Qatar: Emir speech draws a line under tribal divisions and regional adventurism
In the wake of recent diplomatic successes in Gaza and Afghanistan, Doha is emphasising the need for national unity and regional dialogue [This article was published originally by Middle East Eye]
This year’s address by Qatar’s emir to the Shura Council was highly anticipated. Similar to the State of the Union address delivered by the US president to Congress, the annual opening address by the emir to the Shura Council sets the tone for the country’s strategy. This year it was delivered to a legislative body that, for the first time, was partially elected rather than entirely appointed.
It was also the first such address since the end of the Gulf crisis, which saw Doha’s neighbours blockading the gas-rich emirate for more than three years - and it comes just a year before the FIFA World Cup is hosted in Qatar, the most resource-consuming national effort in the last decade.
The emir’s address outlined Qatar’s grand strategy for the next decade, as it redefines itself amid a changing domestic and regional climate. The hyper-development of the past two decades has transformed Qatar from a quiet Gulf backwater to a small state that has often shaped regional developments far beyond what would be expected for a country its size.
At the core of the emir’s address was the issue of civil society mobilisation. After the country’s first legislative elections, which saw old tribal fault lines reappear, the emir accentuated sociopolitical unity, civic rights and social responsibility.
Most remarkable in this context was his reference to tribalism as a “disease” that can be manipulated to foster bigotry, division and societal polarisation. It is the first time that a Qatari head of state has problematised the issue in such a way, suggesting that Qatar’s road forward must be built around national rather than tribal identity.
The identity politics that erupted around the issue of belonging and citizenship in the run-up to the elections clearly took the Qatari leadership by surprise. Members of the al-Murrah tribe, who were unable to trace their lineage in Qatar to pre-1930, were told they could not participate in the elections, fuelling allegations that Qatar differentiates between first- and second-class citizens.
Especially as these elections were meant to help the country transition from a tribal-based monarchy to one where citizens participate in politics based on the idea of a national civic duty, the discriminatory electoral law became the subject of heated public debate. Letting people vote in locations based on their tribal ancestry to ensure a more even representation of all tribes in the Shura Council, further raised criticism of it actually reinforcing rather than undermining tribalism.
A more empowered civil society means the government must now respond to public pressure to make amends, something the emir promised in his address. He ordered the preparation of legal amendments to ensure a more equal Qatari citizenship law, while also highlighting that citizenship comes with both civic rights and duties.
What followed sounded a lot like former US President John F Kennedy’s infamous statement: “Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.” As Qatar enters the third decade of the century, citizens are expected to commit to serving not just their own individual interests, but the wider interests of the family, the neighbourhood, and the nation as a whole.
In the decade ahead, domestic stability and unity will be critical for Qatar to secure its grand strategic objectives as a small state in a complex regional environment. The emir, conscious of Qatar’s size, location and wealth, has set out a roadmap for Doha’s foreign and security policy that does not punch above its weight, but maximises the various soft power levers it has at its disposal.
Advocating dialogue, mediation and diplomacy as an alternative to war will be integral to Qatar’s regional policy, providing avenues of dialogue that can bridge ideological and geostrategic gaps. Drawing on Qatar’s recent diplomatic successes in Afghanistan and Gaza, Doha is eager to become an indispensable partner for the US and European allies, while remaining mindful of its own limitations.
The tone set by the emir suggests that the times of Qatari adventurism as exemplified by its intervention in the Arab Spring are solidly in the past. Multilateralism trumps unilateralism while proactive and value-based neutrality takes precedence over partisanship.
There is a clear commitment to working within the framework of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), while also building on Qatar’s experience during the Gulf crisis, in which it carved out its own niche as a regional soft-power hub. Doha is now set to reap the benefits of its arguably most successful demonstration of soft power yet.