Interviewer: Chris Arsenault, a reporter with Al Jazeera online based in Doha
Subject: Qatar's weakening foreign policy following the coup in Egypt and changes on the ground in Syria, September 24, 2013.
Do you think Qatar has overplayed its foreign policy hand in the last few years?
I don’t think Qatar has overplayed its hand with its foreign policy. The rulers of Qatar simply overestimated the durability of assets (Aljazeera and the Muslim Brotherhood) and underestimated the Arab public’s skepticism of politicians and governments. Clearly, the outgoing Emir, who came to power by overthrowing his own father, was very aware of the disconnect between the Arab masses and their leaders. He engineered Aljazeera as a tool to capitalize on that trust deficit and befriended a religious and political movement that was very popular among the disenfranchised segments of Arab societies but shunned by all Arab regimes—the Muslim Brotherhood. That worked for a while. What they did not anticipate is that the Arab masses’ capacity for authoritarianism was rapidly declining, ironically enough thanks in part to Aljazeera, and the public support for the Muslim Brotherhood was mathematically limited (40% support max.). In other words, the people wanted the old system gone, not replaced by a new brand of authoritarianism. Egypt’s events highlighted that: Egyptians equated secular authoritarianism (Mubarak’s) to the new emerging religious authoritarianism (The Muslim Brotherhood). As for Aljazeera, taking side of one party over another irreparably damaged its reputation; and once the link between Aljazeera editorial decisions and Qatar’s foreign policy became obvious, Aljazeera-Arabic became another partisan agency, not as the fiercely independent channel it marketed itself to be when it first started.
Do you think there is any link between the former Emir stepping down and Qatar's decision to focus on domestic priorities rather than foreign policy endeavors?
The outgoing Emir needed to step down one way or another. He needed to do that because he put his personal credibility on the line when he supported all uprisings and civil wars that removed (or threatening to remove) the regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Syria. The Emir and his Prime Minister insisted that the Arab world must be ruled by governments chosen by the people. Of course for that position to remain consistent, he (and the other rulers of the Gulf States) needed to make political concessions, too. Stepping down was the best way to accommodate that rhetoric. But he would not have stepped down when he did if it were not for the crisis in Syria. Egypt’s events (which happened after the handover) was just another reason that forced the new ruler (Tamim) to take a step back. I don’t think there has been a planned total shift from foreign to domestic, it is just the complexity of the situations in Syria and Egypt that are forcing the new ruler to take a more measured positions than that of Saudi Arabia for instance.
Qatar spent nearly 4% of its GDP propping up Mohammed Morsi's government in Egypt. Why do you think the country hasn't condemned the military's actions more forcefully?
The crisis in Egypt was unexpected and the removal of Morsi took place just 8 days after the handover. Moreover, the change in Qatar was necessitated, in part, by the Emir’s failure in Syria, which meant that a new strategy was needed. That strategy was not in place when Morsi was ousted. Based on (Arabic) Aljazeera coverage, and when compared to Alarabiyya’s, Tamim’s foreign policy regarding Egypt is still pro-Muslim Brotherhood, just not as forceful at the moment.
In terms of Qatar's large ambitions - its desire to try and mediate regional conflicts and its hosting of high-profile conferences - how much of this is linked to security concerns following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait? And how much of this is linked simply to egotism and a desire to be noticed?
Indeed, the outgoing Emir was a very ambitious person. I am not totally convinced that his disproportionate foreign policy was dictated by his concern for foreign threats. If there was a serious threat to his rule or his country, it must have been domestic, especially given the way he came to power. His personal ambitions, however, are present in every endeavor from hosting global conferences to hosting the World Cup (still a controversial decision), he wanted Qatar to be known around the world. He was able to achieve many milestones because he had run the country like a corporation and his foreign policy was more like Public Relations than Diplomacy.
* The reporter expressed regret that not all the comments (especially those deemed controversial) could be published on Aljazeera due to legal restrictions. The full conversation is published here to provide full context.