Qatar holding reins of regional politics amid Arab turmoil

AFP, Tuesday 7 Feb 2012

Absence of key players in Middle East aids tiny, wealthy island of Qatar in becoming a hub and capital of Arab politics

Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal (L-R) talk before an agreement signing ceremony in Doha February 6, 2012.(Photo: Reuters)

An accord signed between Palestinian rivals in Qatar this week highlights the key role the gas-rich Gulf state is playing in the region as it steals the limelight from traditional regional powers.

In Syria, Doha is playing a leading diplomatic role to end a brutal government crackdown on an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's regime that has claimed at least 6,000 lives since March, according to the opposition.

As part of that, Qatar led an Arab committee to the UN Security Council to urge action on Syria.

However, a resolution to end the bloodshed there was blocked by Chinese and Russian vetoes.

The tiny Gulf state has also led mediation efforts in Lebanon, Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti, and is also promoting an Afghan peace deal.

"All indications point to the fact that Doha has become the capital of Arab politics and diplomacy," said Emirati analyst Abdulkahleq Abdullah. "This will continue in the foreseeable future."

On Monday, Doha helped clinch a deal between rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah to name Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas as head of an interim government tasked with organising long-overdue general elections.

For months, the two factions failed to agree on the crucial political appointment, threatening the fragile truce signed between them last April.

Qatar has also thrown its support behind the Arab uprisings that swept the region, unseating autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh is also on the verge of stepping down.

Qatar openly acknowledged sending troops to Libya in support of rebels fighting to overthrow longtime leader Moamer Gaddafi.

Qatar "understood at an early stage that there was a new system in the making in the Middle East," said director of the Brookings Doha Centre Salman Shaikh, noting that "it took the initiative to ensure regional stability as much as possible."

Qatar's emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, is a close US ally who has managed to maintain strong ties with Iran, despite heightened tensions with the Islamic republic's other Gulf neighbours and Western powers over its nuclear programme.

Qatar's diplomatic initiatives reach further beyond the Gulf to Africa and South Asia.

Last year, Doha brokered a peace agreement between the Sudanese government and rebels in Darfur, though the deal failed to take effect on the ground.

In 2008, it brokered a deal between rival Lebanese factions to end an 18-month political feud that exploded into deadly sectarian violence that threatened to push the country towards civil war.

Qatar's mediation efforts also helped Eritrea and Djibouti resolve their border dispute in 2008.

Qatar is also playing a crucial role in promoting a Afghan peace deal and is hosting talks between the US and Taliban officials. Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani arrived in Qatar on Monday for discussions about efforts to bring an end to Afghanistan's 11-year conflict.

"Qatar continues its effective diplomacy ... within a complicated geopolitical environment," said Shaikh.

Meanwhile, Qatar's influential television news channel Al-Jazeera has changed the face of Arab TV journalism since its launch in 1996, with hard-hitting reporting on Middle East conflicts and controversial debates.

Smaller countries, such as Qatar and to a smaller extent the United Arab Emirates, "have filled in the (leadership) gaps" left by the traditional diplomatic power-houses of the region, said Abdullah referring to Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

However, "it is difficult to assume that Qatar's roles are not approved and supported by Saudi Arabia. At least some of them" if not all, said the analyst.

"Saudi Arabia's main problem lies within its own walls -- an ageing leadership with a difficulty in responding and adjusting to developments despite its large diplomatic capabilities," he added.

Qatar "also realises that it needs useful partnerships in its diplomatic efforts. This is why it relies on support from its allies such as Saudi Arabia" on complex political issues such as Syria, said Shaikh.

Doha has yet to make a breakthrough in its efforts to bridge a widening gap between Washington and Tehran, who have not had formal diplomatic ties since the 1980s.

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