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Qatar: Small State, Big Politics

Gaining independence from Britain in 1971 and enjoying enormous oil and natural gas resources, Qatar has exerted extraordinarily large influence both in terms of regional and international politics and the economy in recent years.


Gaining independence from Britain in 1971 and enjoying enormous oil and natural gas resources, Qatar has exerted extraordinarily large influence both in terms of regional and international politics and the economy in recent years. Mehran Kamrava, professor and director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar, has authored several books on the international relations of the Middle Eastern states. In Qatar: Small State, Big Politics, Kamrava presents the dynamics that explain the background of Qatar’s disproportionate international power.

In the Introduction, Kamrava expresses the central question to which the book is devoted: “How can a small state, with little previous history of diplomatic engagement regionally or globally, have emerged as such an influential and significant player in shaping unfolding events across the Middle East and elsewhere?” (p. 1). Kamrava refers to Doha’s diplomatic efforts and political initiatives in Lebanon (2008), Sudan (2011), and Libya and Syria since 2011, then asks the critical question, “Will it last?” His book responds to the question affirmatively and concludes that, despite all limitations (diplomatic, political, infrastructural, and demographic), Qatar’s powers are more than temporary.

Kamrava explains his approach in four points while discussing his motives in choosing Qatar for this analysis: i) the nature of its state capacity and ‘rentier state’ characteristic, ii) its hyperactive diplomacy attempts despite being a small state, iii) its status as a ‘subtle power’ (a new conceptualization combining interrelated elements such as foreign security umbrella, enormous wealth, global branding campaign, active diplomacy, etc.), and iv) its vision to construct an entirely new state structure and society. While exploring these significant features, the author highlights Qatars’ context of domestic politics, the importance of its leadership skills and choices, and the role of institutions along with regional and international conditions. In this manner, one can claim that the book is constructed on a neoclassical realist framework, elaborating foreign policy and the international context with a special emphasis on the role and influence of domestic dynamics.

The first chapter, “Setting the Stage,” explains the emergence of the contemporary Gulf states, the political and economic weight of these countries in the regional/international arena, and the more recent struggle between the ‘traditional’ power centers of the Arab world and the emerging Gulf monarchies. The chapter also elaborates the main dynamics and economic advantages of the Qatari state compared to its neighboring geography in the context of this leadership competition. In this framework, the replacement of Britain’s regional hegemony by the U.S. during the Cold War and the emergence of Qatar and the Gulf states, which challenged the existing regional powers following Washington’s military and political interventions, are significant milestones in the modern history of the region. Kamrava also highlights the comparative advantage of Qatar in terms of domestic stability, lack of intra-dynastical rivalry, and the peaceful integration of the Shiite minority, which grant Qatar the opportunity to direct its attention to regional/international issues.

Chapter 2, “The Subtle Powers of a Small State,” mainly discusses theoretical arguments concerning state power and conceptualizes Qatar’s position on a new basis. To this end, Kamrava explains realist and neorealist assumptions about ‘hard power’ and Nye’s ‘soft’ and ‘smart’ power concepts; however, he concludes that these concepts do not address the extraordinary rise of Qatar’s power. Thus, he develops a fresh concept, ‘subtle power,’ which may be defined as an effective mobilization of circumstances and developing opportunities to its advantage while calibrating a foreign policy of hedging.

“Foreign Policy and Power Projection,” Chapter 3, the longest part of the book, emphasizes the advantage of Doha’s hedging policy instead of other alternatives (such as balance of power and bandwagoning) and identifies it as a deliberate and carefully crafted option. However, Qatar’s pragmatist and business-oriented policy results in trying to have good relations with the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Iran or Hamas simultaneously, a balancing act which create some serious outcomes as the GCC’s boycott in 2017 obviously shows. While discussing the sustainability of Qatar’s mediation initiatives in foreign policy, Kamrava highlights the role of institutionalism and a powerful army along with a functioning parliament, and warns about the serious consequences of a sudden ‘heart attack’ that would destroy everything.

Chapter 4, “The Stability of Royal Autocracy,” focuses on the construction of state-society relations on the monarchical social contract, and emphasizes the sustainability of Qatar’s authoritarian rule through rentier economy and financial generosity, as well as popular legitimacy and a relatively small and ‘governable’ population.

Chapter 5, “State Capacity and High Modernism,” discusses the twin strategy of enhancing state capacity, on the one hand, and efforts at implementing projects of ‘high modernism’ on the other. At this point, Doha continues to expand and grow, vertically into the air and horizontally into the sea, thanks to massive financing by the state and its publicly funded corporations. Kamrava describes this high modernism with an unfamiliar analogy; catapulting the country into the modern age, inadvertently serving to maintain in power a political system that is a relic of the past (pp. 14-15).

Throughout the book, one of the main arguments that Kamrava advocates is the shift of the regional balance of power in the Middle East from the traditional heavyweights (Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, Tehran) toward the Gulf monarchies. Although this assessment is supported by the catastrophic outcomes of recent developments in the region, we would need to see more long-term trends to confirm such a fundamental shift; economic power, energy resources, and conjectural diplomatic initiatives do not always produce permanent consequences. Additionally, historical power centers still have remarkable impact in shaping regional developments compared to the newly emerged ‘subtle’ or ‘smart’ powers.

Kamrava separates ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power while describing the regional countries and claims that, trusting the U.S. security umbrella and its own vast financial resources, Qatar appears as a new ‘subtle power’ in the region. However, the Saudi-led Qatar boycott since 2017 and Doha’s miscalculations within the context of the Syrian war present sufficient lessons in terms of having one’s ‘own’ hard power (instead of trusting any other state), the utilization of soft power, and regional anarchy from a realist perspective.

Another main argument of the book glorifies the marriage of the developmental state with authoritarianism and the rentier state approach. Kamrava emphasizes wealth in responding to society’s need for safety and comfort; nevertheless, that understanding ignores the viewpoint of modern peoples’ expectations about rights, freedom, and democracy in general, which the Arab uprisings clearly demonstrated.

To summarize, despite its necessity to be updated following the catastrophic decade of the region and Saudi-led boycott, Kamrava’s research appears as a good read for all who are interested in Gulf Arab states and Middle Eastern politics, in both introducing the internal dynamics of Qatar’s power politics and also understanding that small state’s ambitious activism in its region and beyond.


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