
There has been speculation that after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Qatar will lose its importance. But what amounts to the Arab diplomatic renaissance is underway and Qatar is at the center of it, trying to resolve Sudan’s disputes with Yemen. It even hosts what used to be the American Embassy in Kabul: yes, which now operates in Qatar, signaling the emirate’s place in the diplomatic firmament.
It aspires to be known for its more than abundant natural gas and to be part of the club of nations which have given their city names to the treaties, notably Helsinki, Oslo, Vienna and Geneva. Will Doha be next?