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Doha’s ‘Foreign Policy is Economic Policy’
US President Donald Trump meets with the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, on July 9 in the Oval Office. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Doha’s ‘Foreign Policy is Economic Policy’

Experts say that like other Gulf countries, Qatar uses its wealth to gain access to the United States – although one says that Washington’s new tendency toward isolation means they all might lose some of their influence

This week, Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, met with US President Donald Trump to ink deals with American companies worth billions. The meeting highlights how Qatar uses its wealth to influence the United States.

“How many leaders besides Qatar spend a day in the White House? You don’t walk around there unless you’ve got what people want,” Michael Stephens, a research fellow for Middle East studies and head of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in Qatar, told The Media Line.

This is part of the Gulf state’s global strategy of investing and spending money in foreign countries, for example in Russia and Malaysia.

Last year, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani was named chairman of the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), a sovereign wealth fund. Stephens contends that this indicates these two fields are intrinsically intertwined.

“Their foreign policy is their economic policy,” he said.

According to Stephens, Qatar plays this way not only because it is profitable and grants it access it would not otherwise have, but so that other countries will view it as an important global player.

“Qatar [does this to build its] brand as an actor on the world stage so that people will take notice. They want people to take notice and take [the Qataris’] preferences seriously,” he added.

Doha also uses the tactic of investing and spending money in foreign countries to ensure its security. Stephens argues that when Qatar does this, those countries have a stake in Qatar.

“They’re trying to defend themselves the only way a small country with wealth can do it…. They are trading investment and capital flows, not just oil, for security,” he said.

According to Robert Mogielnicki, a resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, the invest-and-spend tactic is particularly effective with President Trump.

“There is no quicker path to gaining favor with the Trump Administration than to buy American. The Qataris have followed this strategy by finalizing a series of energy, defense and aircraft agreements with US companies,” he told The Media Line.

Mogielnicki explained that earlier this year, the QIA announced it planned to increase investment in the US by $15 billion, to $45 billion, over the next two years.

Not long ago, President Trump called Qatar a “funder of terrorism.” Today, though, the US sees it as a crucial partner in containing Iran due to Tehran’s attempt to expand its regional influence.

Qatar is also crucial for the US militarily, as it is home to the Al Udeid Air Base and hosts the forward headquarters of US Central Command, which Ulrichsen calls the “most important US base in the region.”

Mogielnicki contends that the US-Qatari relationship is likely to be on good terms in the future.

“As long as the White House considers Qatar as playing a constructive role in anti-terrorism efforts across the wider region, the Trump Administration will continue to welcome Qatari investment in US companies and real estate,” he told The Media Line.

This comes at a time of heightened conflict between Sunni countries in the area. In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, along with Egypt, imposed an economic and diplomatic blockade against Qatar.

According to Dr. Shahram Akbarzadeh, a research professor in Middle East and Central Asia politics at Australia’s Deakin University, this meeting also highlights the importance of Doha’s relationship with Washington in ameliorating the impact of the blockade.

“Qatar has managed to strip the blockade of [a] US endorsement. This is already a major achievement,” Akbarzadeh told The Media Line. “Qatar has secured economic boosts through new contracts, [and] this helps Qatar in [circumventing] the blockade.”

Despite this, the blockading countries have been surprisingly quiet about what transpired in Washington during the emir’s visit. Mogielnicki contends that this is because they themselves have close ties with the US.

“The strong relations that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in particular, enjoy with the Trump Administration reduce the need to publicly comment on the visit by Qatar’s emir,” he said.

Still, according to Dr. Christopher Davidson, a British academic who is the author of several books about the Middle East, these powers are likely not happy with the meeting.

“From their perspective, not only has Qatar failed to clean up its own backyard vis-à-vis the sponsoring of extremist organizations, but it also continues to fund and facilitate the Muslim Brotherhood, which they believe remains an effective gateway to more radical forms of Islam,” he told The Media Line.

Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow in Middle East studies at Houston’s Rice University, says that critiques from Saudi Arabia and the UAE have come through less-official platforms.

“Media and social media accounts have ramped up their attacks on Qatar online in an attempt to try and distract from the meeting and as part of their longstanding campaign to discredit the Qatar-US relationship,” Ulrichsen told The Media Line.

On the other hand, author Davidson notes that Kuwait and Oman, which he describes as “de facto neutrals,” are likely to be pleased about the improved relationship.

Mogielnicki contends that Qatar maintaining close ties with the US can help prevent the conflict between the Gulf countries from worsening, which is in Doha’s interest.

“Qatar is keen to avoid an escalation of tensions with the boycotting countries, as this would require additional policy measures and negatively affect global investor confidence in the Qatari economy,” he said.

Nonetheless, Qatar is not unique in using its wealth to shape the relationship it maintains with the world’s superpower. According to RUSI’s Stephens, this is common practice in the other Gulf states.

“All of these countries are trying to show their worth, and the easiest way to do that is to show it in dollars,” he told The Media Line. “These countries have incredible access for their relative lack of power on the world stage.”

Stephens also argues that Qatar and the others are losing some their purchasing power, as the US is not willing to take the same actions in the Gulf that it used to.

“The amount of money of the Gulf states’ spending in Washington is increasing, and the amount of their influence is lessening,” he said.

Nonetheless, he contends that these states are still gaining the access and acknowledgement they want.

“The fact that the US listens is a success,” Stephens said, “albeit a limited one.”

(Tara Kavaler is an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Studies)

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