The Qatar crisis is no surprise for those who follow the Middle East closely and know enough about this small country’s curious rise as a regional player. Many observers of Mideast politics have defined the process of the rise and fall as Qatar as a story of its failed ambitions, but the politics of Qatar is more complex. The convenient version of the story is that Qatar sought an outsized role in regional politics which led to an inevitable clash with its more powerful neighbor Saudi Arabia and with its rival Gulf states. In addition, the sympathizers of Qatari politics have posited an argument that this small and proud country is being punished by global and regional powers for its “independent” politics, its ties with Iran and the “Palestinian resistance,” namely, Hamas.
Nevertheless, Qatar which is portrayed as a quixotic little country, has neither been a naive political actor nor ever been in a position to pursue “independent” politics. On the contrary, Sheikh Hamad deposed his father and invented the new politics and the “brand” of Qatar only with the help of his powerful Western allies. So much so that, when the father, Sheikh Khalifa, tried to regain power, his assets were frozen with the help of Washington law firm Patton Boggs in 1996. Since then, Qatar has changed its ways; it hosts the biggest U.S. base in the region, founded the controversial Al Jazeera news channel and started its hyper-active foreign politics as a supposedly “regional mediator.” Qatar hosted Muslim Brotherhood leaders, many other opposition figures and even members of the Taliban, all without risking its Western ties; in fact, this small country was encouraged by its powerful allies to play such a role.
After the Syrian affair started, Qatar continued to be encouraged by its Western allies to play an active role to achieve the removal of the Bashar al-Assad regime. At the time, today’s radicals and terrorists were being presented as “freedom fighters.” At the time Qatar also had no conflict with the other Sunni powers who recently turned against Qatar. In actuality, Qatar participated in the Saudi effort to suppress the Arab Spring in Bahrain and then also joined the military intervention in Libya.
The problem with Qatar started only after this small power forgot that it could play a regional only as long as its policy was in tune with Western powers and plans in the region. Qatar, however, is in no position to challenge the new politics in Syria and the efforts to restore some sort of order in Libya. It is not only that someone’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist in politics, it is also that the freedom fighter of yesterday could be defined as today’s terrorist by the same international actors.
Poor Qatar didn’t have enough time to develop any sense of international politics after being spoiled by the powerful for so long. Qatar’s rulers could never have thought that those who awarded it with such prizes like the hosting rights to the 2022 FIFA World Cup would all of a sudden start accusing it, first for its human rights violations and then for supporting radicalism and terrorism. They could not quite understand why this small, repressive emirate, where there is neither human rights nor any space for freedom, did not pose a problem until very recently only to discover it too late. In short, Qatar’s real mistake was that its rulers took the country’s rise and power as real and for granted.