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Qatar’s show of strength

Qatar: Small State, Big Politics

Cornell University Press, 232 pages, $35

Mehran Kamrava, the director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar who previously taught political science courses at the California State University in Northridge, sets out to verify the longevity of Qatar’s influence in this timely new volume. The author of two key works, “The Modern Middle East: A Political History Since the First World War”, and “Iran’s Intellectual Revolution”, Kamrava has attempted a more ambitious topic in “Qatar: Small State, Big Politics”. Persuaded that traditional heavyweight powers on the Arabian Peninsula no longer enjoy an exclusive hold on power, the author argues that, despite its many limitations, Doha’s powers are “more than temporary [page 2]”. Notwithstanding this assertion, the evidence is not there that Doha will exercise such authority, at least in the immediate future.

In six tightly written chapters, Kamrava covers all of the basics, ranging from Qatar’s comparative advantages vis-à-vis its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies to the use of what he calls the “subtle” power of a small state. He describes Al Thani foreign-policy preferences, provides an assessment of the royal autocracy’s relative stability, weighs the small Shaykhdom’s capabilities as it confronts modernisation, and concludes with a broad evaluation of Qatar’s moment in contemporary history. There is a solid breadth of coverage throughout the text that makes the book a particularly useful read.

Nevertheless, while it would be safe to state that Kamrava is optimistic, as when he postulates that the “shifting [Arab] hierarchies” transferred the “regional centres of gravity from Cairo steadily eastward, ending up, most recently, in the Arabian Peninsula” (page 20), a longer-term perspective may be necessary to reach such epochal conclusions. Although a shift is palpable, “the core of this centre of gravity” is not in Qatar as asserted here, but in Riyadh — no matter how hard anyone tries to dismiss that constant. Inasmuch as Kamrava’s conclusion was reached because Iran and Saudi Arabia were, allegedly, “on the brink of a catastrophic eruption” (page 30), one could make the case that Qatar’s incredible financial might have allowed its leaders to carve out a niche for themselves even if mere financial resources were not sufficient to secure such a position.

In fact, lacking both hard and soft power, Qatar, Kamrava says, has a combination of the two, which he calls “smart power,” a “type of power that may be best viewed as ‘subtle power’ [page 47].” There is no doubt that small states can become influential players in the international arena and that “they can use foreign-policy strategies such as hedging to greatly strengthen their leverage vis-à-vis potential foes and friends alike [page 48]”. This is certainly a valuable explanation even if it is a stretching it a bit to affirm that Doha’s financial might, the incredible asset, Al Jazeera, and its token participation in the Nato-led March 2011 Libya campaign, secured this “subtle power”.

The question that needs an answer is the following: while “subtle power” may work in the short term, how likely is it to endure over the course of the next few decades? Indeed, as more recent developments highlighted the sharp differences that Qatar has with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain over how best to come to terms with the Muslim Brotherhood, there are too many imponderables to reach such definitive responses. Time will tell, of course, but the reader will thoroughly enjoy the many titbits sprinkled throughout the text.

Interestingly, there are great insights in this book, mostly drawn from Wikileaks documents, which enrich the text, though caution must be exercised since every rumour might not be based on fact. Particularly amusing is how the former Qatari prime minister Shaykh Hamad Bin Jasim is said to have described to his American interlocutor Qatar’s relationship with Iran: “They lie to us, and we lie to them” (page 87).

An equally revealing piece of information is the number of individuals in uniform — 12,000, “plus an additional 8,000 employed in the public security forces”, of whom “an undisclosed but disproportionately large number are non-nationals from Yemeni and Pakistani backgrounds [page 88]”. This is a devastating revelation that highlights how precarious security matters are on the promontory when so few nationals fill such sensitive posts.

There is even an anecdotal reference to how Doha reacted to the former first lady’s high-profile visibility, which apparently drew attention to her large and influential family, the Al Misnids, forcing her to shelve her last name altogether. “In January 2011,” writes Kamrava, “she officially dropped Al Misnid from her last name and simply became Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser”, without stating whether this was a public-relations ploy or an attempt to respond to internal criticisms.

Beyond such disclosures, there are also a few surprises, including: “What upsets the emir and the PM is the QIA’s [Qatar Investment Authority] underperformance. What pleases them is more money, more visibility, and more influence [page 101]”, without telling us whether this is a sign of lust or anxiety to excel. The author is also hard on Shaykh Khalifah Bin Hamad, the previous ruler, asserting that under his rule, Qatar lacked “clear symbols [which] were evoked for none were evocative” (page 123).

Remarkably, while Kamrava provides a detailed account of the coup d’état that brought Shaykh Hamad Bin Khalifah Al Thani to power in 1995, he does not anticipate the ruler’s eventful abdication on 25 June 2013 that brought his son, Shaykh Tamim, to power. Shaykh Hamad had considered such a move for a while even if the announcement surprised most observers. Equally problematic is the affirmation that “the second most visible face of the Qatari state after the emir is Sheikha Moza, a woman of impressive intellect and drive [page 119]”, though both she and Prime Minister Hamad Bin Jasim went into political oblivion after Tamim’s accession. Kamrava does not shed light on such sudden marginalisation, even if all three figures may still be playing active-behind-the-scenes roles.

Given rapidly changing developments in Qatar, the author’s sharp assessment of Shaykh Hamad may well require another re-evaluation, since no Western sources — including Wikileaks’s cables — saw the critical abdication coming, which, for better or worse, permanently altered the way senior Al Thani family members behaved.

Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is the author of the recently published “Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia”. (London: Routledge, 2013).