Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.
With ties between Qatar and its neighbors appearing to rebound, what is the future for Doha’s high-profile approach to brokering regional conflicts? In a recent analysis paper, I explore the prospects for renewed Qatari mediation efforts in a rapidly changing regional landscape, arguing that it would be a loss to the region if the political transitions sweeping the Arab world ultimately led to a more insular Qatar.
In the years leading up to the Arab uprisings in 2011, Qatar was busy establishing itself as a mediator in regional diplomacy. Using its political stability, great economic wealth, and diplomatic ties with various local affiliates across the Middle East, Qatar developed a soft power strategy in several high-profile negotiations, from securing a key peace agreement in the Darfur conflict, to seeking political consensus in Lebanon, and mediating between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels.
The Arab uprisings presented a new opportunity for the small state to play a greater role in shaping regional responses to the events sweeping the Middle East, causing a shift towards a more interventionist foreign policy. However, these policies were perceived as over-reaching and provoked significant backlash both regionally and internationally.
Qatar’s ability to serve as a mediator has been particularly jeopardized by deteriorating relations with neighboring GCC countries over its widely perceived support for Islamist groups. In addition, Qatar has found it difficult to manage ties to all of the potential parties — or spoilers — for a given conflict. Over the past year, Qatar has continued its mediation efforts, albeit on a reduced scale, resulting in a pattern of mediation efforts centered upon single-issue negotiations.
These negotiations were exemplified by the Qatari-Lebanese mediated release of 13 Maaloula nuns taken captive by Syrian rebels earlier this year, as well as the Qatari-brokered release of ISIS held American journalist Peter Theo Curtis. Attempts to play a larger role in engaging with the region’s key conflicts, however — such as initial signs from Qatari officials that they might play a role in resolving last summer’s Gaza war — ultimately found the country sidelined by regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Recently, Qatar’s negotiators have again been in the media spotlight, following the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announcement that it would halt all efforts to negotiate the release of a total of two dozen Lebanese soldiers captured by Syria-based Islamist militants — some by Jabhat al-Nusra and others by ISIS — in Arsal, Lebanon.
The decision to end negotiations represents a pragmatic choice when no successful outcome appeared likely, as opposed to continuing on in the hope of again seizing the limelight. Likewise, over the past year, Qatar has mainly concentrated its efforts in Lebanon, where its contacts among Syrian and Lebanese political groups can be brought to bear, while reportedly avoiding any engagement with hostage negotiations in Yemen.
Despite these setbacks, the apparent reconciliation in Gulf relations presents a new opportunity for Qatar to rebuild its mediation capacity and play a leading role in addressing the region’s conflicts. At least for the time being, Qatar has mended ties with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and at least outwardly has made peace with the new Egyptian regime.
Qatar would do well to continue to take such pragmatic steps towards developing a clearer strategy for engaging in the region’s conflicts. These should include being more selective in choosing when and where to mediate, and more transparent in doing so. In addition, Qatar should also work to decentralize its mediation efforts through greater capacity-building and collaboration. To do so, Qatar should seek to ensure participation from civil society and local stakeholders to develop non-state capacity and build popular support for sustained peace.
While it may take time for Qatar to regain its prior reputation as mediator, gathering support from both regional and international stakeholders is in the states strategic interest. This would reassure the region and other interested actors about Qatar’s motives and impartiality as a mediator. With its political efforts and financial leverage geared toward supporting long-term, lasting settlements, peace-making can reemerge as a major element of Qatari foreign policy.
Download on the complete Brookings Doha Center Analysis paper,
“Qatari Mediation: Between Ambition and Achievement,” via this link.