GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Title of Paper:
Mercenaries-on-Demand: Jihadists as Means of Military Diversification in Qatar’s Foreign Policy
Paper Proposal Text :
Qatar is small, but its metamorphosis has been big. It is wealthy, yet it is vulnerable to surrounding hegemonic powers, namely Saudi Arabia and Iran. People from all professional walks of life have been gravitating to it, changing it and becoming changed by it. However, Qataris often talk of “cultural threats,” in their “everyday politics.” What strategies of political survival has the State of Qatar carved out in this perilous and promising regional circumstance?

One strategy, of course, is its dependence on the American military and fostering of US alliance. But there is more than that. Another strategy is confronting the complexity of its geopolitics head-on. The Qatari state capitalized on one particularly important trope of representation: That is being an island of stability, in a sea of regional instability. This dialectic of safety and security on the one hand, paired with threat and anxiety on the other is the locus on which the Qatari State currently pivots, both within its borders and within the region at large.

Between 2005 and 2011, “Small” became translated into agility, flexibility and youthfulness. These features contrasted with the vastness, rigidity and heavy weight of historically hegemonic and populous countries in the region, such as the traditional “core” of the Arab World, namely Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. This very contrast, I argue, fed back into the state self-narration and representation of being a small island of stability in a large sea of instability. Qatar became the mediator for Lebanese, Sudanese and Palestinian affairs. It won the nomination for hosting the World Cup 2022. And it went on an international investment campaign, to partner in businesses all over Europe, Asia, Africa and the United States, during the peak of the economic crisis of 2007-2010.

As Qatar maintained its own stability, however, it inserted itself as a player into global Islamist Jihadism. It did that a foreign policy strategy of deterrence to its neighbors and to even create leverage with the United States itself. In other words, Qatar’s “talking to the dangerous guys,” indirectly empowers it; by showing that it is holding some cards in the global security game. With the global rise of non-State actors, Qatar, the state, got engaged as to gain a foothold over other collapsing neighboring states. Thus, by the same language of economic development, engaging with Islamic Jihadism, perilous and risky as it may seem, becomes Qatar’s way of diversifying the sources of its military outreach in order not to remain dependently anchored in a single resource— namely the United States.

To this meaning, this quote from Sheikh Tamim’s inaugural speech in June 2013 is very illustrative:

Qatar transformed from almost barely identifiable on the map, into a principle world actor in politics, economics, media, culture and sports. The most important aspect of Qatar\'s new regional and international status is that it transported Qatar from a state that struggles for its survival and growth, into a confident and well-established state. We must benefit from this status and benefit others as well. Yet, we must not become arrogant. The humility by which Qataris have long been known is the feature of the strong and the confident. Arrogance leads to committing mistakes (….) We do not live on the margins of life and we do not go wandering without direction. Nor are we followers of anyone, waiting for his guidance. This pattern of independent behavior became one of the givens about Qatar. To those who deal with us, we have a vision, (emphasis added).

A “confident principle world actor in politics, Qatar, the well-established state” is warning itself against arrogance that leads to committing mistakes; yet Qatar was not immune from such mistakes, specially in its over-learning towards yet another regional player—namely Turkey. An alliance with whom has proved to be a burden on Qatar.

Qatar within regional and global context:
Islamism and Qatari International Politics of State Survival:

Within a post-September 11 World Order anchored in wars on “global terrorism,” that lumped the words “Islam” and “Arab” in narratives of violence and decay, Qatar as an emerging Arab Gulf state aimed to field “a counter-narrative” of progress, stability, growth, and sustainability. The state purpose became to inject Qatar into cutting edge global conversations on science and culture in order to undo negative images often associated with nouveau-riche sensibilities of petro-dollars on the one hand and ideologically-misplaced associations of Islam to terrorism, on the other hand.

Aljazeera had played a key and instrumental role in Qatar’s strategy for managing its representation on the global stage. This strategy had initially acted as a clever way of creating regional legitimacy for Qatar, among Arab populations, by allowing media outlets to operate in Arab lands and openly criticize different political regimes in the region. However, this lasted from the period of its inception in 1996 up until shortly after the coverage of the Arab uprisings in 2011. At that point, populations, especially in Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world, became disillusioned with the notion of “Revolution” altogether and gradually lost their trust in the objectivity of Aljazeera Network and the political agenda of the Qatari state itself.

It is noteworthy to identify a discourse of “justification” in Sheikh Tamim’s inaugural speech, as if he is explaining Qatar’s position vis-à-vis the uprisings by exclaiming that it is not Qatar who “created” the populations’ aspirations for change. The subtext is: Why blame Qatar for the chaotic revolutions, when it is an outcome it did not “create” but rather sided with as a given and as a potential alternative to an already unsustainable condition?

Yes, Qatar has sided with the causes of the Arab peoples and their aspirations to live in freedom and dignity, away from corruption and tyranny. We did not create these aspirations. Yet, what is necessitated for the aspiration for freedom and dignity is the rejection of tyranny and humiliation.

But Qatar was not only siding with a cause, with an aspiration, or with a given. Rather, it has gradually become a regional player that causes change and not only react to it. More specifically, in order to extend its political clout in the region, Qatar started supporting its own version of Islamism. The outcome of this policy became an outright decline of the traditionally Arab nationalism core of the Middle East, namely Iraq, Syria and failed attempts in Egypt, through Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood, who were ousted out of power by yet another popular uprising in June 30th 2013, that became supported by state, business and military elites.

Supporting Islamism, Clashing with Egypt

An illustrative example of this active agenda of supporting armed Islamism came much earlier in February 2012, when Former Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Jassem Bin Hamad openly announced his decision to start arming the rebels in Syria as a way of bringing down Bashar Al Assad’s regime, calling on the international community to “contribute with whatever means it has. ” It was clear what this stood for in terms of shifting regional power relations. Syria used to be an important core of Arab Nationalism, spearheaded by Egypt’s Nasser in the 1950s. Yet, in Syria’s current struggle, Assad became framed as an extension of Iranian influence, i.e. a non-Arab sphere. The rebels whose armament Qatar called for and eventually did, were to start advocating for a “Sunni” version of Islamic Jihad or struggle against the “Tyrant.” Thus, Syria and Iraq have ideologically undergone a lot of transformations: From Core Arab nationalism; to non-Arab Iranian manifestations in both countries along sectarian expressions of Shia in Iraq and Alawites in Syria; to Sunni Islamic Jihad.

Openly financing the Sunni Jihadists in Syria and Iraq was Qatar’s way of creating a commissioned guerilla— something akin to Iran’s own tactics, financing Hizbullah. By establishing some sort of modern day mercenaries that can be put to work, armed to do the job, Qatar has found means by which to extend its military outreach, beyond the limitations of a small army and beyond the formal relation of housing the US bases.

Moreover, Qatar’s relations with Hamas in Gaza and its support, not only for the peaceful protesters but also the armed rebels in Syria—who morphed into the very impetus for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)— bring to our contemporary memory what US strategies had looked like, in terms of funding the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan in order to fight the Soviet Union. Taliban governing Afghanistan and the establishment of Al Qaeda were the unexpected (or logically expected) consequences. In other words, Qatar has in the very US financing of Mujahedeen an example to follow in its financing of the present-day Jihadists. Indeed, add to the list of Qatar-supported Islamists, the fact that Taliban has a representative office in Doha. Not only that. But also, Qatar was the broker of the exchange of the last American Prisoner of War (POW) for five Taliban detainees, who had been held in Guantanamo.

To conclude this argument on Qatar’s place in regional and global context, I reiterate that attempting to diversify its military outreach and to compensate for its small army size, Qatar “shook too many dangerous hands,” including those of Islamic Jihadists and a myriad non-state actors. By doing that, Qatar tried to have leverage. By implicating itself in important regional and international security talks, it aimed to safeguard its survival. Yet in doing that for its own strategic security, it antagonized many regional players. The latest illustration was its incessant attempts to be the new mediator, along with Turkey, between Hamas and Israel in their latest round of military confrontations in summer of 2014.

However, both Egypt and Israel took issue with the US imposition of Qatar and Turkey and pushed for a Cairo-only brokered ceasefire. That does not mean that Qatar will stop attempting to insert itself in regional politics as a way of securing its place in the Middle East. Its strategy seems to be that the more involved it gets, the more deterrent it can become, and consequently secure itself. But, that might just be the kind of arrogant mistakes Qatar forewarns itself against. The ongoing campaigns against Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup, on allegations of bribery are only signs of what more may come. An eventual campaign to alleged unlawful acquisition of global capital could very well strip Qatar of its valuable possessions in international investments.

As reflected in the introductory notes above, this proposed paper will delineate the shift in foreign policies of Qatar within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and will analyze how the shifts in its foreign relations influenced the GCC, as a collective body and perhaps the single remaining Arab institution with sufficient political and economic leverage. Qatar will be located within shifting global and regional dynamics as well as its own state-society challenges. The aim will be to locate Qatar’s foreign policy within the latest theorizations in the general literature on International Relations and Foreign Policy.

Methods include analysis of primary documents, qualitative content analysis of media reports, Egypt-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) evolving relations,. Capitalizing on extensive fieldwork in Egypt and ethnographic research in Qatar, since 2007, interviewing Qatari and Egyptian journalists, politicians, public officials and academics.

Additional note to the Workshop Directors:

To specify, the paper will focus on answering aspects of the first question proposed in the Workshop 10—Namely:
To what extent are domestic dynamics shaping the GCC countries’ foreign policies towards the MENA region? What are the main drivers and priorities, e.g., maintaining the security and stability of the ruling families, containing the pressures of the youth and other groups advocating political reform, strengthening and enhancing the capabilities of their national armies, etc.

Having published two book chapters in edited volumes stemming from my participation in GRM 2014, and GRM 2015, I think my contribution to GRM 2016 will further extend my scholarship and research agenda to focus military diversification in the GCC countries in general and Qatar in particular.

My book chapter in an edited volume stemming out of GRM 2014 is entitled “Qatar: Cultivating the ‘Citizen’ of the Futuristic State” where I delineated shifting and emerging state-society relations in Qatar, that address aspects emphasized in the question above, regarding “ruling families; containing the pressures of youth and other groups advocating reform.” For this paper I will build further on these conclusions. Also my second book chapter stemming out of GRM 2015 is entitled “Qatar in Egypt: The Politics of Aljazeera.” It had answered to the third question on the list namely:

What are the policies of the GCC countries towards the conflicts in neighboring countries, such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen? How are the GCC countries managing their relationships with the ‘Arab Revolution countries’ in North Africa, e.g., Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya?

I am certain that if my paper proposal is accepted to this workshop, my contributions on military diversification and the role of competing orders of violence in the shifting foreign policies in the region will benefit from the scholarly discussion with peers at the Workshop and will translate into yet another publication with some respectable colleagues.