Qatar is a small and wealthy monarchy with a population of over two million people, though foreigners outnumber local Qataris at about seven to one. Most of Qatar’s resident population is made up of South Asian and Southeast Asian laborers and a wide variety of professionals from Europe, the United States, the Middle East, and Australia. The official state religion is Wahhabi Sunni Islam, though Qatari culture is, in many respects, strikingly more liberal than its Wahhabi neighbor, Saudi Arabia. The expatriate community is made up of Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and small groups of Buddhists and Baha’is. Qatar’s only current border is shared with its much larger neighbor, Saudi Arabia, though Iran, Bahrain, Oman, and the Emirates are nearby and a bridge is planned to connect Qatar with Bahrain.

Its size and proximity to large, powerful nations has resulted in a highly flexible foreign policy allowing Qatar to strike a balance between competing interests. For example, Qatar is among the United States’ strongest regional allies—U.S. Central Command is located on the Al-Udeid Air Base twenty miles outside of Doha, the capital city, and serves as a deterrent against those states who might seek Qatar’s vast natural resources for themselves. However, Qatar is also home to the satellite news network Al Jazeera, whose coverage of American foreign policy (particularly the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the War on Terror) is distinctly critical of the United States, allowing Qatari leaders to maintain an alliance with their frequently unpopular ally without significant political consequences.

Other foreign connections are carefully maintained to ensure Qatar’s autonomy and security—and this strategy is nothing new.[1]  For generations Qatar’s ruling family, the al-Thanis, have successfully negotiated for its continued existence between competing global powers including the British and Ottoman Empire in the 19th century to elements within Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Iran throughout Qatari history. What is new since 2000 has been Qatari leadership's assertive engagement in major world conflicts as a mediator, a hakam. There is significant prestige accorded to mediation in the Arab world, which is a legacy of Islam; the Prophet Muhammad was renowned for his skill as a mediator.[2] Notable examples of Qatari efforts include mediating between Lebanese politicians and Hezbollah representatives in 2008 and Darfuri rebels and the Sudanese government in 2009.[3] Qatar’s mediation strategy has raised its global profile considerably. Qatar is also heavily invested in promoting other key areas, from education and the arts to sports. At the same time, this new assertiveness has come with some risk.

Controversially, Qatar has supported Islamist militias and Islamist political parties in the post-Arab Spring era. Qatar was a major supporter of the al-Nahda Party in Tunisia, of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and of the Islamist opposition to Muammar Qaddhafi in Libya. Qatar’s support for the opposition in Libya was so significant that the Qatari flag was flown alongside the rebel flag. In part, this reflects Qatar’s foreign policy aims of high-level engagement alongside major global powers such as the United States and Saudi Arabia. However, it also grows out of a longstanding affiliation with and support for Islamist politics outside of the nation’s borders, particularly for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood—a sore spot for neighboring Gulf nations opposed to the Brotherhood.

At first glance, such support is counterintuitive; Qatari leaders lack ideological roots in Islamism and there are significant differences between the Brotherhood’s activism and Qatar’s Sunni Wahhabism, which is used to promote unquestioning allegiance to the al-Thani family.[4] However, Qatar has leveraged the Brotherhood while co-opting its power through targeted support, allowing it to deflect Islamist criticism against the state and monarchy. The government accomplishes this by controlling the stage upon which Brotherhood ideas are explored, for example, in its provision of a television platform for Brotherhood ideologue, Yusuf al-Qaradawi.[5]

Qatar distinguishes itself within the region in other ways, as well. In addition to various new sports, educational, and cultural initiatives ongoing or underway, Qatar is set to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, becoming the first Arab country to do so. It will require massive development to accommodate crowds, including new hotels, expanded transportation, and other changes in infrastructure. While the decision to host the World Cup has been celebrated, humanitarian and labor organizations highlight Qatar’s poor labor conditions. Though Qatar is enjoying the spotlight, it has also increased global scrutiny of this small and increasingly influential state.



Historical Legacies→



[1] Allen Fromherz, Qatar: A Modern History (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press,  2012).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mehran Kamrava, “Mediation and Qatari foreign policy,” Middle East Journal, Vol. 65, No. 4 (2011), pp. 539–556.

[4] Bernard Haykel, “Qatar and Islamism,” Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre, February 2013,,  accessed November 15, 2013.

[5] Mahmoud al-Sadi, “Al Jazeera Television: Rhetoric of Deflection,” Arab Media & Society, No. 15 (2012).

Image Credits:

"Doha, Qatar," Kris Krug, modified from Flickr Creative Commons.

The All Darfur Stakeholders Conference in Doha, Qatar, UNAMID (2011), Flickr Creative Commons.

See also: Qatar