Critics ostracize a rational ‘Qatar First’ policy
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The recent decision by several Gulf nations and others to sever diplomatic relations with Qatar has now been followed by a list of demands the country must fulfill in order to regain its neighbors’ diplomatic trust. The demands include a downgrading of Qatar-Iran relations, the complete shuttering of the news conglomerate Al Jazeera, and the closing of a Turkish military base.

Such demands, to which Qatar is unlikely to agree, only confirm the underlying logic of why the country was isolated in the first place: The increased desire of the tiny Gulf peninsula to forge its own path in the region. Qatar, it seems, has been ostracized by its neighbors for following a policy of “Qatar First.”

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More often than not such policy is regarded as typical, if not expected, behavior for any nation-state. Except, it seems, when a country’s chosen path appears to contravene the retrenched regional political and social order as defined by Riyadh, abetted by other Gulf monarchies, and supported by Cairo and Washington. As Raymond Barrett noted, Qatar has refused to accept the status quo and conventional wisdom of other Gulf monarchies, especially concerning the role of Iran and Islamist political parties in the region’s future.

It has long been a truism in analyzing the political futures of Gulf monarchies that their success and long-term stability demand a decreased reliance on oil revenue, creation of a more dynamic workforce, a greater tolerance for freedom of expression, and an end to gender and social discrimination.

While Qatar, like most of its neighbors, has lagged behind in addressing many of these shortcomings, such as providing equitable rights for women and reforming abusive labor practices for migrant workers, it has done comparatively better in pivoting the country’s future toward a changing world by providing a greater space for dissenting voices and nurturing diverse political relationships.

Over the past two decades Qatar has cultivated a robust presence in the international mediascape through its founding and funding of Al Jazeera, undoubtedly one the freest presses in the Arab world. The organization is by no means perfect: it is regularly accused of serving the political agenda of the Emir of Qatar, being a mouthpiece of Islamist movements, exhibiting anti-Americanism, and exercising self-censorship, all charges that have carried some merit at one time or another. But in a region desperate for greater press freedom — the Middle East is the most repressed region according to the 2017 World Press Freedom Index — Al Jazeera has helped question totalizing narratives shaped by the region’s autocratic governments, expose alternative viewpoints of regional conflicts, and provide a platform for controversial and dissenting voices. It should be of growing concern that Al Jazeera is now in the sights of various countries to be shut down entirely. (Full disclosure: My writing appears in Al Jazeera from time to time.)  

The recognition of divergent viewpoints has extended to the country’s foreign policy too, and allowed it to stake out a unique position to serve as a potential mediator in global affairs. Qatar has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, but remains a committed member (for now) of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which fears the challenge of the brotherhood to conservative regimes across the Middle East. It has supported Hamas, but welcomes Israel participation in the 2022 World Cup, even including a segment in Hebrew in one of its videos to secure the bid to host.

Indeed, the news of Qatar’s alienation in the Gulf has been met with mixed reviews in Israel, as many have viewed Qatar’s financial backing to Hamas as a major reason for averting a complete humanitarian disaster in the Gaza Strip. The tiny Gulf country has also reportedly been involved in mediating secret talks between Hamas and Israel and helped orchestrate secret negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban. Qatar hosts the forward headquarters for U.S. Central Command and shares ownership the world’s largest natural gas field with Iran. In other words, it is a country wishing to remain politically flexible and maintain a diverse portfolio of political relationships.

It is this unconventionality, in a region known for convention and conservatism, that has so wrangled its neighbors. Qatar is being knocked down to size for forging a path of independent foreign policy, creating a hub of alternative media, and serving as political go-between. The country is driven to pursue its own best interests. One would assume that doing so at the expense of ruffling the feathers of a regional alliance or the desires of an outside power, like Saudi Arabia, would be logic an “America First” President Trump would understand.

Kevin L. Schwartz is a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress. His website is www.kevinschwartz.org. He is also a visiting professor in political science at the U.S. Naval Academy.


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