GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

Family Name:
First Name:
Title of Paper:
Public Islam and Foreign Policy: The Case of Qatar
Paper Proposal Text :
Since 1995 when the current Emir replaced his father in a bloodless coup, Qatar’s international activism has impressed many. The Economist praised this record, noting that Qatar has a “[h]abit of punching above its weight, and in several directions at once” in 2006 and characterizing Qatar as a “Pygmy with the punch of a giant” in 2011. These metaphors seem apt. Qatar has held a UN Security Council Seat (2006-2007), was Chairman of the Group of 77 (2004), hosted the Middle East and North Africa Economic Summit (1997), the OIC Conference (2000), and the WTO Doha Rounds (2001). The small Gulf country has diplomatically interposed itself, with varying success, in long-standing conflicts in Lebanon, Palestine, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Qatar-based Al Jazeera’s extensive coverage sped the Arab Spring. Recently, during NATO’s Libya intervention, Qatar provided money, weapons, and field advisers in addition to securing the Arab League’s support for the intervention. More recently, Qatar has successfully persuaded the Arab League to isolate Syria and then, subsequently, to impose sanctions.

This international activism defies easy explanations. Still, three explanations can be found in the media and academic discourse: Qatar and its regime are building alliances, are attempting to harness soft power for their own purposes, and, lastly, are motivated by domestic political concerns.

These explanations share a premise: the rationalist approach to Qatar’s foreign policy. In this view, driven by a Napoleon complex or obsessed with a siege mentality, Qatar has skillfully honed foreign policies to ensure its or its rulers’ survival. This instrumentalist logic was taken as given because of Qatar’s endemic insecurity as small state in an unstable region. Qatar has become the poster child for small states who manage to survive via strategic use of balancing and branding. This is plausible logic; security concerns are paramount for small states in general and even more so for rich, small Middle Eastern states. According to this claim, Qatar is at the mercy of external help to secure the survival of state, regime, or both, and thus is constantly strategizing.
However this premise suffers from two flaws. One is the over-rationalization of Qatar’s actions. According to this rationalist view, which reduces Qatar’s diplomacy to a series of actions based purely on cost-benefit calculations the logic and processes of Qatar’s foreign policy differs little from the Qatar Investment Authority’s decisions. A second flaw with said literature is the total absence of the influence of Qatar’s culture and religion on its foreign policy. According to this view, since Qatari rulers almost always treat non-security related concerns secondarily to—and usually in service of—ensuring Qatar’s perpetually threatened security, any Qatari international activism can be reduced to its security interest. The absence of culture and religion is even more surprising for Islam is fully ingrained into Qatar’s history and society. This is a striking loss of perspective and explanatory power. Apart from Saudi Arabia, Qatar is the only place where the conservative Hanballi-Wahhabi understanding of Islam holds sway; Qatar’s legal system is partially based on Shari’a; and Qatar is officially identified as an Islamic state. The unexamined place of Islam in Qatar’s foreign policy is also an indication of the continued marginalization of religion in mainstream IR theories.

This rationalist approach to state action contradicts much of the current international relations literature that has increasingly downplayed the effect of the “logic of consequences” in international relations while underscoring the non-deliberative, unreflective factors, including norms, habits, and practices on state actions. Without denying the importance of security concerns, I argue that the promotion of broader Islamic values and the sense of a mission to invest and share the nation’s wealth with less fortunate Arab and Muslim countries are also important factors contributing Qatar’s international activism. To that end, I use the insights of international relations literature that emphasizes habits and practices in international relations. As an addition to this literature, I suggest we ought to embed our understanding of habits and practices within the context of societal traditions. In the case of Qatar, that tradition has been fundamentally shaped by Islam.

While Islam in Qatar lacks both the institutional linkage found in Saudi Arabia and the pressure from interest groups as in Turkey, Islam still plays a major role in shaping Qatar’s foreign policy. It does this through shaping the norms, habits, and practices of Qatari society. I attempt to show how debates in Qatar’s public sphere on Islam and Qatar’s Islamic identity have influenced Qatar’s foreign policy.

This paper has four sections. First, I look at the literature on Qatar’s foreign policy to identify instrumental rationality as its common assumption. Second, I review the literature on religion and politics in Qatar to distinguish this literature’s emphasis on the structure of the political system from my argument that emphasizes the role of public Islam. Third and fourth sections are case studies. In the third, I show how public debates on zakat influenced both the humanitarian aid of Qatar Government and charities like Qatar Charity and Qatar Foundation. In the fourth, I examine how debates on ideal Islamic society shape Qatar’s self-image of a country that upholds and promotes its version of Islam in global public sphere.

While shedding light on Qatar’s foreign policy, the conventional explanations suffer from the over-rationalization of state action and the exclusion of religious factors. This paper discusses the influence of debates on Islam and politics in Qatar’s robust public sphere on Qatar’s foreign policy, thus contributing to the growing literature on the conceptualization and theorization of religion in international politics and the role that habits and practices play in international relations.