It has been a harrowing year for most major energy exporters: the worldwide oil slump has knocked as much as 40% off of prices, and contributed toward major economic crises in places like Russia and Venezuela. But a report released this week by leading global economists yielded an anomaly — the tiny Persian gulf state of Qatar, which is poised to experience a growth rate of over seven percent in 2015 (roughly comparable to its growth in 2014). It is also roughly equivalent to the projected growth rate of China.
So what are the reasons for Qatar’s impressive success. For one thing, its hydrocarbon wealth lies not in oil but in gas, whose prices are only somewhat correlated to oil’s. Perhaps more importantly, Qatar has been quite effective at diversifying its economy in order to cushion the potential impact of an energy crisis. While some observers warn of a so-called “Qatar bubble,” the nation has thus far managed to escape the overheating effect that Dubai succumbed to in the wake of global recession. By most estimates, Qatar is now the world’s wealthiest-per-capita nation.
The growth report’s timing is important; it comes as much of the West is being forced to reassess its relationship with Qatar. For the past decade, the country has leveraged its incredible wealth to buy prestige and influence on a massive scale. While it was once regarded as the key to unlocking the mounting problems in the Middle East, there is increasing evidence that Qatar is a more insidious partner than anyone initially presumed.
Since the 1990s, Qatar has made its mind-boggling wealth a foreign policy tool. In 1996, it founded Al Jazeera, the most influential media company in the Arab world, and the region’s closest thing to an independent outlet. Despite Al Jazeera’s relative prestige, there are certainly reasons to be skeptical about Doha’s behind-the-scenes manipulation. While the international community lauded Al Jazeera’s comprehensive coverage of the Arab Spring protests in many countries, onlookers couldn’t help but notice the conspicuous silence about Bahrain — a Doha ally whose government violently suppressed massive pro-democracy demonstrations. (Al Jazeera’s English-language bureaus did cover Bahrain, but they have far less sway in the Arab world than do the Arabic versions.) This omission suggests that Doha is highly conscious about Al Jazeera’s wielding of soft power. To be fair, its neighbors apparently agree — tensions stemming from unfavorable Al Jazeera coverage have repeatedly ruffled the feathers of surrounding states.
Like China, Qatar has also bankrolled major infrastructure and development projects to nail down influence abroad. It famously bought London’s legendary Harrod’s department store in 2010, as well as massive high-rise projects throughout Europe and the U.S. Many observers assume this is a method to ensure positive relations in the future. Qatar is also investing in major projects domestically, including Qatari campuses of major foreign universities, and a massive stadium complex to host the 2022 World Cup.
But while there is little doubt that Qatar has emerged as a major player on the world stage — notably serving as an intermediary for Western allies the troubled Middle East — critics argue that Doha is playing both sides of global conflicts. Qatar has increasingly appeared complicit in financing extremist groups that often fight against U.S. interests, including Hezbollah and militants aligned with al Qaeda in Libya. It has also repeatedly failed to take legal action against citizens who openly espouse such allegiances. As then-Senator John Kerry reportedly put it, “Qatar can’t continue to be an American ally on Monday that sends money to Hamas on Tuesday.” The country’s attempts to have it both ways have deteriorated its relations with the U.S. and neighbors.
So too have human rights issues begun to play a role in the debate over appropriate relations with Qatar. When Qatari Sheikh Tamim bin Hamid al-Thani penned a New York Times op-ed in February about condemning authoritarian rulers, many readers saw his stance as brazenly hypocritical. (In December, Qatar made headlines when a Guardian investigation exposed shocking abuses against migrants charged with constructing the World Cup stadium.)
In some ways, Qatar’s contradictory foreign policy smacks of amateurism: the nation’s identity is far from deeply established, and it’s not unreasonable to imagine that it is conflicted in its goals. The peninsula is home to fewer than two million people, and only a small minority are native-born. Similarly, many visitors have noted that despite Doha’s trappings of immense wealth, there appears to be very little public life and urban gathering places. If Qatar is going to remain a global influencer, time is running out for it to take a more decisive stance.