The too big politics of Qatar?
Qatar-based Dutch journalist Joris van Duijne reviews Mehran Kamrava’s book Qatar: Small State, Big Politics, which he says is a must-read for keen observers of Gulf politics, though the economy is only briefly touched upon amidst a largely jubilant acclaim of the current Qatari boom.
How can the tiny state of Qatar be a major player in regional, even global, politics? This question has been addressed extensively in the international press. By contrast, however, it has to date been hugely understudied scientifically. Mehran Kamrava singlehandedly changes that with his new book Qatar: Small State, Big Politics. A must-read for keen observers of Gulf politics and newbie-Qatar-residents alike.
The book offers far more than international politics. The reader will learn a great deal on Qatari history, development and (especially interesting) state-society relations too. Kamrava also convincingly explains what sets Qatar apart from other GCC states in terms of homogeneity and regime stability, continuing where Christopher Davidson’s After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies left of.
The author is clearly ‘in aw’ of Qatar’s progress, though critical where need be, like the deliberate creation of a national history (‘civic myth’) or practical matters like labour rights and the claimed autonomy of Al Jazeera. Unfortunately, the economy, and in particular the long-term perspective, is only briefly touched upon amidst a largely jubilant acclaim of the current Qatari boom. This seems somewhat at odds with some of Kamrava’s other work on the subject, where he is justly critical of “the massive infusion of petrodollars” which has “only partially masked […] the structural weaknesses” of Gulf economies.
But the book’s main argument revolves around power. With a population of roughly two million and no substantial military capacity of its own, Qatar simply cannot be said to have any. It also by and large lacks ‘soft power’, the ability, resulting from an appealing culture and history, to have others share your view. Instead, the author makes the case for ‘subtle power’, a careful mix of state branding (Qatar Airways, Al Jazeera, sports and conflict mediation), hedging (combining seemingly irreconcilable policies, like cordial ties with the US and Hamas simultaneously) and what Kamrava calls ‘hyperactive diplomacy’.
[T]he economy, and in particular the long-term perspective, is only briefly touched upon amidst a largely jubilant acclaim of the current Qatari boom. This seems somewhat at odds with some of Kamrava’s other work on the subject.
Aided by a US-guaranteed security, seemingly unlimited financial resources, a tremendous degree of foreign policy autonomy vis-à-vis society and the vision and drive of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, Qatar has embarked on assuming a role far beyond what its size would warrant. Kamrava shows us there is a clear logic and sustainability to all this and argues it will last. This in marked contrast to observers who have called it an ‘overstretch’.
Interestingly, we are in the middle of the game. The book was written before the accession of Sheikh Tamim (but published after). It also does not yet feature the defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the consequences of that for Qatar. Kamrava might have explained that in terms of hedging (you win some, you lose some), but he couldn’t have denied a current ‘toning down’ of Qatar’s ‘hyper-activism’.
In the exact opposite direction, a possible US-Iranian detente might offer it new opportunities. While Iran is the enemy par-excellence for most of its Gulf neighbours, Qatar’s more nuanced policies could serve it well in a changing regional order. Time will be the referee. I for one, will follow regional developments with this book in mind.
A rule in academic writing is to ‘say what you are going to say, say it and say what you have said’. Kamrava has taken this all too literal, which makes the book quite repetitive at times. But getting past that, the reader is treated to an abundance of both theories and facts that also brilliantly interact: theory helps explain Qatari foreign policies, which in turn help sharpen concepts of power, state formation and international relations.
Theories of power, for instance, largely favour democracy. This book quite on the contrary shows us that Qatar’s ability to swiftly move in the international arena are greatly aided by its autocratic system and small policy making circle. And that’s just one example of all the food for thought offered by this important work.
Joris van Duijne is a freelance journalist who has been in Doha for some two years now. He’s from Holland and lived in Cairo and Riyadh too. Educated in International Relations and Political Economy, he had an interest in the Gulf region long before coming here. Having worked for press freedom NGOs for several years, he developed an additional passion for media development & free expression. Joris loves Death Metal and horror movies, but it’s mostly twinkle twinkle little star and Sesame Street for now. Follow him on Twitter: @jorisvand.