Qatar’s Regional Aspirations: Changing Mediator Role during the Arab Spring

PDF downlaodPınar Akpınar*

POMEAS BRIEF No.6, February 2015 


Ever since its outbreak in 2010, the Arab Spring has brought about both hope and misery to the Middle East. Its initial phase of euphoria has left behind several unfulfilled revolutions, ethnic wars, and societal polarization. It has raised debates on the virtue of security over democracy against the vicious cycles of violence and conflict. Different methods of conflict resolution ranging from military intervention to mediation have been applied over the course of the Arab Spring. A number of actors took on mediation roles, some of which have been fruitful while others have proved ineffective. This policy brief analyses the mediation attempts made by Qatar within the context of the Arab Spring. It aims to understand to what extent mediation is still a relevant policy tool of Qatari foreign policy. It argues that Qatar's regional aspirations during the Arab Spring have weakened its mediator role.

Understanding the Arab Spring

The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia in December 2010 is often marked as the beginning of a chain of events that cumulatively led to the term "Arab Spring." In fact, the roots of the phenomenon may be traced back to World War I and the division of the region through Western-imposed artificial borders by British and French Mandates. When the British and the French left the region at the end of the 1960s, they handed over their authority to their local collaborators. Ever since, the region has witnessed high levels of corruption, nepotism, and favouritism.

The Arab Spring is indeed the tipping point of an overwhelming process of exploitation and suppression of the peoples of the region by Western powers and their local heirs. This process began with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the signing of the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916 and was ossified by the Camp David Accords of 1974. This marked an historical moment for the disintegration of Arab resistance against Western hegemony as a result of Egypt's alignment with the West. The subsequent decades witnessed the inability or unwillingness of the rulers in the region to meet even the basic needs of a majority of the society as well as a process of social, political, and psychological repression.

Against this backdrop, authoritarianism became the determining characteristic of the regimes in the Middle East having reasonable impact on state-society relations. While it is difficult to speak of a homogenous process in the countries that experienced the Arab Spring, it is perhaps easier to identify its main initial actors as the state and the society. The dynamics of the relationship between the two actors had been determined by poor quality of communication, hatred, polarization, and asymmetric power relations which increased the tension between them leading up to several uprisings. The fall and the weakening of the regimes during the Arab Spring resulted in a gap of authority in the region. This gap was further widened as a result of the rivalries between regional powers, especially Iran and Saudi Arabia, fuelling sectarian disputes and radicalism. The already-existing doubt and mistrust against the West coupled with Western reluctance to intervene in the conflicts pertaining to the Arab Spring created room for regional actors, such as Qatar, to take on more active roles in regional disputes.

The Use of Mediation during the Arab Spring
The Arab Spring has triggered several disputes in the Middle East that have been multidimensional in nature often involving issues of ideology, identity, territory, sovereignty, and resources. These have been intrastate, asymmetric, low-intensity conflicts that are unpredictable and difficult - if not impossible - to fight by conventional ways. The Arab Spring also witnessed the emergence of several fractions and new actors within the opposition, all entering the stage with different interests and positions. The deepening gap among different fractions fuelled fears and fed the attitude of "survive or vanish." This understanding encouraged the use of violence making the conflicts even more complicated by threatening the security even that of the countries that have not directly experienced the Arab Spring such as Qatar. As a result of its complexity and the multiplicity of the actors, conventional tools have proved ineffective, and mediation has once again come onto the stage as a tool of nonviolent conflict resolution over the course of the Arab Spring.

Qatari Mediation during the Arab Spring
Qatar's role of mediator has emerged in line with its new foreign policy adopted following former Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani's rise to power in 1995. Qatar has mediated a number of conflicts until now including in Lebanon, Yemen, between Sudan and Darfur, Israel and Palestine, and recently in Syria.1 Al-Thani envisioned Qatar as having a proactive foreign policy and playing an influential role in regional politics. Mediation was officially entered into the Qatari constitution in 2003 and subsequently adopted as a foreign policy imperative. The rise of Qatar as a giant energy exporter in the 1990s has also been influential in the carving of a more confident and active foreign policy.2

As contended by Ulrichsen, "The shifting nature of the concept of power in an intensely interconnected world enabled small states such as Qatar to project far greater influence abroad."3 As a small state, the image of a peacemaker serves as a tool of ensuring Qatar's national security in a volatile region by reducing "the number of regional or global opponents Qatar might face otherwise."4 In other words, mediation has been a tool of survival of the Qatari regime. As in the words of Ulrichsen, "The most convincing explanation of Qatari regional and peace-making efforts lay in a multifaceted strategy of political and economic liberalization, state-branding, and pursuit of an independent foreign policy."5

Qatar has mediated a number of talks during the Arab Spring. In March 2014, Qatar mediated the release of 13 Lebanese nuns kidnapped by militia groups in Maaloula in addition to the release of 9 Lebanese pilgrims after being detained for over a year in Aleppo.6 On September 7, 2014, Qatar mediated between the Lebanese government and the Islamic State and al-Nusra over the release of 19 Lebanese soldiers and 20 policemen who had been abducted by two militia groups in August 2014. It also mediated between al-Nusra Front and the Fiji government for the release of 45 Fijian UN peacekeeping soldiers held captive by al-Nusra for two weeks.7

Qatar has been an active mediator in Yemen as well. Its mediator role in the country started back in 2007 between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels. Although Yemen's mediation proved fruitful and resulted in an agreement in 2008, the conflict re-erupted in 2009 as a result of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's denouncement of the agreement. Another agreement was signed in 2010 but also failed to be implemented.8 In February 2013, Qatar further mediated the release of a Swiss teacher in Yemen who had been abducted by tribesmen to be swapped in return for their jailed relatives.9

From Ensuring Stability to Fostering Change
As a typical small-state, Qatar benefited from stability in its region prior to the Arab Spring as it was important for its own regime security. Qatar used mediation as a tool of ensuring it. However, during the Arab Spring, Qatar's policy shifted from ensuring stability to fostering change as a result of the unpredicted regional developments. This was mainly due to the swift rise of Islamic groups in the region, particularly during the initial phase of the uprisings, raising expectations that they would have become the future rulers. Qatar has long had close contacts with such groups to the extent that it allegedly hosts prominent members of the Taliban, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood as well as rebels form Syria and Libya.10

Another catalyst for change in Qatari foreign policy has been the beginning of the period of détente between the United States (US) and Iran, which in turn agitated Saudi Arabia. As a result, Qatar has been able to move more freely in the region and fill in the vacuum created by decreased Saudi influence. Subsequently for Qatar, mediation has transformed into a tool of fostering change by intervening into the domestic politics in other countries. As such, the sudden twist in its foreign policy has revealed Qatar's ambitions to extend its influence, play a greater role, and mould regional politics according to its interests.

For instance, Qatar has become an active player in Yemeni politics to the extent that it challenged the Saudi Arabia's longstanding sway in the country. As Ennis and Momani postulate, Qatar's "competition as a regional mediator is pushing into traditionally Saudi diplomatic territory."11 Al-Muslimi argues that during the Qatari mediated talks between the Houthis and the Yemeni government back in 2009, Qatar sided with the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (who was also an advisor to the President and representative of the Yemeni government during the talks). When the revolutions began in Yemen in 2011, Qatar conspicuously sided with the opposition, and publicly called on President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. It even funded the Yemen Youth Channel, a TV channel launched by the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen.12

Qatar's promotion of change during the Arab Spring has been regarded by many circles as a demonstration of its ideological tendencies. It has been blamed for taking sides with the Islamists. In doing so, Qatar has been accused of utilizing its soft power through the use of its international media organ Al Jazeera. The channel was accused of supporting the Islamic rebels during the Arab Spring. For instance, three journalists from Al Jazeera were jailed in Egypt for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood during the protests. Similarly, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates also accused Al Jazeera for siding with the group.13 Critics even suggest that the channel has turned into a propaganda tool rather than being an independent media outlet complying with the ethics of journalism.14

Being the country that has the highest GDP per capita among rentier states,15 Qatar's massive financial resource as a mediator enables it to finance the talks and implement peace agreements.16 It has the financial ability to pay ransom money as well as keep the promises it makes on the table.17 During the Arab Spring, Qatar also utilized its financial capacity to foster change by supporting the oppositions. For instance, Qatar provided $400 million to the opposition in Libya, $3 billion in Syria, and $5 billion in Egypt.18

Despite allegations that Qatar supported the Muslim Brotherhood during the Arab Spring, Qatari officials deny such claims. For instance, in an interview with Al Hayat, Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiyah underpinned that Qatar does not support the Muslim Brotherhood. Regarding the initial phase of the Egyptian revolution he notes that, "We [Qatar] kept up our support without knowing who will rule next. Then, Mohammed Morsi became president through the ballot box and we dealt with him as a president, not as a member of a party."19

Change in Qatari Mediation Style
Until the Arab Spring, one of Qatar's main assets as a mediator had been its neutral and honest image as a peace-broker. Its position as a small state and lack of hard power enabled Qatar to foster such image. The unfolding events of the Arab Spring came as a surprise to many countries in the region including Qatar and subsequently left them in a position to revise their existing foreign policies. The Arab Spring served as a venue for Qatar to test its neutral image as a mediator. As Barakat underpins, "Qatar's foreign policy, meanwhile, shifted from a focus on patient mediation to one of advocating intervention and confrontation."20

During the Arab Spring, Qatar emerged as an "advocate of humanity." It positioned itself on the side of the people uprising against their governments. For instance, regarding the release of the abducted Fiji soldiers the Qatari Foreign Ministry maintained that its mediation "came out of Qatar's belief in the principles of humanity" and "Qatar will spare no effort to harness all its potential and diplomatic mechanisms to maintain life."21

For instance, Qatar has positioned itself on the side of the Syrian opposition during the civil war.22 Its conflict resolution initiatives have included not only mediation but also advocacy and the promotion of the Syrian opposition on regional and international platforms. Qatar condemned and denunciated the Syrian regime following allegations that it had used chemical weapons in the Eastern Ghouta region of Damascus. It also called "on the UN Security Council to issue a resolution for a ceasefire in Syria and find the mechanisms to implement it" and the Arab League "to bear their responsibilities towards the Syrian people."23 In Libya as well, Qatar was quick to side with the opposition and provided it with large amounts of financial and military support.24

Qatar's neutrality was questioned during its mediation proposals between Hamas and Israel as well. Its role as mediator had come onto the table during the ceasefire talks during the Israel-Gaza crisis in 2014. Although US Secretary of State John Kerry was in favour of Qatar, its role was dismissed and eventually it was Egypt who brokered the ceasefire agreement. While Kerry regarded Qatar's close relations with Hamas as an asset, Israel was wary that Qatar might lean toward Hamas.25

Another asset of Qatar as a mediator before the Arab Spring was its inclusive approach. Qatar's connections with several factions in the region provide it with an extensive network and flexibility as a mediator. However, during the Arab Spring, Qatari mediation has been somewhat more exclusive. For instance, Qatar refrained from informing or seeking the consent of the Yemeni authorities while mediating the release of the Swiss teacher abducted by al-Qaida.26 Similarly, as outlined earlier in the text, Qatar was quick to exclude the governments of Libya, Egypt, or Syria and side with the oppositions probably as a result of its early calculations and confidence toward a possible victory by the rebels.

Policy Recommendations
Qatar played an important role as a mediator both before and during the Arab Spring. However, this role has faced several challenges particularly in line with its policy choices during the Arab Spring. There are several measures that Qatar needs to take in order to sustain its mediator role:

– Qatar should adhere to its mediator role. The Arab Spring has once again revealed the realities of the Middle East regarding its complexity. In light of such developments, mediation is still a relevant policy tool. While it may be easier for great powers such as the US to replace mediation with other diverse tools in their toolboxes, smaller powers such as Qatar may have to rely more on their soft power of which mediation is an important tool.

– Although it is unlikely to happen anytime soon, scholars increasingly suggest a possible gradual decrease in the role of the US in the region as a result of its self-sufficiency in oil, its own domestic problems, and its increasing interest in other regions such as Asia.27 Decreased US interest in the region creates an opportunity and perhaps responsibility for regional actors such as Qatar to take on greater role in the resolution of conflicts in the region.

– Qatar must consider revising its regional aspirations. It should consider that it might risk its earned credits by playing too big a hand. It might instead consider enjoying the benefits of being a small but prosperous state amid such a volatile region.

– Qatar should reignite its neutral stance to sustain its legitimacy as a mediator. It needs to remember that the level of independence of a state is dependent upon its power capabilities. When mediators are partial they need to have enough power to support their position. While Qatar has noteworthy sources of financial power, it lacks sufficient military power. Although it has the power to reward conflicting parties, it lacks the power to coerce. As a result, it would be in Qatar's benefit to reignite its neutral image in order to sustain its mediator role.

– Qatar's alleged support for radical groups is widely circulated in international media, which may put the relations with other regional countries and international powers into a collision course if the issue is not seriously addressed.

– While Qatar pursues advocacy of the people in the Middle East on several platforms, it has been criticized for violating human rights and exploiting foreign labour.28 Qatar must have a balance between rhetoric and practice. Being a welfare state, it must improve its human rights record to preserve its prestige.


1 Lina Khatib, "Qatar's Foreign Policy: the Limits of Pragmatism," International Affairs 89, No.2 (2013): 418; Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, "Qatar's Mediation Initiatives," NOREF Policy Brief, February 2013, 1.
2 Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, "Qatar and the Arab Spring: Policy Drivers and Regional Implications," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 24, 2014, 1.
3 Ulrichsen, "Qatar and the Arab Spring," 4.
4 Mehran Kamrava, "Mediation and Qatari Foreign Policy," Middle East Journal 65, No.4 (2011): 542.
5 Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, "From Mediation to Interventionism," Russia in Global Affairs, October 27, 2013, accessed June 25, 2014,
6 Thomas El-Basha, "ISIS 'Meets' Qatari Mission over Lebanon Hostages," Al Arabiya, September 7, 2014, accessed February 13, 2015,
7 "Qatar's Mediation Helps Free Fiji Soldiers," The Peninsula, September 12, 2014, accessed February 6, 2015,
8 Kamrava, "Mediation and Qatari Foreign Policy," 549-551.
9 Mohammed Dabbous, "Yemen Kidnappers Free Swiss Woman after Qatari Mediation: Agency," Reuters, February 28, 2013, accessed February 21, 2015,
10 David D. Kirkpatrick, "Qatar's Support of Islamists Alienates Allies Near and Far," The New York Times, September 7, 2014, accessed February 19, 2015,
11 Crystal A Ennis and Bessma Momani, "Shaping the Middle East in the Midst of the Arab Uprisings: Turkish and Saudi Foreign Policy Strategies," Third World Quarterly 34, No.6 (2013): 1140.
12 Farea Al-Muslimi," Qatar Encroaches on Saudi Influence in Yemen," Al Monitor, August 20, 2013, accessed February 20, 2015,
13 Amena Bakr, "Defiant Al Jazeera Faces Conservative Backlash after Arab Spring," Reuters, July 2, 2014, accessed February 16, 2015,
14 Alexander Kühn, Christoph Reuter and Gregor Peter Schmitz, "After the Arab Spring: Al-Jazeera Losing Battle for Independence," Spiegel Online International, February 15, 2013, accessed February 17, 2015,
15 CIA World Factbook, "Country Comparison: GDP-Per Capita," 2012, accessed February 21, 2015,
16 Kamrava, "Mediation and Qatari Foreign Policy," 539.
17 El-Basha, "ISIS 'meets' Qatari mission over Lebanon hostages."
18 Sultan Barakat, "Qatari Mediation: Between Ambition and Achievement," Brookings Doha Center Analysis Paper, No.12, 2014, 30.
19 Khalid al-Attiyah, interview by Al Hayat, English translation by Al Monitor, "Qatar Foreign Minister Weighs Means to Protect Syrian People," September 26, 2013, accessed February 22, 2015,
20 Barakat, "Qatari Mediation," 29.
21 "Qatar's Mediation Helps Free Fiji Soldiers."
22 "HE Foreign Minister Meets Head of Syrian Opposition Government," State of Qatar, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, June 5, 2014, accessed February 7, 2015,
23 "Qatar Calls for Arab Position Supportive to Any Int. Drive to Halt Syria's Extermination of its People," State of Qatar, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, August 27, 2013, accessed February 7, 2015,
24 Barakat, "Qatari Mediation," 30.
25 Amena Bakr, "Qatar Seeks Role as Gaza Mediator, Israel Wary," Reuters, July 17, 2014, accessed February 13, 2015,
26 Farea al-Muslimi, "Qatar Encroaches on Saudi Influence in Yemen," Al Monitor, August 13, 2014, accessed February 13, 2015,
27 Paul Salem, interview by Pınar Akpınar, Project on the Middle East and the Arab Spring, Istanbul Policy Center, August 30, 2014, accessed February 13, 2015,; Trita Parsi, interview by Bülent Aras, Project on the Middle East and the Arab Spring, Istanbul Policy Center, August 30, 2014, accessed February 13, 2015,
28 "Death toll among Qatar's 2022 World Cup workers revealed," The Guardian, December 23, 2014, accesed February 13, 2015,

*Pınar Akpınar is Research Fellow at POMEAS and a lecturer at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Sabancı University. She is also a Ph.D. candidate at the School of Politics, International Relations and Philosophy (SPIRE), Keele University writing her dissertation on Turkey's Multiple Mediation Attempts: A Non-Western Mediator on the Periphery.