Other than the Libyans themselves, only Britain, France and the United States contributed as much to the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime last autumn as the tiny, ultra-wealthy Gulf emirate of Qatar.
While NATO aircraft performed the crucial function of “degrading” Gaddafi’s defence capabilities, it was Qatari assault rifles and anti-tank rockets which armed the rebel forces and Qatari troops which trained them. So significant in fact was Qatar’s role in the uprising that Mustapha Abdel Jalil, head of Libya’s provisional authority the National Transitional Council (NTC), even went as far as to credit Doha strategists with securing its eventual success.
At first glance, it might seem improbable that Qatar, with a population of just 1.7 million, could, or would aspire to, achieve such prominence in international affairs. Yet despite its size, it is has already become an important actor in the regional politics of the Middle East.
There are three main reasons for this. The first is that Qatar possesses enormous financial clout. Measured on a per capita basis, Qatar is one of the richest nations in the world. In 2010, the average salary of its 250,000 citizens (the majority of its residents are guest workers) was nearly $80,000, while its economy is thought to have grown by as much as 20%. For the most part, Qatari wealth is based on the commercial production and export of its vast reserves of oil and natural gas.
The second factor is Qatar's close relationship with the US, built on extensive economic and military ties. Qatar even plays host to the US central command’s Forward Headquarters and Combined Air Operation Centre, from which many of NATO’s Libyan attacks were launched.
And the third is the fact Qatar owns and funds the radical, independent news channel Al Jazeera, a daily source of information for millions of people – particularly Arabs and North Africans – the world over.
However, none of this explains why Qatar would seek to extend its influence beyond the Middle East, and particularly to a country as politically volatile as Libya. If it has no immediate interest in securing access to Libyan oil reserves, nor any need to improve its already healthy relationship with Washington, why was it such an enthusiastic participant in a military intervention which, after all, could easily have turned out to be disastrous?
One explanation might be that Qataris are advocates of radical democratic reform and opposed Gaddafi as a matter of principle. But given the Qatari system of government is itself far from democratic this does not stand up. In reality, Qatar’s motivations are considerably less benign.
In the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Gaddafi regime, many Libyans were extensive in their praise of Qatar. They were grateful for the support – measured in terms of cash, arms and military expertise – it had given them in their battle against Gaddafi's forty year dictatorship. Some even went to the effort of renaming a number of streets and town squares across the country in its honour.
Since then, however, relations between Tripoli and Doha have grown increasingly frosty. The bond began to cool late last year when the NTC discovered Qatar was continuing to arm and fund various militia groups. This was damaging enough given Libya’s already severe militia problem; Tripoli's inability to disarm the scores of gangs and sectarian factions which emerged during the civil war has seriously undermined its credibility and compounded the problems facing the country’s security situation. But it soon emerged that Qatar was also specifically channeling their support to Islamist militia groups, which tend to be more hostile to the broadly secular NTC.
Qatar is indeed known to have links to at least two leading Libyan Islamists: Abdel Hakim Belhaj, head of the security forces in Tripoli and leader of the February 17 Martyr’s Brigade, and Sheik Ali Salabi, a radical preacher who spent years in exile in Doha during Gaddafi’s reign. The latter, who recently denounced NTC head Jalil as a “tyrant in waiting”, is thought to be particular close to the Qatari regime, having acted as a go-between for Doha and the rebels during the civil war.
Inevitably, the NTC, which has a desperately weak grip on power, views these links as a provocation. In addition to its fear that the growth of radical Islam could obstruct the development of a stable democratic – or at least partially representative – political system, it is also furious at Qatar’s involvement in its internal affairs beyond the end of the conflict in October. This anger was articulated by Mohammed Abdel Rahman Shalgam, Libya’s envoy to the United Nations, who denounced Qatar’s actions on an international stage. “There are facts on the ground”, he said to the assembled global press at a conference in Tangiers last November. "They (Qatar) give money to some parties, the Islamist parties. They give money and weapons and they try to meddle in issues that do not concern them and we reject that".
But what motivates Qatar’s support for Libyan Islamists? And what does Qatar hope to gain in exchange?
There is little question that ideology is an important factor in Qatar's actions. Largely because of its closeness to the US and its patronage of Al Jazeera, the Gulf state is often thought to be among the more progressive in the Middle East. In fact, in many respects, it is anything but. Qatar subscribes to the Wahhabist interpretation of Islam, a highly orthodox and conservative tradition in Islamic teaching. The most illiberal aspects of Qatari society include the incorporation of repressive elements of Sharia into law, tight restrictions on the general rights of free speech and association and high rates of domestic abuse, which is not deemed a criminal offence.
Indeed, earlier this year Human Rights Watch delivered a damning indictment of the legal and social status of women in Qatar: “Family law as generally interpreted discriminates against women in matters of divorce, inheritance, and child custody, granting men privileged status in these matters…Qatari women do not have the same rights as Qatari men”. Despite displaying some modern habits and tendencies, there should be no doubt that religion, in its most reactionary form, is central to life in Qatar.
What is more, Qatar has a history of encouraging the advance of Islamist parties in other countries in the region. It has helped promote the influential Islamist leader Yusuf Qaradawi in Egypt and maintains a strong connection to Hamas in Palestine. Doha even temporarily severed its links to Tel Aviv in protest against Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2008/2009. There have also been reports that Qatar is bankrolling Islamist groups in Syria working with the rebel Free Syrian Army to overthrow the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. Again, religious and ideological dimensions are key to understanding Qatar’s ongoing role in Libya’s internal affairs. But still, they do not tell the whole story.
Qatar’s interests in Libya are not purely political or ideological. They are also financial and economic. Even before the collapse of the Gaddafi regime, Qatar had investments in Libya amounting to as much as $10 billion. Most of this capital was attached to construction contracts for the development of residential and entertainment complexes in and around Tripoli.
These contracts were agreed as part of a joint venture between the Libyan Economic and Social Development Fund and the Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Company, a branch of the state-run Qatar Investment Authority. Following the NTC’s assumption of power in the autumn of 2011, Qatar has been eager to ensure that these contracts are secure and will be honoured by the new Libyan government.
Qatar is also eager to secure a slice of the huge profits which could be made from the reconstruction of Libya over the next few years. Some estimates put the cost of this at $700 billion. Yet, crucially, according to Qatari economist and analyst Abdullah Al Ali, there is no reason to believe Qatari companies will be given preferential treatment by the NTC in terms of securing reconstruction contracts. Given Doha that poured tens if millions of dollars into the Libyan revolution, it is easy to imagine that Qataris might be disgruntled at what they perceive as the NTC’s lack of gratitude. If this is the case, then it might provide further explanation for the backing Qatar has given to various anti-NTC organisations.
Qatar’s continued involvement in Libya is highly contentious. It serves to fan the flames of radical Islam and disrupt the country’s tentative transition to democracy. Yet, in some respects, it is unfortunately typical of Doha’s broader approach to international relations. Qatar pursues a dual or “forked” foreign policy strategy, building close relations with the US on the one hand while channelling funds to Hamas and other so-called pariah groups on the other.
In Libya, they forged an alliance with the NTC while it led the campaign to topple the Gaddafi dictatorship then subsequently began focussing their support on rogue Islamic militia outfits. Despite its general lack of authority, it is probable that the NTC’s anger over Qatari duplicity reflects a growing anger among the Libyan people as a whole. How long can Doha maintain its balancing act before it provokes some sort of backlash?
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