Qatar exerts its clout in Mideast

Meena Janardhan

While Lebanon rejoices over the power-sharing deal among its rival factions that ended 18 months of political conflict and saved it from the brink of civil war, deal-broker Qatar revels in the glory of yet another diplomatic coup. Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabor Al Thani, who is also his country’s foreign minister, chaired six days of Arab League talks in Doha that ended on Wednesday with a deal between the United States-backed ruling coalition and the Hezbollah-led opposition.

The agreement which allowed for the election of Gen. Michel Suleiman as Lebanese president

— a post lying vacant since November — approved a parliamentary election law and cleared the opposition’s demand for veto power in the cabinet.

“We never doubted when we called for this inter-Lebanese dialogue in Doha that it would succeed,” Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Emir of Qatar, said. Qatar hosts the headquarters of the US central command for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Qatar’s latest diplomatic success could be attributed to its ties with the rival factions and regional powers with influence in Beirut. While Doha is a close ally of Washington, which also supports the government in Beirut, it has maintained good relations with Tehran and Damascus, which back the Lebanese opposition led by the Shiite militant movement Hezbollah.

Recent reconciliation with Saudi Arabia, which also supports the Lebanese government, helped in the process too.

The mediation efforts, according to Doha-based political analyst Mehran Kamrava, is consistent with Qatar’s “increasingly proactive diplomacy” over the last few years both in the Gulf region and larger Middle East. A small country of less than a million people, most of them expatriates, Qatar has pursued an aggressive role pushing mediation efforts on Middle East issues ranging from Sudan to the Palestinians to the Israeli prisoners’ stalemate. Such efforts have overridden Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia on whom Washington has long relied upon to check the influence of radical groups.

Kamrava, who is director of the Centre for International and Regional Studies at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, identified “three key, inter-related factors” to clarify Qatar’s increasing attempts at conflict resolution. First, since “Qatar is a small state, its national security needs dictate proactive diplomacy, particularly in light of the chronic regional turmoil and instability,” he said. The second factor, is the “increasing self-confidence due to significant rise in oil and gas revenues during the last few years.”

Sitting on the world’s third largest gas reserves, Qatar’s GDP in 2007 was estimated to be $66 billion, compared to eight billion dollars in 1995. The International Monetary Fund estimated Qatar’s per capita income to be $70,754 last year. This has reportedly allowed Qatar to pursue “checkbook diplomacy” to buy influence among the region’s radical groups. The third factor for the proactive role, Kamrava explained, “is a deliberate attempt to carve out a distinct identity for Qatar as a significant regional and global actor compared to the other regional players like Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia.”