The highly visible role played by Qatar in spearheading the Arab Spring uprisings in north Africa and Syria in 2011 focused world attention on this tiny Gulf emirate. It capped a remarkable year that began with the stunning announcement in December 2010 that this country of two million – of whom only 200,000 are Qatari nationals – would host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Behind these headlines lay a powerful country branding strategy. It took advantage of a benign set of political, economic and security factors in the early 2000s that shaped Qatar’s integration into the international system and imprinted it into the public consciousness.
The dilemma for the young new emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, as he approaches one year in power, is that the levels of global scrutiny that accompanied the country’s emergence as a regional actor with international reach threaten now to do more harm than good to Qatar’s international image.
A place in the sun
Numerous factors explain Qatar’s sudden rise to prominence. These include the decision made in 1995 by the incoming leadership of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the previous emir, to fast-track development of the country’s vast reserves of natural gas.
His administration also displayed a nuanced understanding of the projection of “soft power”, and, critically, the country enjoyed a highly fortuitous balance between demands and resources. This last factor enabled Qatar to avoid the socio-political and economic pressures generated by the Arab uprisings elsewhere, as in Bahrain, only twenty miles off its northwest shore.
The emir and his prime minister (and foreign minister), Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani (who both stepped down in June 2013) also pursued an aggressive strategy of internationalisation in order to build for Qatar a worldwide network of investments and strategic partnerships. In particular, supplying liquefied natural gas (LNG) to leading industrialised and emerging economies thickened the web of interdependencies with powerful external actors and gave them a direct stake in the security and stability of Qatar.
As a tiny country in a volatile region that has experienced three major wars since 1980, the task of managing relations with more powerful and potentially aggressive larger neighbours has been a feature of Qatari policy-making objectives.
The great balancing act
This need to diversify the bases of external support led the country to develop a reputation for balancing seemingly incompatible policies. It hosts the regional headquarters of United States Central Command (CENTCOM) and Al-Jazeera, for example.
It has discrete ties with Israel yet has provided safe haven to Islamists such as Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, who are deemed too radical for other states in the Middle East and in the West. Above all, it relies absolutely on the United States for its security while sharing the world’s largest non-associated offshore gas field with large regional neighbour Iran.
Building on its emergence as a gas superpower, the past decade has seen Qatar translate its growing international leverage into considerable soft-power assets. Especially significant was the establishment (by emiri decree) in November 1996 of Al-Jazeera. Showing a level of editorial independence and investigative reporting that far outmatched its regional state-run competitors, it rapidly gained a mass following across the Arab world.
Its coverage of Iraq made it a target for the Bush administration, while its no-holds barred reporting saw it banned from numerous countries. These included Saudi Arabia, which withdrew its ambassador from Doha between 2002 and 2007.
In November 2006 the creation of a sister English channel internationalised the brand, largely through its critically acclaimed coverage of Israel’s offensive in Gaza in 2009. Its subsequent reporting of the Arab Spring uprisings firmly imprinted Al-Jazeera on the global consciousness, although Al-Jazeera Arabic’s coverage of the upheaval reinforced regional perceptions that Qatar was aligning policy behind political Islamists linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Other examples of Qatar’s international branding strategy at work include creating the Education City centre of regional educational excellence, with its branch campuses from six leading American universities and University College London.
Qatar has aggressively expanded on the luxury-end tourism and trade fair circuit. There has been sovereign-wealth investment in iconic global brands such as Harrods, Porsche, and the Shard skyscraper in London, while the country has hosted other international organisations such as the Gas Exporting Countries’ Forum; and gatherings such as the World Petroleum Congress in 2011 and the COP 18 round of climate change negotiations in 2012. Coupled with Qatar’s geographic location between West and East, these moves were designed to position the country as a central pivot around which a broader global rebalancing is taking place.
The cracks behind the make-up
Yet it is not all plain sailing for Qatar. The World Cup has attracted relentlessly negative attention over issues ranging from the desperate plight of migrant labourers to the murky depths of football politics and a post-Arab-Spring backlash against Qatar by re-empowered status quo forces across the region. Earlier this year, a growing sense that Qatari support for Islamists threatened regional security prompted the Saudis to once again withdraw their ambassador from Doha, along with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
Considerations of national pride mean the Qatari leadership will probably fight tooth and nail to keep the World Cup, but it will be uneasily aware that the challenges have in fact only just begun. The fact that the new government recently scaled back ambitious plans outlined in the bid document for 12 air-conditioned stadia indicates that the enormous financial costs are coming sharply into focus amid signs it is trying to rein in some of the more profligate legacies of its predecessor. As the searing summer heat approaches, cooler heads in Doha may well be asking themselves if the World Cup is worth another eight years in the public eye.