Backed up by its control of 13% of the world’s total natural gas reserves and the preeminence of its global media, most prominently the Al Jazeera network, Qatar has demonstrated a unique capacity for applying its own version of soft power. The Qatari state has been able to develop strategic partnerships with many different actors, often adroitly balancing relationships between seemingly irreconcilable groups. For example, Qatar has long enjoyed a solid friendship with the US, hosting American regional military bases. Yet at the same time Qatar maintains good relationships with groups conventionally opposed to broader US policies. Qatari statesmanship has not only manage to strike this complex balance, but has at times even brought these sometimes opposing parties together in times of international tensions or crisis.
One of the key Qatari diplomatic portfolio building initiatives relates to the increased emphasis on the global role of culture and education. Organized mainly through the efforts of Qatar Foundation, the government is attempting to build a cultural and intellectual hub through hosting world-renowned academic research centers: Georgetown University, the University of Virginia, and the University of London are amongst the growing number of globally influential academic players that have set up campuses in Doha’s Education City, a modern and forward looking education complex. Leading research centers such as the RAND Corporation and the Brookings Institute also have branches in Doha. Moreover, Qatar has been establishing Doha as an international destination for the arts. Notable cultural highlights include the Museum of Islamic Art and the National Museum of Qatar. According to the Qatar Museums Authority, the museums “reflect a new era in Qatari prosperity, the country’s prominent role in the Arabian Gulf community and its world standing.” Qatar has also played host to a number of important international political summits, such as the 2001 World Trade Organization negotiations, and the 2006 UN summit on Middle East peace. Such events not only add to national prestige, but also place Qatar squarely on the map as a leader in the Arab world.
Qatar has also been showing its strengths in efforts to assure stability in the region. There have been some contentious periods recently between the members of the GCC, but in late 2014 regional relations showed signs of clear improvement. In the final days of 2014 it became clear that a rapprochement had been reached between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain, who had previously disagreed on a number of Arab political issues. At the 35th GCC Summit in late 2014, Gulf leaders announced in Doha plans to create a regional police force and a joint naval force. Qatari Foreign Minister HE Sheikh Khalid Bin Mohammed Al Attiyah said the police force would improve cooperation against terrorism and help assure regional peace. The police force will be based out of the UAE’s capital of Abu Dhabi, while the naval force will operate out of Bahrain. The creation of the police force, known as GCC-POL, and the naval force, was announced at the conclusion of the Gulf bloc’s annual summit in Qatar. Although Qatar has only recently garnered a central role in Middle Eastern power politics, the nation has long played the part of intermediary and problem-solver. Past successes include brokering a solution to political gridlock in Lebanon, managing tricky situations between the West and non-state Islamic actors, and facilitating the entente between Palestinian factions. Through maintaining and further developing relationships with emerging power centers, Qatar could find itself fulfilling the increasingly vital role of an honest broker in the Middle East.
Significantly, the most widely recognized evidence of Qatar’s wider diplomatic strategy can be seen in the Doha-based and state supported Al Jazeera news network, which offers a powerful Arab voice in global affairs. Al Jazeera reflects the Emir’s desire for a media outlet that builds bridges between the often-dominating Western media and the realities of the Arab world and which broadcasts a progressive Qatari message to the wider world. Since its founding in 1996, Al Jazeera has become a highly respected news outlet, to which Western media consistently turn for coverage on the Middle East, and which remains a justified source of national pride for Qatar. The media corporation has been so successful that it has launched competitive English language and even American services, which have grown well beyond simply occupying niche markets.
Further soft diplomacy efforts relate to the sporting world, with Qatar striving to become a destination of choice for international sporting events. An ambitious bid has secured Qatar’s place as the host country for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, as well as the 17th annual World Athletics Championship in 2019. Doha previously hosted the 2006 Asian Games and the Asian Cup in 2011.
Qatar also has held a number of other prestigious sporting events in tennis, golf, and world-class racing. The steady growth of international tourism is also showing the power of Qatar’s emerging global image. Qatar Airways now serves an impressive number of destinations around the world, and ensured that Doha has become a global transport hub. The Qatar Airways fleet is set to triple by 2018, and the Qatar Tourism Authority continues its mission to promote the country as an appealing destination for both business and leisure.
Recent domestic reforms have further strengthened Qatar’s image as progressively pragmatic and adaptive state. In May 2014, the government announced its intention to introduce reforms to the system of Labor Laws which will improve the rights of non-indigenous workers—non-Qatari workers are currently bound by the rules of the state’s kafala, or sponsorship, system, which has been heavily criticized at times as being too restrictive. However, the planned reforms were not in response to criticism Qatar has faced from some sections of the international media, but are rather part of a strategy devised previously to accommodate the state’s rapidly increasing workforce, as it strives to meet pressing deadlines for its numerous, major infrastructure projects.
Perhaps more fundamentally, these reforms arise directly from the vision of the Emir. His Highness Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani stated to TBY that the QNV 2030 was aimed at “transforming Qatar by 2030 into an advanced country capable of achieving sustainable development and ensuring a continued and decent standard of living for its people.” Importantly, due to the prescient and steady leadership demonstrated so clearly today, Qatar continues to expand both its role and its reputation throughout the world.
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