Afghan success propels mediator Qatar as ‘Norway of the East’

For the world’s liberal democracies, Qatar may turn out to be a valuable intermediary if they want their voices to be heard in Kabul’s governing palace  

Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar.

If at all there is one country that has benefited from the recent makeover in Afghanistan that is undoubtedly the tiny Gulf state of Qatar.

For Qatar, which hosted the peace talks between the Taliban leadership, the United States and Kabul’s Ashraf Ghani government, the successful outcome has catapulted it into a newfound role as a neutral, peace-making country, much like Norway in Europe.

The tiny kingdom of Qatar has for the last 25 years attempted to emerge as an independent player in the region and break away from the overpowering shadow of its giant neighbour, Saudi Arabia. It’s not been easy, but playing host to the Afghan peace talks has been a breakthrough for this strategically positioned whiff of a country in the Arabian Gulf.

Qatar is regarded as an enigmatic nation that has engendered contradictions, giving rise to several questions. For example, it houses Al-Jazeera, the media powerhouse that since 1996 has proffered an alternative non-West, Arab-centric perspective to news. It, more often than not, takes positions that are regarded as unfriendly to the United States and its Western allies.

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Just a few kilometres away from the Al-Jazeera headquarters in Doha is the US air base, one of the biggest in the Gulf region. Qatar is a close ally of Washington which routinely lends space for the US to launch military operations in the region. The Doha establishment’s contradicting policy of running with the hare and hunting with the hound is comfortably in sync with one another.

Qatar has also won the confidence of Islamists around the world by sheltering some high-profile individuals wanted in their own countries including from the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and rebels from Chechnya.

For instance, Doha provided safety for Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, a senior cleric, also perceived as the spiritual leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. In the process, Qatar was charged with supporting “terrorism finance” by its neighbours, the UAE, Saudi and Bahrain. In 2004, Chechen separatist fugitive Zelimkhan Yandarbiev was living in Doha, but was found out by his opponents and killed in a car bomb blast.

In 2006, when Hamas was elected to power in the Palestinian territories, Qatar reached out to help the new government with funds and other help. This angered Israel and the US which had described the Islamic group as “terrorist” and refused to recognise the elections. Qatar disregarded the criticism and later even sheltered one of the top Hamas leaders Khaled Mashaal in Doha.

In 1996, Qatar was among the first countries in the Gulf to establish relations with arch-Arab rival, Israel. Though the relationship was under the cover of cultural and sporting ties etc, in reality, Qatar had firmly established relations with Israel when no other country in the region had done so.

The rising geopolitical interventions of Qatar angered its giant neighbour Saudi Arabia to such an extent that in 2017 the government in Riyadh abruptly cut all ties with Doha. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt joined the Saudis in this bitter and unprecedented low in their relationship. If the Saudis expected Qatar to come crawling, asking for forgiveness, they could not have got it more wrong.

Qatar immediately countered the souring of ties with its neighbours by intensifying relations with another neighbour across the Persian Gulf, Iran, and with Turkey that helped Doha manage the crisis rather efficiently.   Saudi Arabia demanded winding up of the Al-Jazeera news channel, stopping all help to the Muslim Brotherhood and reduction of ties with Iran. Qatar refused, and stayed put. The country went through a period of domestic turbulence but hung on until in January this year the Saudi Arabia-led group of countries restored all ties with Qatar. Clearly, the government in Doha had asserted its right to follow an independent foreign policy.

Since then, Qatar has been described as a country that “punches above its weight” and successfully. The breakthrough of the Taliban-Afghan/US talks in Doha does not make Qatar just high-profile, it also makes it possible for the government there to have a bigger say in Afghan developments. Unlike the first term of the Taliban between 1996-2001, when no external power had much of a say over developments in Afghanistan other than Pakistan, this time around the fact that Qatar has earned the goodwill of the Taliban means it has the potential to play a key moderating role in the unfolding developments in Afghanistan.

For the world’s liberal democracies, Qatar may turn out to be a valuable intermediary if they want their voices to be heard in Kabul’s governing palace. Though the Taliban named a hardline government, the fact that it was not easy to arrive at ministry formation meant that several seemingly irreconcilable sections had to be accommodated. By all accounts, it still seems to be a work in progress.

The Taliban has kept the door ajar by calling it an interim government. This leaves open the possibility of an inclusive arrangement, hopefully in the near future. In this, Qatar is positioned to play an important role. The only other country that can possibly play a similar role, Pakistan, may not be inclined to support a broad-based government as that could mean diluting Islamabad’s clout in Kabul.

The role played by Qatar is similar to that of Norway which has essayed peace across the world in various conflicts.  For instance, between 2000-2006, Norway played a key role in securing a ceasefire between the Tamil Tigers and the government in Colombo during the internal war for a separate Eelam. Earlier, in 1993, Norway had mediated in one of the world’s trickiest conflicts – between the Palestinians and Israel to come up with the Oslo peace accord.

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Over the last couple of decades at least, the Qatari ruling family appears to have worked out a strategy of making its presence felt with carefully strategised interventions that have included an active role in backing the western-backed rebels in Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and other Islamist movements in the region. While the Saudis have got into spats with neighbouring Iran, Yemen and beyond, including Lebanon, with the UAE too following suit, Qatar has consciously kept itself out of any conflict.

The fact that the country is among the richest in the world has enabled it to leverage its advantages. And, to make it acceptable the rulers have over time introduced limited political reforms including local level elections. Its non-threatening size and a peaceable agenda has made it acceptable to all shades of political players.

India too has had a comfortable relationship with Qatar, which made it possible for the initial meetings between officials from Delhi and the Taliban leadership in Doha.

Now that Qatar’s importance has grown as the Taliban’s international interlocutor, more surprises are in store from this moderate, Muslim nation.