The state-of-the-art stadiums, futuristic infrastructure and amazing highways of Qatar today allow soccer fans to appreciate the development of a country that few had on the radar before the start of the World Cup. None of this has been the result of chance. The positioning of this Persian Gulf country on the global scene is the result of political decision and the drive of the monarchs who ruled this emirate in the last two decades.
BEYOND THE HORIZON
The huge hydrocarbon reserves allowed Qatar, after its UK independence in the 70s, gaining more and more influence outside the borders. Turned to one of the world’s three largest exporters of liquefied natural gas (LNG)Qatar was able, thanks to these funds, to build an economic and media scaffolding that paid both economic and symbolic dividends.
In 2005 the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), which today manages a sovereign fund of more than 450,000 million dollars. His investments range from industrial sectors, such as the automotive industry, to telecommunications, energy and even popular sports, such as soccer. In Argentina, Qataris have investments in Vaca Muerta, thanks to its shareholding in the US oil company ExxonMobil; and in two important companies in the agri-food sector, Adecoagro and Vicentin. Between 2018 and 2022, for its part, the airline Qatar Airways was the main sponsor of Boca Juniors, which was reflected in the shirt of the local first division soccer team.
However, perhaps the emirate’s biggest bet has been the creation in 1996 of the Al Jazeera news network, through which the country achieved in the last two decades an undisputed cultural penetration throughout the world. Today, with its editions in Arabic and English and its offices in 65 cities, that television signal reaches 220 million homes in more than 100 countries. At the same time that it managed to project its image throughout the planet, Al Jazeera’s coverage of the political conflicts in its neighbors in the Arab world brought the Qatari government more than one headache.
A TROUBLED NEIGHBORHOOD
During the Arab Spring, which began at the end of 2010 with the Tunisian popular rebellion, The Qatari government was one of the most supportive of the protests and gave them visibility through Al Jazeera. The daily demonstrations in the main cities of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were broadcast live by this global news network. The fall of authoritarian regimes in those countries allowed the emirate to politically influence the future of regional politics.
That Qatari influence was not viewed favorably by two of its powerful Gulf neighbors: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The governments of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi accused their Qatari counterpart of spreading terrorism and promoting the destabilization of the entire region through their influence in the Muslim brothers.
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This is how, in mid-2017, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates promoted an economic boycott and a trade blockade against Qatar. He was joined by Bahrain and Egypt, whose ties with Qatar deteriorated as of 2013 with the overthrow of the short-lived democratic government of Mohamed Morsi and the return to power of the Armed Forces.
The tension lasted for the next three years, just as the World Cup was approaching and Qatar was advancing in the process of modernizing and building the stadiums that would host the 32 teams in 2022. Finally, in January of last year, the promoters of the sanctions they gave in and ironed out rough edges with Qatar, even renouncing the absurd demand to change the editorial line of the Al Jazeera network and prevent its broadcast in neighboring countries.
THE CHARTER OF DIPLOMACY
The soft power Qatar’s media coverage and economic power go hand in hand with a growing presence in regional affairs. The mediation of the emirate allowed the resolution of numerous political crises and disputes between different actors in the Arab world.
However, perhaps the most resonant case has been the agreement signed in Doha –capital of the emirate– in February 2020 between the US and the Afghan Taliban. Qatar’s participation was key in achieving that true milestone in diplomacy, almost 20 years after the NATO invasion that followed the attacks of September 11, 2001. In fact, diplomatic meetings that continued to have representatives from Washington and the new Taliban government, installed in Kabul in August last year, have always taken place in the Qatari capital.
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Now, the emirate’s participation in the complicated regional power game is also projected to two powerful neighbors: Iran and Turkey. Despite the difference of beliefs and strong Saudi pressure, Qatar’s ties with the Iranian government are excellent. In fact, they share the exploitation of the gigantic gas field offshore South Pars-North Dome, in which its state companies Qatar Energy and NIOC participate, along with France’s Total. These days, Qatar signed a historic contract with China to supply it with LNG from this important field for the next 27 years.
A SECURITY AND DEFENSE AGENDA
In the case of Turkey, the links are not only political and economic, but even extend to the strategic military sector. Since 2014, there has been a cooperation agreement between the Armed Forces of both countries and Turkey has established a military base in Qatarwhich is seen by its powerful neighbor Saudi as Ankara’s meddling in Gulf affairs.
The World Cup is not absent from the harmony that the two governments have reached and that has deepened in the last decade. In the context of the FIFA World Cup, under a bilateral agreement, Turkey has deployed 3,000 riot police, 250 soldiers and a Navy ship in Qatar to provide support in the security of the event.
These days, under the iceberg behind the goals and the passion for soccer, hides a gigantic “glacial mass” of geopolitical interests. The sophisticated policy of diplomatic seduction and Qatar’s position as a key energy power, at a turning point in history, today place this Arab country in a privileged place on the international stage.
However, many questions remain to be answered. How will the relationship between Qatar and Iran, a country increasingly isolated globally and with serious internal conflicts, evolve? Will the government in Doha be able to maintain its influence and the trust of the Western world, despite its disputed record on human rights?
The questions are floating in the air. What no one can deny is that this small emirate is called to play, in the coming years, a key role in the political and economic balance of world power.
Video: Qatar, petrodollars and diplomacy, the power behind the emirate that today concentrates the attention of the planet