Obscured by the WikiLeaks revelations and controversies reverberating in Arab capitals is a bit of news arguably far more important than the latest embarrassment for Arab leaders. On December 2nd, the tiny, oil-rich Gulf state of Qatar managed to win the coveted 2022 World Cup bid, beating out the United States and Australia in one of the more unlikely upsets in recent sports history. The New York Times’ Nate Silver called the decision “astonishing,” others were simply confused. It was both a brave and risky move for the FIFA committee. For Qatar, however, and the broader Middle East, it has the potential to be a game-changer.
Arab countries are not accustomed to victory in the global arena. The past few years in particular have been, by even the region’s high standards, depressing. Whether civil conflict in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories, or the political deterioration of Egypt, the region has at times appeared to be in free fall.
But not in Qatar. The World Cup is just the latest success in an impressive run for the Qataris, who currently enjoy the world’s highest GDP per capita as well as its fastest growth rates. More importantly, the win is a vindication of Qatar’s odd, and often creative, foreign policy.
In 1995, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father in a bloodless coup, becoming the new Emir. Under his leadership, Qatar made a strategic decision to distinguish itself from its competitors in the Gulf, particularly Dubai and Saudi Arabia. The country, home to less than 300,000 citizens, has since become an increasingly influential player on the regional and international stages. The revenue generated by Qatar’s deep oil reserves of course helps. But it is the use of this revenue that has set Qatar apart. Rather than spending it on costly weapons systems – Qatar’s military expenditures are quite low by Gulf standards – the country has focused its attention elsewhere. Qatar is already home to “Education City,” which hosts campuses for Georgetown, Northwestern, and other top American universities. One of the world’s largest collections of modern Arab art is set to open by the end of the year. The Qatar-based Al Jazeera, one of the region’s freer and most widely watched news networks, projects the country’s influence around the world.
Meanwhile, the region’s pro-Western pillars, such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, are declining both in spite of and because of their closeness to the United States. As the State Department cables released by Wikileaks have shown, these countries are crippled by the wide gap between leaders and their citizens. The former go along with American policy, whether on the Arab-Israeli peace process, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, or counterterrorism, while the latter decry Western influence and sympathize with Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran. And managing the divide is not getting any easier: in several Arab countries, U.S. favorability ratings are lower under President Obama than they were in the final years of the Bush administration.
By contrast, Qatar has steered a middle path, hosting the largest pre-positioning U.S. military base in the world, while still managing cordial, and increasingly close, relations with Iran. As we saw with the 2008 Doha Agreement, in which Qatar brokered peace between the Lebanese government and the Hizbollah-led opposition, when you have leverage with both sides, it’s easier to strike a deal. Qatar has also mediated between the Palestinians, Yemenis, and Sudanese, with varying degrees of success.
Could this be the new model for the Middle East? Qatar’s independent and assertive policies defy easy characterization within any of the region’s camps. And, now, the World Cup gives Qatar an internal deadline to build, expand, and project influence well beyond what its size would suggest. The country already plans to invest nearly $100 billion in infrastructure in the coming years, including $35 billion for a metro and rail system, as well as the longest oversea bridge in the world, connecting it to Bahrain.
But Qatar’s ambitions for greater influence come at a cost, and many are watching the country’s emergence with wariness. Because it is home to Al Jazeera – as well as a number of prominent political exiles – Qatar has had strained ties with some of its neighbors. Neither is the country very popular in Washington, particularly after signing defense cooperation agreements with Iran.
To be friends with both sides – to host a major U.S. military base while simultaneously holding joint training exercises with Iranian frontier guards – is a difficult balancing act during an ostensible Arab cold war. It helps that Qatar is less dependent on foreign assistance than, say, Egypt, long the world’s second largest recipient of American aid. Because it enjoys the protection that comes with having U.S. Central Command on its territory, Qatar is less concerned with the sort of controversial arms deals Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates signed recently with the United States. Meanwhile, with a small population and minimal internal opposition, a few creative, ambitious leaders can, on their own, decisively shift direction on foreign policy. Fifteen years ago, few knew where Qatar was and fewer cared. The country’s leaders had almost nothing to lose and a great deal to gain.
By virtue of their traditional weight and influence, countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been cautious, status quo actors. Adventurous foreign policymaking, for them, is a risky proposition. Domestic factors matter as well; Bahrain and Kuwait are similarly small but have been plagued by political gridlock and sectarian tensions.
All of this makes it difficult for countries to follow Qatar’s path. Qatar, however, is not entirely alone. Turkey is another rising power that has learned many of the same lessons. Traditionally part of the U.S. orbit – and the only Middle Eastern country that has any meaningful military cooperation with Israel – Turkey has studiously built up a reservoir of goodwill with Syria, Hamas, and, perhaps most importantly, the Arab public, much of which views Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan with far more respect and admiration than it views its own leaders.
The rise of both Qatar and Turkey comes at opportune time. In the wake of WikiLeaks, Arab leaders are questioning whether the United States can remain the sole arbiter of the Middle East. Most governments in the region have been content to either embrace or defy U.S. dominance, while others, particularly Qatar, have found success by working with all of the regional actors from Washington to Tehran. Everyone likes a winner and the winners – this time at least – are charting a different course.
[The economy is] an issue where [Rouhani] has a greater chance of avoiding real gridlock within the system itself. It’s not nearly as dangerous as taking on issues of political prisoners or trying to open up the political space to those who feel marginalized.