By Mieczyslaw Boduszyński for Gulf State Analytics
The tiny, gas-rich emirate of Qatar has pursued an increasingly muscular foreign policy in the greater Middle East during recent years. Perhaps nowhere has Qatar’s engagement been as consequential as in Libya, where Qatari support for the rebels, both on the ground and in international bodies, was critical to securing their victory over Qadhafi’s forces in August 2011. However, the story of Qatar’s engagement in Libya since the end of the civil war is one of diminishing returns. Since 2011, Qatar’s policies have become controversial as Libyans have begun to perceive Qatari influence as supportive of the Islamist militias who have carried out acts of violence and undermined the central state’s authority. Qatar has since assumed a less visible role in Libyan politics, but its heavy investment in the new Libyan order to date suggests that Qatar will continue to have a strong stake in the outcome of Libya’s troubled post-Qadhafi transition.
Background on Qatar’s Foreign Policy Activism
In June 2014, Qatar made global headlines when it became the host for five former Afghan Taliban Guantanamo detainees, released as part of an exchange that led to the freeing of an American soldier held in Afghanistan for five years. This followed a decade of increasing international engagement during which Qatar emerged as one of the world’s leading mediators, most notably in Yemen, Sudan, and Lebanon. Since 2010, Qatar has also brokered meetings between Western officials and representatives of the Afghan Taliban, and eventually allowed the Taliban to open a representative office in Doha.
Qatar’s activist foreign policy came to public attention during the Arab uprisings of 2011. While initially Qatar (and the pan-Arab satellite network, Al Jazeera, which the Qatari state owns and operates) was hailed as a supporter of popular revolutions against autocratic rule, over time broad swathes of the public in these countries have come to perceive Qatar as a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and affiliated groups, which has generated intense resentment among those parts of the Arab public and elite who see the MB as an existential threat. In reality, Qatar’s involvement in the politics of the Arab Spring has been quite nuanced. For instance, while Qatar may have rallied behind the Tunisian revolution, it also provided refuge to exiled figures of the Ben Ali regime, and allowed assets of the regime to be transferred to Qatar. While Al Jazeera’s Arabic-language service cheered on the Egyptian and Yemeni revolutions in 2011, it said little about the simultaneous uprising and violent crackdown in Bahrain.
Mehran Kamrava has argued that Qatar pursues a policy of “hedging” its foreign policy, maintaining certain relationships and interests with consistency and vigor (such as its close alliance with the United States) while pursuing other, lesser ones (with Iran, for instance) as a counterbalance. Similarly, Qatar has been willing to support an Arab regime (such as Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria) only to drop that support when circumstances changed. Qatar’s foreign policy has not been without controversy: its relationship with Hamas has drawn the ire of Washington, Al Jazeera (Qatar’s state-owned news outlet) coverage drew criticism from a number of Arab countries as far back as 2002, and in 2014 a number of Arab countries withdrew their ambassadors from Doha to protest Qatar’s policies in Egypt.
Qatar in Libya, 2011-present
Qatar’s bold support for the 2011 Libyan revolution was a striking example of the small state’s assertiveness in the external realm. One of the most symbolic moments of this support came when rebels in Libya overran Qadhafi’s Tripoli headquarters in August 2011 and briefly raised the maroon and white Qatari flag over the compound. That day, Mahmoud Jibril, the head of Libya’s provisional governing authority, the National Transitional Council (NTC), publically thanked Qatar for its support of the Libyan revolution.
While Qatar’s role in Libya was critical in backing the revolution, the emirate had also dealt with the Qadhafi regime prior to 2011. Indeed, Qatari investments in Libya amounted to USD 10 billion before the start of the civil war. During that time, Qatari companies won construction contracts for the development of residential and entertainment complexes in and around Tripoli based on a joint venture between the Libyan Economic and Social Development Fund and the Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Company, a branch of the state-run Qatar Investment Authority.
Apparently seeing the inevitable demise of Qadhafi, in March 2011, Qatar nevertheless helped to rally support within the Arab League for the UN Security Council resolutions authorizing NATO intervention in Libya. It was the first Arab state to recognize the National Transition Council (NTC).viii Qatar went so far as to participate in the air war with its own military aircraft (six Mirage fighter jets), and elite Qatari troops participated in the liberation of Tripoli. By the end of the conflict, Qatar had contributed USD 400 million to the rebels (including an estimated twenty thousand tons of Qatari weapons and equipment), trained fighters, set up a TV station in Doha, helped Libya keep its oil exports flowing, and provided political and organizational support, especially to militias aligned with its vision and interests.
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