Reflecting on Qatar’s “Islamist” soft power

A man stands at Imam Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab Mosque in Doha, Qatar, June 9, 2017. REUTERS/Naseem Zeitoon - RC1242A98100
Editor's note:

This policy brief is part of a project on “The Geopolitics of Religious Soft Power” that Brookings is undertaking in partnership with the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs at Georgetown University. All views expressed in this publication are solely those of its author and do not reflect positions on the part of either institution.

Executive Summary

Qatar has developed a reputation for engaging with and supporting Islamist groups around the Middle East. This is not surprising and reflects the reality that on countless occasions in recent decades, Qatar has engaged with a wide range of Islamist actors, from Hamas to a litany of groups in Syria and Libya to the Taliban. Consequently, Qatar is sometimes viewed as a closeted Islamist actor itself, as if the state’s leadership harbors a plan to spread religious doctrine wherever and however it can. The truth, however, is far more prosaic.

The best explanation for the facts at hand is that Qatar is a pragmatic actor that wants—like all states—to maximize its influence. With abundant financial resources, but limited human resources, Qatar’s leaders have relied on personal links and speculative bouts of support to various intermediaries as a key foreign policy modus operandi. This often led Qatar to support groups related to the Muslim Brotherhood. But this less reflected state preference than it simply reflected the world as Qatar found it. The Brotherhood was, in a practical sense, a sensible organization with which to forge ties: large, well developed, and multinational. Add to this the fact that Qatar’s elite—unlike many in the region—see the Brotherhood as a perfectly reasonable organization to engage with, and the state’s policy was obvious. But, in the post-Arab Spring world, the range of groups deemed palatable by some key states has shifted decisively. Consequently, Qatar’s Islamist connections are castigated as outlandish and beyond the pale when they have actually been quite normal for most Arab states in recent decades.