Relations with Other Nation States

Qatar’s activities in Syria have been attributed to its desire for greater recognition in regional and global diplomacy. However, Syria’s location is also strategic for Qatar’s economic future. Qatar began investing heavily in the country as early as 2008, setting up a $5 billion joint holding company to finance infrastructure development projects, such as power plants and real estate purchases. Although the relationship between Qatari leaders and Assad chilled after 2009, they continued to discuss defense and economic collaboration less than a year before the Syrian uprising began. As violence worsened, Qatar made the strategic decision to denounce Assad and to finance Sunni armed groups.

Qatar offers payments for defectors from the Syrian regime, humanitarian aid, and direct payments to opposition fighters. Of all nations, Qatar has sent the greatest number of arms to Syria, though its partners have strongly criticized Qatar’s lopsided support for multiple factions among the opposition’s Islamist groups, which has ultimately factionalized Syria’s opposition movement. In recognition of that factionalization, Qatar brokered the creation of an umbrella organization, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, during a November 2012 meeting in Doha. Qatar has been among the largest funders of the opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, with estimates of $3 billion in aid spent in 2013.[1]

As the violence worsened in Syria prompting Syrians to flee, Qatar has criticized by the West for its apparent unwillingness to accept Syrian refugees. Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiyah refuted this in an interview with Al Jazeera in October, 2015 saying that Qatar does not consider Syrians “refugees” and has taken in 54,000 Syrians since 2011 who are treated fairly with access to job, health care, education and newly built schools.  An additional 600,000 children, said al-Attiyah, are provided education in and out of Syria through the Education for All program.[2]

The United States has been Qatar’s most powerful ally since the departure of the British in 1971. Similar to the British before them, the United States provides security for the tiny and resource-rich nation. The massive Al-Udeid Airforce Base, which houses a 15,000-foot airstrip, sits twenty miles outside of Doha, Qatar’s capital.

The United States has faced challenges establishing itself in the region, particularly in Saudi Arabia where numerous clerics criticized the government for allowing non-Muslim Americans to operate in the same nation as the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Osama Bin Laden cited this as one of the motivating factors behind al-Qaeda’s aggressive anti-United States stance. Thus, the alliance with Qatar is useful on many levels, solving the problem of Saudi Arabia and granting access to a region with immense security implications, especially with regards to neighboring Iran and Iraq.[3] Qatar also provides the United States with a neutral meeting ground where officials can engage in dialogue with “problematic” individuals and groups, while its relationships with a multiplicity of Middle Eastern actors assists UNITED STATES in better understanding geopolitical events in the region.[4]

However, U.S. government leaders have strongly criticized Al Jazeera’s coverage of American foreign policy. Qatar’s willingness to maintain relations with Syria, Iran, and Hamas has also generated criticism in the UNITED STATES, including among members of Congress, causing some American critics to place it on an “axis of resistance” to the United States and Israel.[5] The War on Terror has also created tensions, especially allegations that some members of the al-Thani family supported al-Qaeda both before and after 9/11. However, a greater willingness by Qatar to cooperate on terrorist financing issues and a new administration in Washington, DC helped improve the relationship.

The accession to the throne by Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in 2013 does not appear to have altered the close relationship. In December 2013 the two countries signed a new 10-year defense cooperation agreement. Qatar is a significant buyer of American weaponry, purchasing American air and missile defense systems. Exports to Qatar in 2013 were over $3.8 billion; in the same period, the value of U.S. imports from Qatar, mainly oil was over $1 billion.[6]

Qatar has played an active role reshaping the political landscape in Libya during and since the Arab Spring, and directly contributed to the 2011 overthrow of former dictator Muammar Qaddhafi. It was the first Arab state to recognize the opposition Interim Transitional National Council (TNC) and one of two Arab countries contributing military aircraft to the international coalition enforcing the U.N. no-fly zone. It also provided humanitarian aid, marketed oil on behalf of the TNC, broadcast opposition TV channels under the auspices of Al Jazeera, hosted the first meeting of the Libya Contact Group, possibly supplied defensive weaponry to select opposition groups, and pledged $400–500 million to a planned financial mechanism for post-revolution government operations. This decisive action provided Qatar special status amongst Libyans, reflected by the numerous squares and districts in Tripoli renamed after eminent Qataris.

Qatar’s activities in Libya gave the appearance of a shift from its usual mediator role to a more interventionist role. However, the country already had ties to the Libyan rebels. Beginning in the 1990s, Qatar provided a home for a number of Libyan Islamists,  primarily from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. These included Ali al-Sallabi, who emerged as a significant political leader in 2011, and Abdul Hakim Belhaj, who became commander of the Tripoli Military Council. Qatar’s involvement—economic, political, and military—continued after Qaddhafi’s death. However, some members of the TNC complained about Qatari interference, in particular its promotion of specific

political leaders and military commanders. Such cherry-picking, not unique to Qatar, undermined the Libyan government’s attempts to form a unified military command and a democratic government. Continued arms shipments to Libyan Islamists amplified these concerns, although some observers suggested that Libya was merely a means through which to pass weapons on to Syrian rebels fighting in the Syrian civil war.[7]

Qatar’s relations with Egypt are complicated by Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood and former Brotherhood-affiliated president Muhammad Morsi. On the heels of a popular coup that deposed Morsi, the Brotherhood was once again outlawed in Egypt in 2013, leaving Qatar in an awkward position. Where Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE quickly extended $12 billion in aid and credit lines to the Al Sisi government, Qatar offered asylum to Morsi supporters targeted by the new government’s security forces. Additionally, numerous Brotherhood members have used Al Jazeera as a platform to condemn Egypt’s government; as a result, Egypt cracked down on Al Jazeera journalists working in Egypt, for which it was condemned by international media and human rights organizations.

Soon after his accession to the throne in 1995, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani sought to normalize relations with Iran. While wary of Iran’s expansionist intentions, Sheikh Hamad also recognized his country’s geographic vulnerability. Trapped between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’a Iran, Qatar is an obvious battleground should hostilities emerge. The normalization effort also recognized the ethnic and religious antecedents of Qatar’s sizable ajam population. Descended from Persian merchants and craftsmen who migrated to Qatar in search of economic opportunity prior to the 1920s, the ajam are Farsi-speaking, mostly Shi’a Qatari citizens.[8]

Iran and Qatar have overlapping economic interests as well; the North Field / South Pars, the world’s largest natural gas deposit, is jointly owned by Qatar and Iran. In 2008 the countries signed a bilateral agreement for cooperation on energy, agriculture, health, tourism, IT, and other related issues, followed in 2010 by a defense and security cooperation agreement. The latter agreement included a statement that Qatar would not allow its land to be used as a U. S. base of operations for an invasion of Iran.[9]

Qatar’s activist foreign policy, during and after the Arab Spring, chilled this new relationship. Qatar supported the Saudi-led military intervention to quell Shi’a protestors in Bahrain. It also actively endorsed regime change in Syria, providing significant military and financial resources to Sunni opposition forces. Iran, which perceives itself as a defender of Shi’a rights around the Middle East publicly accused the Qatari government of sponsoring terrorism and questioned the legitimacy of the al-Thani family’s rulership.[10]

Saudi Arabia has historically laid claim to the Qatari peninsula. Muhammad bin Sa’ud early on asserted rights to Qatar, and numerous disputes, including military action, have taken place between the two nations over Qatar’s borders, exacerbated by the discovery of oil in 1939 and, later, natural gas in Qatar. There are many cultural affinities between the two countries. Many Bedouin carry both a Saudi and a Qatari passport. Both countries are officially Sunni, Wahhabi nations, although Qatar has a more welcoming policy toward religious diversity than its neighbor, which some have attributed to Qatar’s maritime culture versus Saudi desert culture.

Historically, Qatari imams were of Saudi origin. However, as tensions between the two countries increased in the 1990s, Qatar’s Awqaf Ministry, the state office responsible for mosque assignments bestowed the more prominent assignments upon non-Saudi imams. As a result, the number of Saudi preachers and the influence of Wahhabi Islam declined.57 Today, the majority of imams in Qatar come from Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. While Saudi leadership is bound by restrictions set by Saudi clerics, Qatar’s leaders are therefore relatively free to encourage a more pluralistic society—within limits.

The Saudi-Qatari border was finalized in 1999. Still, as recently as 2011, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait continued to promote claims to the coastal region of Khawr al-‘Udayd.[11]

Relations between the two countries soured under the former emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al- Thani. The Saudi monarch twice supported attempted coups against the Qatari emir in 1996 and 2005, and increasingly viewed Qatar as a power rival in regional and global politics. Qatar undertook what Saudi Arabia considered an unacceptably maverick diplomatic outreach to Israel and Iran and tolerated years of negative coverage about Saudi Arabia by Al Jazeera.[12] In 2003, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador from Doha over this reporting. The ambassador did not resume residency until 2008 after Saudi Arabia received a promise that the network would moderate its coverage. Still, Qatar has never directly challenged Saudi Arabia’s leadership in the Gulf.

In March of 2014, Saudi Arabia, along with Bahrain and UAE, withdrew its ambassador from Doha, claiming Qatar failed to implement a November 2013 Gulf Co-Ordination Council (GCC) agreement not to support groups that threaten the GCC.[13] According to news reports, Saudi Arabia presented the new emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani with an ultimatum to align Qatar’s foreign policy with that of the other GCC states.[14] In particular, Saudi Arabia sought changes in Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, its close relations with Turkey, its opposition to the new regime in Egypt, and its support for Houthi rebels in Yemen.[15]

Qatar has historically viewed neighboring Bahrain as a rival, dating to the al-Khalifah family’s use of the Qatari peninsula as a staging ground during its conquest of Bahrain.[16] Bahrain’s al-Khalifah continued to lay claim to Qatari territory well into the 20th century, claims which Qatar’s al-Thanis spiritedly disputed. In 1868 the British mediated a peace treaty between Bahrain and Qatar, which formally recognized Qatar as an independent sheikhdom with the al-Thani family as its rulers. For over two centuries negotiations over the border continued, alternating between military skirmishes and sometimes interference in the other’s internal politics. In 1995, as a means of improving its negotiating position, Bahrain assisted the ousted Qatari emir, Sheikh Khalifah bin Hamad al-Thani, in his efforts to regain the Qatari throne. Ultimately, under pressure from other GCC members, the two countries presented their case to the International Court of Justice, a rare appearance by Arab nations. The 2001 court decision, which basically halved the disputed territory between the two countries, opened the door for several joint economic development efforts, including the exploitation of oil and gas reserves in the territory and the construction of the Qatar–Bahrain Causeway, a 40 km roadway that will link Doha to Manama.

Faced with pro-democracy demonstrations in Bahrain during the Arab Spring, the Qatari government supported the Saudi effort to shore up the al-Khalifah monarchy.[17] This action contrasted with Qatar’s active support for protestors elsewhere in the region seeking regime change.

In March of 2014, Bahrain, UAE, and Saudi Arabia withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, claiming Qatar failed to implement a November 2013 GCC agreement not to support groups thought to threaten the GCC.[18] The other nations viewed Qatar’s support for Muslim Brotherhood affiliated opposition movements in the Middle East as a direct violation of that agreement.

Qatar was the first Gulf state to recognize Israel.[19] While the two countries do not have official diplomatic relations, the former emir received occasional diplomatic visits by top-level Israeli officials, the only Gulf leader to meet with Israeli leaders. Qatar has also been at the forefront of efforts to institute Arab economic ties with Israel. It established official trade relations in 1996 and allowed the opening of an Israeli trade mission in Doha.[20] The trade mission operated until January 2009, when the Qatari government expelled its personnel and shuttered it in response to Israel’s 2008 attack on Hamas in Gaza. As Qatar’s relations with and financial support for Hamas deepened, Israel rebuffed outreach by Qatar in 2010 regarding the mission’s reopening.

Qatar’s outreach to Israel engendered significant criticism from other Arab states. In response, both the former and current emirs stressed their support for Palestinian independence and regularly criticize Israeli decisions on settlements and other actions that appear to undermine the future of a two-state solution.

Although Qatar’s relations with the principalities contained in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) vary, the relationship with the combined federation is often rocky. When Qatari Sheikh Khalifah bin Hamad Al-Thani was overthrown in 1995, he sought refuge in Abu Dhabi and staged an unsuccessful countercoup against his son from there. Alternatively, Dubai and Qatar have historically had good diplomatic relations because both countries have on-going feuds with Abu Dhabi.

However, Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Brotherhood affiliates has created significant tensions. A UAE court sentenced a Qatari national to prison and deportation for helping two UAE citizens raise money for a banned Muslim Brotherhood affiliate. A Qatar human rights group then accused the UAE government of torture and failure to comply with international law. Egyptian-Qatari cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi claimed on Qatari state television that the UAE is opposed to Islamic rule, relations deteriorated further.[21]

Qatar’s relations with Lebanon are relatively positive. In 2006 Qatar used its seat on the U.N. Security Council to criticize Israeli attacks and broke the air blockade of Lebanon by reinstating Qatar Airline’s flights to Beirut. Its outspokenness was in stark contrast to other Arab states, which did not want to be seen supporting the Iran-backed Hezbollah. Qatar also provided troops for U.N. peace-keeping forces, humanitarian aid, and financial support for rebuilding. Villages in southern Lebanon, where it had pledged to rebuild mosques and infrastructure destroyed in the war, erected Qatari flags and banners proclaiming “Thank you, Qatar.”[22] These efforts gained it the friendship of Hezbollah, the Shi’a militant group and Lebanese political party. The 2008 Doha Accords, named after the Qatari capital city and brokered by Qatar, helped end eighteen months of violence and laid the groundwork for a unified government. Qatar’s vocal opposition to the continued leadership of Syrian leader, and Hezbollah ally, Bashar al-Assad frayed the once close ties between Qatar and Hezbollah.

Qatar is a founding member of the Gulf Co-Operation Council (GCC) along with Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, UAE, and Saudi Arabia. Formed in 1981 in response to the Iranian revolution, the organization now rivals the Arab League as the pan-Arab voice.[23] Based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the organization provides a regular forum for joint interaction between the six heads of states and their foreign ministers. The Supreme Council, made up of the six heads of state, convenes once a year, while the Ministerial Council, made up of the six foreign ministers, meets four times per year. Saudi Arabia and Oman served as the organization’s earliest leaders; power then shifted to Bahrain and Kuwait. More recently, Qatar and the UAE moved to the forefront, however, not without continued challenge from Saudi Arabia.[24]

The GCC charter outlines three areas for coordination: Economic and Financial Affairs; Commerce, Customs and Communications; and Culture and Education. However, it has undertaken very little discussion in such areas as monetary policy, trade, and social policy. Although organized in response to a security threat, the GCC charter explicitly omits mutual security as a focus area. Still, most discussions focus on issues of mutual security in the face of threats from first Iran and then Iraq. The GCC and its member states have become some of the largest purchasers of arms in the world. With the

U.S. defense industry, as well as that of other Western European arms producers, now focused on export rather than domestic security, the purchases further enhance the region’s economic importance to the world.[25]



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[1] Roula Khalaf and Abigail Fielding Smith, “Qatar bankrolls Syrian revolt with cash and arms,” Financial Times, May 16, 2013,, accessed November 27, 2013; Jeremy Shapiro, “The Qatar Problem,” Foreign Policy, August 28, 2013,, accessed November 27, 2013.

[2] “Who is Qatar backing in Syria?” Aljazeera, October 30, 2015,, accessed March 8, 2016.

[3] Fromherz, Qatar: A Modern History, p. 22–23.

[4] David Roberts, The Arab World’s Unlikely Leader: Embracing Qatar’s Expanding Role in the Region (Washington, DC: Project on Middle East Democracy, 2012), p. 5.

[5] Christopher M. Blanchard, Qatar: Background and US Relations (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2011), p. 4.

[6] Ibid., p. 13.

[7] Lina Khatib, “Qatar's Foreign Policy: The Limits of Pragmatism,” International Affairs, Vol. 89 (2013), p. 424.

[8] Sharon Nagy, “Making Room for Migrants, Making Sense of Difference: Spatial and Ideological Expressions of Social Diversity in Urban Qatar,” Urban Studies, Vol. 43 (January 2006), p. 128–129.

[9] Jill Crystal, “U. S. Relations in Qatar,” in Handbook of US-Middle East Relations, ed. Robert Looney (London: Routledge, 2014), p. 399.

[10] James M Dorsey, “The Struggle for Syria: Iran-Qatar Ties Come under Stress,” RSIS Commentaries, No. 57 (2012); Sami Kleib, “Qatar Signals Strategic Shifts as Iranian Diplomacy Sways EU,” Alakhbar English, March 10, 2014, accessed July 18, 2014.

[11] J. E. Peterson, “Sovereignty and Boundaries in the Gulf States: Setting the Peripheries,” in International Politics of the Persian Gulf, ed. Mehran Kamrava (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2011), p. 22.

[12] Roberts, The Arab World’s Unlikely Leader: Embracing Qatar’s Expanding Role in the Region, p. 4.

[13] “UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain Recall Their Ambassadors from Qatar,” Gulf News, March 5, 2014,, accessed June 11, 2014.

[14] “Arab States Withdraw Ambassadors from Qatar in Protest at ‘Interference,’” The Manchester Guardian, March 5, 2014,, accessed June 11, 2014.

[15] Kamrava, "Royal Factionalism and Political Liberalization in Qatar," p. 410.

[16] Peterson, “Sovereignty and Boundaries in the Gulf States: Setting the Peripheries,” p. 30.

[17] Blanchard, Qatar: Background and US Relations, p. 2; Roberts, The Arab World’s Unlikely Leader: Embracing Qatar’s Expanding Role in the Region, p. 4.

[18]  “UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain Recall Their Ambassadors from Qatar.”

[19] Roberts, The Arab World’s Unlikely Leader: Embracing Qatar’s Expanding Role in the Region, p. 2; Blanchard, Qatar: Background and US Relations, p. 9.

[20] Blanchard, Qatar: Background and US Relations, p. 10; Lina Khatib, “Qatar's Foreign Policy: The Limits of Pragmatism,”

International Affairs, Vol. 89 (2013), p. 419.

[21] “UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain Recall Their Ambassadors from Qatar.”

[22] Lina Khatib, “Qatar's Foreign Policy: The Limits of Pragmatism,” International Affairs, Vol. 89 (2013), p. 425.

[23] Karen E. Young, The Emerging Interventionists of the GCC," LSE Middle East Centre Paper Series, No. 2 (2013), p. 7; Crystal, “U.S. Relations in Qatar,” p. 393,

[24] Ibid.

[25] Young, "The Emerging Interventionists of the GCC," LSE