How Qatar Has Transmuted Gas Wealth Into Effective Diplomacy
Many countries, small in population, play roles above their nominal status. These are the countries that offer their “good offices” for dispute resolution and play the part of interlocutor between nations that are faced off against one another or are at war.
Most prominent are European countries that set up peace talks and offer backchannel communications. Think the Nordic group, Ireland and most of all, Switzerland.
Now add a new name: Qatar.
The Persian Gulf emirate has long been front and center as a producer of oil, holding 1.5 percent of the world’s proven reserves; and especially natural gas, holding 5 percent of the world’s proven reserves. It has managed to turn its whopping revenues from oil and gas into diplomatic muscle.
It is Qatar that enabled the United States to talk to the Taliban, and it set up the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is Qatar that received more refugees from Afghanistan than any other staging country. And it is Qatar that is managing the airport in Kabul for the Taliban. Qatar looks east and west, and deeply into the region.
Low Lifting Costs
The emirate’s great wealth — it has the highest per capita income in the world after Monaco — is based on its small population and the very low lifting price of its oil and gas. The gas is found in shallow and easily reached basins. Qatar has used this abundance to build sophisticated natural gas liquefaction facilities and has a unique position of strength in the world LNG market.
To understand Qatar, first realize that it sits on a thumb-shaped, desert peninsula protruding into the Persian Gulf. It is roughly the size of Connecticut. Qatar’s population is put by the United Nations at 2.88 million, but only 400,000 are citizens. Most of the population reflects guest workers from South Asia.
Qatar’s only city – a shining masterpiece of money meets architecture — is Doha, the capital. It is rapidly becoming one of the jewels of the region with dramatic buildings and a prized coastal promenade, the Corniche. It is postmodern with a strong Islamic influence.
International travelers may note that alcohol is available, unlike in Saudi Arabia. I have enjoyed libations at the Ritz Carlton in Doha. This hotel plays a role in Qatari diplomacy: Its diplomats meet their counterparts there, and it is where business often is transacted.
Qatar is best known to many as the country that created a global television network, Al Jazeera, which is an anomaly in a region where ruling families seek to control the media, not to promote it. The independence of Al Jazeera, which broadcasts in English and Arabic, was one of the causes of Qatar falling out with the Arab Quad: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.
In 2017, these four countries imposed a blockade of Qatar. The country’s only land border, with Saudi Arabia, was sealed and Qatar was refused overfly rights in the four. The causes included Qatari support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere, coverage by Al Jazeera of issues that were deemed critical of the Quad members, and Qatar’s friendly relations with Iran. The Quad saw that diplomatic openness as treachery.
America’s Best Gulf Friend
With its giant Al Udeid Air Base, home to the headquarters of the U.S. Central Command and the U.S. Air Force Central Command, it could be said that Qatar is America’s best friend in the Gulf. But it has also been a friend to the Taliban in Afghanistan, and is getting along with Turkey, Iran, and Israel. Turkey would like Qatar to assist it in its attempts to drill for oil and gas off the coast of Cyprus, resisted by Greece.
Because of the Quad blockade, the last few years were difficult for Qatar. But it has emerged stronger and as the go-to place for diplomatic assistance.
Last January, the blockade ended in a deal brokered by Kuwait and Qatar was back in favor. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman welcomed Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani at the airport in Saudi Arabia, conspicuously for the cameras and social media, they hugged each other.
Qatar had returned to the fold, and Arab countries have turned from years of recrimination and grievance to a new year of diplomacy. Suddenly the Middle East is replete with diplomats, flying back and forth and seeking to achieve their goals by negotiation.
There has been speculation that after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Qatar would fade in importance. But what amounts to the Arab diplomatic renaissance is underway and Qatar is at the center of it, trying to resolve disputes from Sudan to Yemen. It even hosts what was the American embassy in Kabul: Yes, that is now operating in Qatar, signaling the emirate’s place in the diplomatic firmament.
It aspires to be known for more than abundant natural gas and to ascend to the club of nations which have given their city names to treaties, including Helsinki, Oslo, Vienna, and Geneva. Will Doha be next?