Qatar’s soft power: creating the image of an open and peaceful country
Despite its position and size, Qatar has managed to punch above its weight on many regional matters and pursue a balanced and independent foreign policy
When it comes to its influence and impact on the international stage, it is quite remarkable to see what Qatar has achieved in just a few decades after its independence. Living in a volatile region, squeezed between two bitter rivals – Saudi Arabia and Iran – is no easy task.
Yet, despite its position and size, Qatar has managed to punch above its weight on many regional matters and pursue a balanced and independent foreign policy, all while working to project the image of a neutral and open country abroad.
Doha has been working towards shaping this particular image of Qatar using three main factors: its diplomatic role, its media giant (al-Jazeera) and by hosting important international events – like the 2022 Fifa World Cup.
The contemporary broader Middle East is crossed by many fault lines: the shiite-sunni divide, the regional rivalries within the sunni camp as well as ideological clashes. In most of these issues, Qatar has repeatedly worked to position itself on the fence, often playing a mediating role.
Since 2008 Qatar has mediated more than 10 regional disputes: from the 2011 Darfur Peace Agreement all the way to the 2020 US-Taliban agreement.
The prerequisite for this kind of role, however, is to maintain warm bilateral ties with actors on both sides. An element that has often put Qatar in the way of criticism over its relations with non-state actors and armed groups, like Hamas and the Taliban – the latter having an office in Doha since the early 2010s.
Nevertheless, this unique “talking-to-all” approach is what has actually made Qatar instrumental in providing many actors with a precious bridge to reach out to counterparts with whom they don’t have direct relations. Through this service Qatar hopes to gain international recognition and to brand itself as the “Switzerland of the Middle East”.
The al-Jazeera Media Network was founded in 1996 by Sheik Hamad al-Thani, then Emir of Qatar. Although it wasn’t the very first Arab satellite channel, it introduced crucial new standards that were quite innovative in the Arab world news panorama.
In a region of authoritarian rule, where news networks were under strict scrutiny and censorship by governments, al-Jazeera seemed to have free hand to cast a light on topics previously regarded as taboo, such as protests and popular demands.
One of al-Jazeera’s main goals has been to report the “voice of the voiceless”, by making the otherwise unheard populations and minorities have a say in the domestic and regional public debate. This founding pillar of al-Jazeera’s reporting is strictly linked to its effort to hold regional governments accountable for their actions, all while shaping the image of a fair and trustworthy network abroad.
In 2006 al-Jazeera went a step further by opening an all English channel, allowing it to become a well-renowned source of information on MENA matters for big chunks of the international public. Today, 25 years after its foundation, al-Jazeera is one of the biggest and most recognizable media networks in the world, with plans to broadcast its news in Spanish, amongst other languages.
The 2022 FIFA World Cup
It wasn’t without criticism that in 2010 Qatar was awarded with the opportunity to host the 2022 World Cup. Since that date Qatar has been under strict international scrutiny for many of its domestic issues, one of the most controversial ones being its migrant workers’ conditions.
Qatar largely relies on nearly 2.4 million immigrants, who represent the majority of its workforce, in a country where only around 300.000 people are Qatari citizens. These foreign workers were traditionally bound to a “sponsorship” system – known as the Kafala system – whereby their legal status and visa were in the hands of their employers. This system – broadly used throughout the region – has been heavily criticized by human rights groups, since it allows for easy exploitation of employees, without giving much space for legal action to counter it.
Since 2016 the Qatari government has introduced a series of reforms to gradually abolish the Kafala system and bring “tangible benefits” to migrant workers. The new regulations were aimed at removing many of the constraints the workers faced and also introduced a minimum wage. The International Labour Organization has described these measures as “an important milestone in the … labour reform agenda” while other human rights groups still considered the changes as insufficient.
The World Cup certainly worked as a catalyst for these reforms, placing Qatar among the most progressive countries in the region when it comes to labour regulations. The World Cup and the reform agenda go hand in hand in the effort to portray Qatar as a hospitable country, open to different cultures.
The final purposes of this “rebranding” effort as a peaceful and open country are both economic and political.
On the one hand it contributes to building the basis for a post-gas economy – as stability, openness and hospitality attract foreign investments and skilled workers. On the other hand it contributes to Qatar’s security needs by giving the international community (both governments and public opinion) an image of a useful, open and peaceful country that is worth defending.
Leonardo Trento – Political Sciences and International Relations student at RomaTre University, writer focused on foreign affairs and MENA region at Orizzonti Politici.
Houda Jadir – Mathematical Engenireeng graduate at University of Paris-Saclay, International Relations student at Harvard Extension School, Global Events Manager at Women in Tech.
Mathes Rausch – M.A. International Development at Sciences Po Paris
Angelica Lucia Pinto Trespalacios – Economics at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana
Mariavittoria Rancan – Law and Sustainable Development at University of Milan