Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim is blazing as the leading voice of diplomacy in the Middle East

  • Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani addressed the UNGA in September, urging the international community to dialogue with the Taliban
  • Doha has gained a reputation as “the Geneva of the Middle East”, boosting al-Thani’s image and global influence.
  • The Sheikh is on a streak of diplomatic gains, lifting of the Saudi-led blockade on Qatar and mediating for Iran-US relations.
On Afghanistan, Qatar calls for separating aid from political differences |  | UN News.
Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Amir of the State of Qatar / UN Photo, Cia Pak
Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Amir of the State of Qatar / UN Photo, Cia Pak

Why is Sheikh Tamim’s heat level blazing?

Answer: By successfully hosting US-Taliban negotiations, Doha has gained the reputation of a diplomatic hub, as celebrated by Tamim in his UNGA speech.

On September 21, the first day of the UN General Assembly’s 76th session, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani addressed the world. The Qatari Emir was the fifth speaker in the agenda, the only leader listed as “His Highness” rather than “His Excellency,” and the first representative of an Arab country to take the podium. However, it is not these details that made his speech stand out, but rather the content of it. Sheikh Tamim successfully placed his country under the spotlight, underlining Qatar’s role in “peaceful settlement of conflicts,” “constructive dialogue,” and “international institutions and multilateral cooperation.”

In an impressive show of diplomatic savoir-faire, the Emir’s UNGA speech interwove all of the current buzzwords of liberal institutionalism with his personal case for Qatar—a country whose national practices and interests could easily be put on trial by that very same international order. Despite his prudent choice of language, the Emir presented an assertive position on the highlight of current security affairs: the recent US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the Taliban’s consequent rise to power in the war-torn nation.

Emphasizing the need to “separate between humanitarian aid and political differences” throughout his speech, Sheikh Tamim strongly encouraged world leaders “to continue dialogue with the Taliban,” as “boycotting them will only lead to polarization and reactions, whereas dialogue could be fruitful.”

Qatar’s current position allows Sheikh Tamim to make such statements. In fact, the newfound clout experienced by the Gulf state is owed precisely to its leading diplomatic role, as a willing host for talks and negotiations between key actors in contentious Middle East issues. In February 2020, the Doha Agreement, or Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan, was signed in the Qatari capital by the United States and the Taliban. Provisions included the removal of all NATO troops from the country. In exchange for the Taliban’s commitment to prevent al-Qaeda from operating and to dialogue with the Afghan government. 

Brokering the Doha Agreement is not the first sign of Qatar’s engagement in the Afghan peace process. In 2013, the year Sheikh Tamim came to power after his father’s abdication, the Taliban were invited to open a political office in Doha; the high-walled villa and luxury accommodation for Taliban leaders—quite an upgrade from Guantanamo—was unsurprisingly first met with outrage. While it is clear why the Taliban and even Washington would approve of Doha as a “neutral location”—Qatar’s balanced relations with East and West, its cosmopolitan environment, and its geographical remoteness from the battleground, to name a few reasons—the Emir’s vested interests are somewhat more obscure.

Without giving in to speculation, and judging by the trends in Sheikh Tamim’s interactions with the world, it is safe to say that the main attraction for Qatar has been, all along, securing its role as a prominent and influential mediator at the global level. This interpretation is echoed by experts, who have long noticed the country’s strategy of “positioning itself as the key interlocutor between the West and Muslim actors with whom the West has trouble dealing.”

Regardless of the motivations on each side, the case is that Qatar’s openness towards the Taliban has allowed for the organization’s negotiators and representatives to meet with their US counterparts throughout the years, and provided a neutral space for the Taliban to engage with the international community. In retrospect, Sheikh Tamim’s controversial move has proved instrumental to a long, complex, and arduous peace process. It would be naive to think that a US-Taliban agreement could have been reached overnight, or without certain concessions from the right third party; in this regard, Qatar is clearly the most willing and able out of an already minimal list of candidates.

2020 was not the last time Doha served as a ground for fruitful negotiations. Last weekend (October 9-10, 2021), the US and Taliban leaders met again in the Qatari capital, achieving a “candid and professional” dialogue about the renewed concerns from both sides. It seems that, even with the current challenges being faced on Afghan soil, actors feel comfortable returning to Doha. This is a practical demonstration of Sheikh Tamim’s prideful declarations, which he made with blazing confidence before the UNGA: “We are pleased that Doha is the capital of international multilateral action in our region.”

Who is changing Sheikh Tamim’s temperature?

Answer: the consolidation of Qatar’s influence in the Middle East and beyond, the lifting of the Saudi-led blockade, and an improved global perception.

Considering Qatar’s complex geopolitical surrounding and pocket-sized territory, having such a prominent role in the peace process for Afghanistan is, by all means, an impressive feat. A couple of years ago, it would have been hard to believe that Doha would cement its reputation as “the Geneva of the Middle East,” as some analysts have already pointed out.

Whether this has come as a result of Sheikh Tamim’s long-game soft power strategy, ability to fearlessly seize the moment, or luck—or a perfect combination of all—it is evident that influence suits him well. This past month, the Emir was cool and calm in his address to the UNGA; the undertone of his speech was one of self-satisfaction, placing much more emphasis on Qatar’s achievements rather than its grievances.

This comes in stark contrast to the theme and mood of his virtual address for the 2020 session. “More than three years have passed since the start of the unjust and illegal blockade on the State of Qatar,” said the Emir shortly after his opening remarks. Indeed, until January 2021, the Gulf Crisis was the crux of Qatari influence and relationships with its immediate neighbours.

Backed by over ten states, Saudi Arabia and the UAE severed all diplomatic and economic ties with their fellow GCC member in June 2017, on account of Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism, cordial relations with Iran, close ties with Turkey, and controversial reporting by the Doha-based media giant Al Jazeera. Inevitably, a crisis of this magnitude and length had left Sheikh Tamim in the cold for a while. Touching upon issues as sensitive as terrorism, Qatar’s image abroad was tainted by questions surrounding potential shady dealings with shady partners.

Against all odds, and much to Saudi dismay, the blockade has proved beneficial for Sheikh Tamim in the long run. Qatar’s diplomatic consolidation continued economic growth, and successful handling of COVID-19, all while remaining unyielding to Saudi demands for over three years, have shown that the Gulf state is not to be underestimated.

The Emir’s fearless defiance of his ‘Big Brother’ next door is exemplified through the growing bond between Qatar and Turkey; as one of the key complaints that led to the 2017 crisis, it is striking to see that Turkish military presence in Qatar increased after Saudi demands to remove all troops. It is also worth noting that tighter economic ties between both nations emerged from the blockade, with Turkish (and Iranian) exports filling the void left in Qatari supermarkets after all its neighbors closed their borders and banned shipping overnight.

Today, things seem to have come full circle for the Emir. His role as a broker for US negotiations with Afghanistan, which include counter-terrorism as a main clause, as well as for indirect talks between the US and Iran, favours Doha as the new middleman between the West and isolated players in the Middle East. Through a policy of assertiveness, dialogue, and coherence, Sheikh Tamim has successfully reversed his image on the world stage.

What is driving Sheikh Tamim?

Answer: Qatar’s foreign policy of relationship-building, its security partnership with the US, and its need to balance religious and diplomatic interests.

If one thing has become clear for Qatar in the past year, it is that Sheikh Tamim wants the country to consolidate itself as a key regional mediator. From the heart of the Gulf, the Emir understands the potential for instability that exists around him; moreover, he understands his country’s strengths and vulnerabilities.

As a result of this, establishing relationships with external actors that have a hand in shaping Middle Eastern affairs—the US, Iran, Turkey, Islamist groups—has long been a key part of Qatari foreign policy. David B. Roberts, an expert on Gulf security, puts it best: “With abundant financial resources, but limited human resources, Qatar’s leaders have relied on personal links and speculative bouts of support to various intermediaries as a key foreign policy modus operandi.”

Doha is not only home to the Taliban’s political office abroad, but also to the largest US airbase in the region. The US-Qatar security partnership dates back to the 1990s, playing an important role in the rather extensive list of American military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia. The Al-Udeid Air Base represents the symbiotic relationship between both countries; while it provides the US with direct reach and connectivity to the region.

It provides Qatar with a defensive shield and allows the Emir to stay unfazed by altercations at the level of the Gulf Crisis, under the assurance that military escalation would be impossible. Sheikh Tamim’s willingness to ‘get his hands dirty‘ helping Washington fix its most troublesome relations—the Taliban and Iran—reflects the value Qatar places on their bilateral partnership and an overall strategic approach to alliances.

Then, there is religion. With a Sunni-majority population and significant Wahhabist leanings, Qatar makes for an interesting case. Despite projecting a cosmopolitan and progressive image to the world, the traditionalist lobby is of greater weight than one would expect. In fact, along with Saudi Arabia, Qatar is the only state that adopts Wahhabism as its dominant school of Islamic jurisprudence, which is largely understood to be the strictest among Sunni schools. Whether Wahhabi principles have any influence beyond certain elements of domestic policy is unclear.

However, it is important to note that structural factors allow for greater religious flexibility in Qatar, as opposed to Saudi Arabia; this includes the lack of an “institutionalized state religious apparatus,” meaning that the Qatari Emir and his government can operate independently from the religious authorities. This leaves room for cordial interaction with other Islamic powerhouses, namely Iran and Turkey, that follow the Shia branch or a different school of Sunni Islam—albeit bringing condemnation from their Saudi neighbours.

On the other hand, the implications of Qatar’s religious background on its ties to Islamist groups such as the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood or Hamas, are certainly convoluted and debatable. While some skeptical analysts quote these relationships as evidence of ideological alignment with such groups, others explain the Qatari government’s approach as a “means to an end,” with the end once again being to find “a way for a small state like Qatar to be a critical part of some of the core conversations shaping the contemporary Arab world.” Nevertheless, religion is an important factor in understanding Sheikh Tamim’s foreign policy, which seems to be a delicate balancing act between different interpretations of national interest.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Qatar’s increasing global presence gives its soft power approach a much greater reach and relevance for all audiences.

It is an important time for Qatar. In the run-up to the 2022 FIFA World Cup, chances are that just about anyone, far beyond international affairs enthusiasts, has become familiar with the Gulf state by now. Qatar and its Emir are bound to become regular mentions in mainstream media, making this time critical to make or break the country’s image in the eyes of the world.

Events such as the lifting of the Gulf blockade and the hosting of peace talks for Afghanistan have been crucial in this regard, shaping Doha’s image as a diplomatic hub and Sheikh Tamim’s reputation as a pragmatic leader—following the legacy of his father before him, once referred to as the “Arab Henry Kissinger” for his similar diplomatic aspirations.

The Emir’s speech at the UNGA encapsulates the overarching framework of his foreign policy. Sheikh Tamim opened his address with one of the most important and sacred phrases of Islam: “in the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful” (بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم). He then went on to candidly advocate for liberal institutions, internationalism, and dialogue. This dichotomy is noteworthy. If the Qatari Emir continues his current Islamist-globalist soft power approach, he could eventually pioneer a new leadership style for Gulf states; only time will tell if Sheikh Tamim will be able to take advantage of this current momentum, and continue blazing a trail for new approaches to conflict resolution in the region.