July 16, 2013 3:36PM

Will Changing of the (Political) Guard Bring Reform to Qatar?

The U.S. is the colossus which bestrides the globe, but Qatar is the pipsqueak which dominates the Middle East.  That’s a slight overstatement, but the tiny kingdom of Qatar has been destabilizing other nations.  There’s a new emir who would best concentrate on freeing his own people.

Qatar is barely 40 years old.  For the last 18 years it was ruled by Hamad bin Khalifi al-Thani, who ousted his father in a palace coup. 

Sheikh Hamad created the television channel, Al Jazeera, and annually hosted the annual Doha Forum.  I attended the internationally renowned gabfest in May, which afforded world-class networking possibilities for anyone in business, politics, and journalism.

Most dramatic has been Doha’s attempt to implement a big power foreign policy.  It gained a reputation for attempting to mediate regional disputes.  Along the way Qatar became a major U.S. ally, hosting bases for American troops.

More dramatically, Sheikh Hamad directly challenged the governments of Moammar Qaddafi and Bashar al-Assad.  In Syria Doha is supplying cash and weapons to Syrian rebels.  Ironically, the emir had once been close to Syria’s al-Assad.  In contrast, Qatar has worked to prevent change closer to home, especially in Bahrain. 

As I noted in my new article on National Interest online:

This aggressive policy carries obvious risks.  “Qatar’s recent moves to ‘take sides’ during the Arab Spring revolutions,” warned [Sultan] Barakat, “could threaten the reputation of impartial broker which Qatari policy makers have so carefully crafted over recent years.”  Worse, if the policy leaves friends turned enemies in place (Syria) or generates mounting instability (Libya), Doha ultimately might pay a high price for its role.

Of particular worry in Washington is Qatar’s penchant for supporting Islamic radicals.  For instance, [Christopher] Blanchard noted international concerns over “selective Qatari support for militias and political forces, particularly Islamist groups affiliated with the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change.”  Doha is doing much the same in Syria, with extremists taking an ever more dominant opposition role.  Doha’s “support for Islamist groups in the Arab world,” noted the Financial Times, caused concern among its more cautious Gulf neighbors. 

The emir may be a modernizer, but he is no liberal.  Anthony Shadid in the New York Times reported on observers who believed Sheikh Hamad “has an affinity for Islamist figures who echo the conservative Gulf States far more than ostensibly secular figures like Syria’s president."

This activist foreign policy rests on a docile population at home which, ironically, enjoys few of the liberties which the regime promotes abroad.  The U.S. State Department reported that “The principal human rights problems were the inability of citizens to change their government peacefully, restriction of fundamental civil liberties, and pervasive denial of expatriate workers’ rights.”  Other than that, everything is fine in Qatar.

Sheikh Hamad recently abdicated in favor of his fourth son, 33-year-old Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.  The latter faces unique challenges and opportunities.  Qatar has gained influence but risks blowback from its increasingly violent intervention abroad.  The new emir might well decide to concentrate on reform at home.