Qatar revives its role as regional mediator

24 December 2023


In the closing months of 2023, Qatar definitively revived its reputation as a regional mediator by acting as intermediary in the negotiation of the temporary ceasefire between Israel and Hamas – bringing the Gulf nation full circle to the status it enjoyed prior to the 2017 diplomatic fallout in the Gulf.

The recent intercession by Doha builds on the long-standing self-positioning by the Gulf state as a neutral ground and place for dialogue in the region. It is also a product of the country’s coy strategic avoidance of publicly aligning itself with the US, Russia or China – at least in any way likely to stir criticism.

The start of Qatar’s journey to its current state of fierce political independence began in the 1990s and continued in the following decade, when Doha first began to cut its teeth in the conflict resolution arena. 

Between 2008 and 2012, Qatar mediated peace or ceasefire deals in Lebanon (2008) – between the Lebanese government and Hezbollah – in Yemen (2010), in Darfur (2011) and in Gaza (2012).

In 2013, more than a decade after the US invasion of Afghanistan, Qatar allowed the Taliban to open an office in Doha – a move that would later pave the way for a role in arranging talks with the US ahead of the latter’s 2020 ceasefire with the Taliban and 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Qatar’s diplomatic and political credentials nevertheless took a hit during the 2017 diplomatic crisis in the Gulf – though even in this, Doha demonstrated agility and adroitness in its statecraft by quickly pivoting its relations and trade to the other regional powers: Turkiye and Iran.

Doha’s re-seizing of the initiative during the 2023 Israel–Hamas war follows a pattern not dissimilar to its role in US–Taliban talks, leveraging the presence of Hamas political representation in the country as part of a long-standing culturing of relations on both sides of the conflict.

Economic clout

Qatar’s geopolitical position and its broad latitude in picking and choosing its external relationships is rooted in its secure economic position, with its revenues pegged not to the vicissitudes of the oil price, but the market for gas – the fuel that is the darling of energy transition strategies from East to West.

The unremitting demand for Qatari gas has ensured double-digit current account and fiscal surpluses for the past two years and these are expected to continue for the foreseeable future.

This demand is also supporting ongoing investment in Qatar’s energy infrastructure, as shown by the May 2023 award of the $10bn engineering, procurement and construction contract for two new liquefied natural gas (LNG) trains on the North Field South project – following on from the similar $13bn LNG train award in February 2021 for the North Field expansion scheme.

Qatar’s exports are meanwhile predominated by long-term gas supply contracts that ensure that the revenue Doha receives is predictable, resilient to price fluctuations and highly immune to political disruption. Even in times of diplomatic tension, energy exports and imports are the least likely thing to be affected – since action on the part of energy importers would equally impact their own energy security.

A business-like approach is very much the overarching schema by which Doha’s non-committal politics are maintained. At the same time, Qatar’s cautious non-alignment with world powers has equally been no deterrent to developing strong bilateral ties with key poles of global influence such as the US.

Qatar’s geopolitical position and its broad latitude in picking and choosing its external relationships is rooted in its secure economic position

According to the US-Qatar Business Council, the US is Qatar’s single-largest foreign direct investor, with more than 850 US companies operating in the country. 

This is in addition to Qatar’s hosting of Al-Udeid Air Base – the largest US military installation in the Middle East and an instrumental component of US power projection in the Gulf. The facility is also, in turn, a significant safeguard and security guarantor for Qatar.

New opportunities

There is also a certain intersection between Qatar’s non-committal politics and its commitment to sports – an ostensibly apolitical arena of soft power engagement. While the culmination of the Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022 is now in the past, the country is looking ahead to the 2030 Asian Games, among other events. In 2023 alone, Qatar played host to 14 major international sports events, and more than 80 events in total.

Doha will also be guided, as it heads towards the 2030 games, by the Qatar National Vision, which aims to transform the country into an advanced economy by the end of the decade. 

In 2020, the government passed a new public-private partnership law and in 2021 allowed full foreign ownership of companies – both key spokes of a fresh foreign direct investment push by the country.

Doha’s energy ambitions also extend beyond gas. Qatar is pushing ahead with investment into the hydrogen industry with a view of capturing a share of the prospective global hydrogen market. 

In 2022, QatarEnergy set in motion plans to build the world’s largest blue ammonia plant. Doha sees that in its future, just as in its present, the country’s positioning as a provider of the world’s energy of choice will also hold the key to its economic and political independence in the decades to come.
John Bambridge
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