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Thursday, December 9, 2021

Reform at home and soft power abroad: Amir Tamim sets out Qatar’s priorities


In what has been described as a “historic” moment for Qatar, the Gulf state’s amir addressed the country’s first ever elected Shura Council on Wednesday.

On 26 October, the Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani delivered a speech at the opening of the 50th annual session of the Shura Council – the first such address to the newly-elected legislative body.

He took advantage of this opportunity to highlight some of his country’s successes and address many important issues facing Qatar, the region, and the planet. These included citizenship, Qatar’s global status, the institutional importance of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), decreasing Qataris’ economic dependence on the state, social responsibility, and the existential threat of climate change.

The amir spoke to the controversial aspects of the historic Shura Council elections held earlier this month, chiefly the tribal factors that sparked a sensitive debate in Qatar. Due to a law that restricts voting rights in Qatar to those who had family members in the peninsula prior to 1930, members of the al-Murra tribe were ineligible to vote in the legislative polls. This led to rare protests in the Gulf country.

Amir Tamim orders ‘legal amendments’ to promote equality among Qataris at first Shura Council session

Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Middle East fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, told Doha News that “the amir has recognised the issues that arose ahead of the elections and has directed the authorities to take measures that respond to the questions of inclusion and exclusion in the political and participative process.”

Indeed, the amir explained that he told the cabinet to make legal amendments to promote “equal Qatari citizenship”, which will be sent to the Shura Council for the legislative body’s approval. Dr. Khalid al-Jaber, Director of the MENA Center in Washington, DC, said that “this is about changing that law and making Qatar’s Shura Council elections freer and fairer.”

Sheikh Tamim stated that “citizenship is not purely a legal issue but is primarily civilisational and an issue of loyalty, belonging and duty, and not just rights.” He added that tribal bigotry constituted a “disease” and warned that “hateful intolerance, whether tribal or otherwise, could be manipulated and used to subvert and destroy national unity.”

As explained by Dr Marc Owen Jones, an associate professor at the Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar, social media campaigns from neighbouring states targeted Qatar’s electoral process, seeking to exploit tensions between Qataris while calling into further question the legitimacy of the Shura Council elections.

According to Dr Jones, there were “approximately 1,789 fake accounts, all dedicated to promoting hashtags around the Qatar elections – more specifically, hashtags meant to portray the country as being in a state of revolt.” 

Qatar’s leadership does not want the national unity which the country’s citizens strengthened amid the 2017-2021 blockade to be undermined by those who may take advantage of tribal tensions within the Gulf country.

Doha’s soft power influence

Sheikh Tamim’s speech also touched on important foreign policy issues. 

As he explained, “brotherhood, history, and geography” are three factors giving the six GCC member-states reason to strengthen the sub-regional institution. “The amir emphasised the importance of the GCC, so it seems like Qatar has moved past the dispute that began in 2017 while looking to a future in which Gulf countries work together to achieve clean energy and economic diversification goals,” explained Dr Jaber.

In terms of Doha’s international position, a central message from the amir is that Qatar will continue playing its unique cards to expand its soft power influence around the world while promoting dialogue over conflict.

Read also: EXCLUSIVE: One-on-one with Suhail Shaheen, Taliban spokesperson

As the world comes to terms with the “Taliban 2.0” regime in Kabul, Doha is determined to help bring security and stability to Afghanistan. The Qataris are determined to work with the US and other countries closely at a time in which the international community has valid concerns about widespread ethnic cleansing or civil war in Afghanistan following 20 years of US occupation.

Having addressed Afghanistan in his speech, the amir understands how this war-torn country’s chaotic situation represents not only grave challenges but also unique opportunities for Doha as a diplomatic player in the Islamic world. 

“Afghanistan has been by far the most successful soft-power achievement that the Qataris have made in the past three decades. It has bought them a level of trust, dependability, and dependence from western countries that the Qataris couldn’t have imagined,” explained Dr Andreas Krieg, an assistant professor at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London.

“Anything that happens in Afghanistan at the moment, from a western point of view, goes through Doha. Even if the Qataris are not always directly involved as the mediator, Doha is somewhat the hub into Afghanistan – also because of al-Udeid. So, Afghanistan offers Qatar a soft-power lever in terms of influence in Washington and other NATO capitals. 

“It provides Qataris hard power because al-Udeid is still the most important hub for any military engagement and disengagement in Afghanistan. It remains very important that the Qataris can offer that platform. In terms of humanitarian aid, development aid, and also investments into Afghanistan, much of it will go through Qatar or at least will be facilitated by the Qataris because they are the ones who have the direct relationship with the Taliban. 

“Across the board, Afghanistan is the most important element now for the Qataris to underline their importance for western states in this part of the world.”

Giorgio Cafiero (@GiorgioCafiero) is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Doha News, its editorial board or staff.

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