Qatar's Progressive Diplomacy

Posted in Other | 04-Nov-06 | Author: Manuela Paraipan

Qatar is famous worldwide for being an oil-rich state, for sponsoring the Al-Jazeera television network that is very popular in all parts of the Arab world and for hosting a major US army base. Nowadays, Qatar is increasing its role in global diplomacy. If successful, Qatar will come out of this process having gained a strong position that may give it the right impulse to go ahead with its internal reforms, in terms of political pluralism, civil rights and transparency.

The emirate is advocating for an immediate and peaceful settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. In 2001, Qatar and Iran raised $100 million for the Palestinian government. Since 1996, Qatar has a trade partnership and behind-the-scene contacts with Israel, but no official diplomatic relations.

In 2005, Qatari officials said they were considering opening full diplomatic relations with Israel even before the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Nothing happened since then, but Qatar may surprise the ones who doubt its pragmatist political vision.

Doha's political establishment (through its most senior official in foreign affairs, the Qatari Foreign Minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani) has proposed a six-point initiative that the Palestinians should agree among themselves, in order to enter into effective negotiations with Israel. Truth be told, this plan would have been irrelevant if the Palestinian leadership had chosen to honor the agreements already signed with Israel.

The core issue of the plan is that Hamas must recognize Israel as a neighbor state. So far, Khaled Meshal, and even Prime Minister Hanieh known as a moderate in Hamas’s ranks, said that the Palestinians do recognize Israel’s de facto presence in the region, but they will never accept its legitimacy.

The Qatari Prince, Sheikh Tamin bin Hamad Bin Kalipha al-Thani sent a private jet to bring Khaled Meshal from Saudi Arabia to Doha for discussions on the formation of the national unity government, basically a new government led by an independent technocrat, not by Hamas. Both the Saudis and the Qatari are working hard to settle the internal strife between the Palestinian factions.

Aside from the diplomatic efforts of Doha, which deserves appraisal, the fact that the Palestinians let themselves be held hostage to expatriate extremists, such as Khaled Meshal, is worrisome and confusing. The blur can be easily displaced by a referendum asking the people whether they would like to have a new, independent state or would prefer to continue the terror attacks on their neighbors. Prime Minister Hanieh has been kept in the dark by Meshal, who ordered a faction of Hamas that is close to him to kidnap the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and as a result transformed Israeli - Palestinian relations from bad to worse. This move supported by Damascus and Tehran represents a venturous step back for the whole region.

In Lebanon, Qatar pledged to rebuild Bint Jbeil, a town located only a few kilometers from the Israeli border, also known as Hezbollah's stronghold, and the town of Khiam. Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani was the first Arab leader to visit Lebanon after the conflict Hezbollah started with Israel, and it offered to send up to 300 troops under the banner of the United Nations International Force.

Nowadays, we are witnessing a Shiia uprising in the region. Al Sadr's militia, Badr's brigades (SCIRI) and Hezbollah's actions clearly demonstrate a cleavage between the Sunnis and the Shiias, and a revolutionary on-the-ground reality. Iran wants a new rearrangement of the regional powers, with Tehran cutting the cards after it had taken the jokers for itself and Damascus is trying hard, by any necessary means, to keep itself far from the International Tribunal investigation in Rafiq Hariri's case and far away from any unilateral sanctions the US might decide to force upon Syria.

Surrounded by these complex circumstances, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and most likely the other small gulf emirates actively seek to counter the Iranian and Syrian maneuvers in the region.

Qatar is playing its cards surprisingly well on the world stage of diplomacy. It seems to be able and willing enough to promote a realistic strategy to defend its own political and economic interests and alliances, when other state actors do nothing else but ignite violence. If the tiny, conservative Islamic emirate can do something to prevent further degradation of the region's already fragile stability, then so be it.