Independence & Modern Political Rule (1971-present)

In 1968, Britain announced its plans for a withdrawal from the Gulf, citing the costs of maintaining a military presence that complicated efforts by the Labour Party to cut the civil budget at home. This delighted Arab nationalists in the Middle East who called for the complete removal of British power throughout the region, but was resisted by Qatari rulers so much so that they offered to bankroll Britain’s continued military presence.[1] The British officially left Qatar in 1971, and shortly thereafter the United States replaced Britain as Qatar’s guardian.

In 1972, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad, Sheikh Abdullah’s grandson, took the throne in a bloodless coup and oversaw Qatar’s transformation into a modern state. While Sheikh Khalifa successfully industrialized Qatar, he failed to bring about the significant reform that he had promised following the coup.

Declining oil prices in the 1980s exacerbated frictions within the family and lent support and legitimacy to Khalifa’s son Hamad, who secured the throne in another nonviolent takeover in 1995. It is Sheikh Hamad who is credited with the rapid development that characterizes contemporary Qatar, which includes the massive Education City initiative and numerous Western university campuses hosted there, investment in enormous natural gas reserves, which outpace oil reserves and have secured Qatar’s wealth far into the future, and the creation of several world-class art museums, among other changes.

The most significant development has undoubtedly been the creation of Al Jazeera, the Arab world’s most-watched satellite network. Al Jazeera Satellite Channel was launched in 1996 and, characterizing itself as an independent alternative to state media as well as to hegemonic, Western news media, provides news coverage of regional and global events and talk shows in which guests and hosts alike have shocked viewers in their open critiques of political leaders. Nonetheless, it receives $300 million in annual funding from the Qatari government and is rarely critical of the Qatari state. In recent years, it has expanded to include Al Jazeera English (2006), also headquartered in Doha, and Al Jazeera America (2013), based in New York, which suffered financial failure and is scheduled to cease operations in April, 2016.[2]

Politically, Qatar has also distinguished itself in its emergence as an international mediator. Over the past decade, Qatar has played a leading role in mediation efforts between groups in Lebanon, Sudan, Yemen, and to lesser extents in Palestine, Djibouti, and Eritrea, though not all cases were resolved.[3] In doing so, Qatar has assumed a mantle traditionally reserved for global powers, especially the United States, France, and other western nations, but also from regional powers such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, or organizations like the Arab League, at times provoking their ire. The ultimate effect of this high-level engagement has been international recognition as a diplomatic powerhouse actively promoting regional stability and peace.

 Mediation carries high prestige in the Arab region, and resonates with Islamic history. The Prophet Muhammad was a renowned mediator during his lifetime and successful mediation is seen to require thoughtfulness, tact, and a clear understanding of subtle and shifting interests.[4]

Qatar expanded its diplomatic reach in the post-Arab Spring era by directly supporting Sunni Islamist groups throughout the volatile region. This included billions in funding for the Libyan rebellion that led to the death of former leader Muammar Qaddhafi, support for the al-Nahda Party in Tunisia, and financial support for anti-government opposition in Syria, including radical Islamist militias that Qatar’s allies seek to disempower in favor of other opposition elements.[5] In Egypt, Qatar became the largest aid donor during the presidency of Muhammad Morsi, the winning candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Development Party (Qatar also supports Hamas in neighboring Palestinian territories, though this pre-dates the Arab Spring). In essence, Qatar again emerged as a major regional player on par with Saudi Arabia and the United States, using its immense wealth to influence conflict outcomes, and, as many analysts note, gaining prestige and clout in a region of political aggressors.[6]

However, by 2013 global opinion of Islamist political parties had begun to shift and a critical eye was cast on Qatar for its abundant financial support of Islamist regimes. In July, a popular military coup unseated Morsi in Egypt and in September the military transition government returned $2 billion as relations between the two nations soured.[7] Qatari leadership was criticized by other nations attempting to negotiate an end to the Syrian conflict, where the empowerment of radical Islam opposition groups frustrated diplomatic efforts.[8] In Libya, where the Qatari flag flew alongside the rebel flag, the tide of public opinion turned as Qatar was accused of empowering a marginal faction among Libya’s Islamists.[9] Protestors in Libya and in Tunisia spoke out against Qatari “meddling,” and in Egypt, the government took various actions against Qatar, including cracking down on Al Jazeera journalists. As a result, in 2014 Qatar rolled back its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and took steps to mend relations with other nations in the region.[10]


[1] Onley, “Britain and the Gulf Shaikhdoms, 1820–1971: The Politics of Protection,” p. 21.

[2] Hussein Ibish, “Why America Turned Off Al-Jazeera,” The New York Times, February 17, 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/02/18/opinion/why-america-turned-off-al-jazeera.html, accessed March 8, 2016.

[3] Kamrava,“Mediation and Qatari Foreign Policy,” pp.  1–18.

[4] Fromherz, Qatar: A Modern History, p. 87.

[5] David Roberts, “Behind Qatar’s Intervention in Libya: Why Was Doha Such A Strong Supporter of The Rebels?” Foreign Affairs, September 28, 2011, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/68302/david-roberts/behind-qatars-intervention-in-libya, accessed November 15, 2013.

[6] “Tiny Qatar’s growing global clout,” BBC, April 30, 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-13229852, accessed November 15, 2013; Abigail Hauslohner, “Qatar loses clout amid fading Arab Spring,” The Washington Post, November 13, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/qatar-loses-clout-amid-fading-arab-spring/2013/11/13/f3072b64-46ea-11e3-95a9-3f15b5618ba8_story.html, accessed November 15, 2013.

[7] Heba Saleh, “Egypt returns $2bn to Qatar in sign of worsening bilateral ties,” Financial Times, September 19, 2013, accessed November 15, 2013.

[8] Jeremy Shapiro,“The Qatar Problem,” Foreign Policy, August 28, 2013, www.mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/08/28/the_qatar_problem, accessed November 15, 2013.

[9] Steven Sotloff, “Why the Libyans Have Fallen Out of Love with Qatar,” TIME, January 2, 2012, http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2103409,00.html, accessed November 15, 2013.

[10] “Islamism is no longer the answer,” The Economist, December 20, 2014, http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21636776-political-islam-under-pressure-generals-monarchs-jihadistsand, accessed December 18, 2014; David Kirkpatrick, “Qatar Suspends News Channel Critical of Egyptian Government,” The New York Times, December 22, 2014, accessed January 6, 2015.

Image Credits:

Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missned, UNAOC (2010), Flickr Creative Commons.

"Pearl Diver," Nick Leonard (2006), Flickr Creative Commons.