A deliberate strategy to secure its own long-term security is the motivation driving the tiny Gulf state of Qatar to invest heavily in the UK. Last week, it emerged that the ruling family had bought a further chunk of prime London property, a Victorian town house in Mayfair for £40m. This follows the investment of some of its extraordinary wealth from natural resources into British propositions, including Harrods, the Shard, Sainsbury’s, Barclays and the Stock Exchange. Qatar is set to gain control over Canary Wharf, while private Qatari investors also seem enamoured with the UK, taking majority stakes in Claridge’s, the Connaught and the Berkeley.
These investments are partly made because the UK is exceptionally welcoming to foreign investors, offers a light regulatory environment and promises substantial returns on investment. But there is another dimension. Qatar hopes that its prominent position in the business landscapes of influential nations will make its security and stability a top priority for those self-same nations. With a population of just 250,000, Qatar is simply too small to protect its own security credibly and relies on its partnership with neighbouring Gulf states and on its relationships with international allies.
It faces many of the same threats as other Gulf states: expanding Iranian influence, jihadi elements within and outside of the state and the threat of spreading instability from the wars in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq. But Qatar has charted an independent course when it comes to managing its security. Keen to resist Saudi Arabia’s dominant role in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), it has been a half-hearted participant in joint security projects.
Meanwhile, Qatar has attempted to defuse potential threats by building relationships with actors traditionally shunned by the GCC. It has a decent working relationship with Iran, for instance, and tends to avoid publicly criticising the country. Between them, they share the world’s largest gas field and have managed to pursue simultaneous production from that field with few disputes. In 2010, Qatar signed a memorandum of understanding with Iran that increased anti-terror co-operation and launched some small-scale joint naval exercises in the Gulf. While it continues to share concerns about Iran’s detrimental role in the wider region, Qatar hopes that its relationship makes it less susceptible to a direct threat from Iran.
Until Israel’s 2008 assault on Gaza, Qatar even enjoyed strong relations with Israel. Doha hosted the only Israeli trade mission in the Gulf and pursued Israeli investment even as it continued to support both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Qatar has also developed ties with burgeoning Islamist movements around the world, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. Appreciating the great sympathy that these movements enjoy in much of the Arab and Muslim world, Qatar has been keen to establish relationships with potential future leaders.
Saudi Arabia has long been frustrated by what it sees as Qatar’s maverick foreign policy and its support for the Brotherhood led to an unprecedented break between GCC states in March last year, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha. TheBrotherhood is seen as a severe threat to many of the Gulf states, because it appeals to religious legitimacy in a way that undercuts the Gulf regimes’ own claims to legitimacy. It can be argued that Qatar has taken a more far-sighted approach to the issue: by supporting the Brotherhood movements, the Qatari royal family has been able to deflect criticism from populist religious figures and has won approval from marginalised Arab populations who support the Brotherhood.
Beyond its strategic business investments, and its pursuit of a range of relationships, Qatar has also prioritised the development of a “national brand” . The enormous investment in the al-Jazeera news network, for instance, has been an attempt to brand Qatar as a centre of independent journalism. Although the network has been unprecedented in its willingness to criticise Middle Eastern governments, it can also be accused of bias on several issues, including its relative silence on the crackdown on protesters in Bahrain. Al-Jazeera remains a substantial source of influence, but this could be significantly enhanced if the broadcaster were willing to apply the same values of independence to its Arabic service as it does to its English service.
Qatar has also sought to brand itself as an economically developed and technologically advanced member of the international community. The country’s winning bid to host the 2022 World Cup was a centrepiece of this strategy. But scandalshave overshadowed Qatar’s bid. Amnesty reported last week that migrant workers, mainly in the construction industry, continue to be exploited by their employers, some of whom confiscate passports, withhold wages, fail to provide safe working conditions and offer appalling, insanitary living conditions. A BBC team investigating labour conditions was arrested and imprisoned for two nights before being released. Meanwhile, activists have called for Fifa to revoke Qatar’s winning bid because of the country’s anti-homosexuality laws.
If Qatar wants to be counted among the most credible and valued powers partnering with the west, it must deal comprehensively with the abuse of migrant workers and decide where it stands on crucial issues such as freedom of the press. If it wishes to remain as a monarchy that is nonetheless seen as a politically progressive power in the world, it must build independent institutions, establish a fair and impartial judiciary and construct a framework of laws that robustly protect the rights of all those who live in the country, not just its naturalised citizens.
Dr Nussaibah Younis is Senior Research Associate at the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington DC
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