Qatar has been increasingly active on the international political stage recently. How has Qatar’s role in international affairs and diplomacy evolved in recent years?
NONNEMAN: Qatar has clearly been trying in every way possible to raise its profile. It’s a case of pursuing a much more proactive policy than any of the other members of the GCC for a number of reasons. One is the obvious thing, that the higher your profile is, the better recognized your brand is recognized around the world, the better your interests can be served if it’s done in the right kind of way. Qatar used to be little known, it’s a small country and it’s not a place that many people in the world knew about. That brings with it, perhaps, safety in obscurity, but it also brings a number of risks, particularly if you’re in a problematic region that the Gulf can, at times, be. Qatar clearly decided under His Highness The Emir, when he came to power in 1995, that there was a reason to build this brand, to make sure that people couldn't ignore Qatar. Apart from the security question, there is the question of serving one’s economic interest. Qatar would never have got the World Cup ten years ago. This whole thing about brand building, visibility, and prestige has been very important. That has also underpinned its foreign policy. It has been one of the factors that fed into foreign policy change. There are other things that feed into this foreign policy change. One is the sensible perception that, in order to survive in this area and thrive in this region as a small country with big resources but very vulnerable and very exposed, first of all, you do need external protection. But, secondly, you have to get that kind of protection in ways that doesn't expose you to accusations of being in anyone’s pocket. You do not want to play just any outside hegemon’s game. You want to make sure that you have alternative and complementary resources in the international system. That’s what Qatar, under Sheikh Hamad, has been doing extremely well, extremely perceptively. That has brought with it a number of challenges. Very often it was a case of taking calculated risks of offending some American audiences when setting up Al Jazeera, when maintaining links with Iran as a neighborly country, when maintaining links with Palestinian groups, and so on. It’s meant occasionally taking risks on the reaction in Saudi Arabia or other regional countries; as we know Al Jazeera has often been expelled from some of the countries around the region. But these are calculated risks and the idea was to balance out the various resources that are available to a country like Qatar. They key people who have been taking these kinds of decisions and calculations of course are, first and foremost, The Emir himself, and Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, the Prime Minister. That brings me to my third element, and the third component of this new foreign policy posture. The whole posture, and how Qatar is perceived around the world, is very much to do with personal decisions and the particular style of decision making and judgment that you have here. If credit has to go to anyone in particular, it is very much His Highness The Emir and the Prime Minister and to an extent also Sheikha Moza, when we’re talking particularly about the cultural scene and the educational scene. Those are the critical decision makers. In these sorts of fields, in my mind, and I’d like to think of myself as an objective observer, I think the decisions have been extremely well judged.
What impact do you think recent political changes in the region will have on regional economies, particularly when it comes to issues of state involvement in economic affairs and trade policy/barriers?
NONNEMAN: I think the impact of the, let’s call it the Arab Awakening, on economic policies and economies generally is simply, to be blunt, impossible to predict. It will go in different directions in different places. Clearly, one of the key drivers for this awakening, for all the upheaval and you might call them revolutions in some cases, has been economic. It has been economic deprivation; it has been failure to live up to promises on the part of governments, and so on. In a sense, the economy was critical in explaining what we've seen happening; linked to the perception of the people’s sense of dignity and so on. If your economic needs are not being served, your dignity is being trampled on, and at the same you have no say what so ever over how the nation’s wealth is spent, then you get trouble. So that’s clear. However, going from there to conclusions about how the economy is going to go in the future is another question altogether because the only thing that people will have in common is that they want their needs addressed. There are different views regarding how those needs are best addressed: is this through the private sector or is it through government provision? And even when there are views about the private sector having to have a critical role in creating long-term sustainability, it’s not always clear that people, when they are faced with the reality, will still persist in those views. So that’s just to lay the basis: it’s just impossible to predict at this point which way that’s going to go. There may be beautiful plans but it’s by no means certain that those plans are going to come to fruition. But there will be a time in this Arab Awakening around the region when people’s expectations as a result of the revolutions will be dashed. That will have political implications too.
However, what there is, is clearly a difference between some of the better-endowed countries like Qatar, the UAE, to a lesser extent Kuwait, and to some extent Saudi Arabia, and on the other hand the poorer ones. In countries like the Gulf States, if we take Bahrain out of the picture for the time being, there’s perhaps a less of an immediate need in terms of the economic provision. People are still very much looking to the state, to the government, to provide. I don’t think in the Gulf States, the economic impact is going to go in the direction of a greater role for the private sector. Indeed, the decision to raise salaries of Qatari employees in Qatar by 60% recently is not something that is going to stimulate the private sector, even if it might be justified in other ways. To sum it up, the overall impact is hard to discern. There will be setbacks in terms of economic satisfaction. Eventually, the long-term result that I am positive about is going to be a mix of the private and public sector. In the less well-endowed countries, the private sector is going to have to carry a lot of the future weight of expectations. In countries in the Gulf, in the short to medium term, the government is going to remain absolutely critical. Although the only way forward, and here the Arab Awakening hasn't changed anything, for the medium to long term, including in the Gulf, has got to be the creation of a long-term sustainable, internationally competitive economy. That cannot be done purely through the government sector.
How will political changes in the region impact regional economic integration plans, such as the GCC common currency?
NONNEMAN: Regional integration in the Gulf and in the Arab world is a very long-standing ambition which has been pursued in lots of ways, by creating institutions and by creating plans; and very little has been achieved. In fact, if you look at intra-trade in the Arab world as a whole, it is miniscule. The GCC in that context has been the one success - let’s call it a relative success. Whether the recent events will have an impact on that, in my mind, is very doubtful. The only immediately visible effect is that some people are talking about Morocco and Jordan joining the GCC. I have my doubts about whether they will join in any fashion. And even if there is some kind of joining, it is likely to be a modulated joining, some kind of association of sorts. Having said all that, and with all the limitations that the GCC has seen in its economic integration, nevertheless it’s important to point out that there have been successes. The economic integration piece in the GCC is on an upward trend. The customs union is in place. It has a gap in it; there is a question of Bahrain and Oman because of their individual trade agreements with the US. But there is creative thinking going on about getting around that. Whether Bahrain will sign up to that is another question. But, even if Bahrain doesn’t, Bahrain is only 5% of the GDP of the region. So there is a de-facto, and in fact a formal, advance that is being made and that will not be affected; that will continue whether or not you had an Arab Spring or Arab Awakening.
When it comes to the monetary union, the problems that were there in implementation before the Arab Awakening are still there. I don’t see that the Arab Awakening will have an immediate impact. These things are going to have to be worked through over time. There is potentially a larger appetite for genuine integration in the GCC amongst the population than perhaps at some of the leadership levels. At some of the leadership levels, there may be a greater concern for maintaining sovereignty. You could make a theoretical argument that says, with greater political opening up, you get these popular drives for unification coming through more strongly perhaps. But even that is very tentative and certainly, populations in the GCC states will not, for instance, look very kindly at the prospects of joining forces with the highly populated and very poor Yemen, which is another thing that has been suggested by some. Again, even if Yemen settles, the most I can foresee there is some association. They are already associated in some respects so that might be built up a little but full membership in the GCC for Yemen is not in the cards as far as I can see. It’s not even particularly likely for Jordan and Morocco. Jordan is poor, but it’s small; so it’s much more easily digestible. Morocco is larger. Its economic potential is interesting and is more varied than the GCC states. But again it’s not particularly rich. It’s not particularly unstable so perhaps less of a threat, but so far away that there are other reasons that a simple joining is not so self-evident.
While the uprisings, or the Awakening, around the Arab world are to a large extent rooted in, or have been triggered by, economic dissatisfaction, the response has been mainly political in the poorer countries, although in the richer countries it has been economic. There is a medium-term problem, in that in these poorer countries the political change and its effect on the people’s sense of dignity and freedom will have an initial euphoric effect. However, even if new governments come into place and even if a new political system is developed that people do actually relate to and find legitimate, there is nothing to say that the new system will come up with economic solutions, even if they intend to. It is a longer-term problem. You don’t turn around decades of structural problems in the space of a year and people will very quickly get impatient.
How have the responses of regional governments to the recent political upheaval differed?
NONNEMAN: While the uprisings, or the Awakening, around the Arab world are to a large extent rooted in, or have been triggered by, economic dissatisfaction, the response has been mainly political in the poorer countries, although in the richer countries it has been economic. There is a medium-term problem, in that in these poorer countries the political change and its effect on the people’s sense of dignity and freedom will have an initial euphoric effect. However, even if new governments come into place and even if a new political system is developed that people do actually relate to and find legitimate, there is nothing to say that the new system will come up with economic solutions, even if they intend to. It is a longer-term problem. You don’t turn around decades of structural problems in the space of a year and people will very quickly get impatient. This is already happening in Egypt and Tunisia and it will happen elsewhere. Some places will be better able to start addressing the problems than others because they have better structures in place; they have a more highly skilled population, or they have better bureaucratic underpinnings in place - for instance Tunisia. Others will have huge difficulties: Libya has none of that; the only thing they have is oil and the question remains of how that oil is used. So the initial political changes will not prove the end of uncertainly or upheaval. But that’s not to say that there was any alternative to those political changes. They are an absolute condition for moving forward.
In the better-resourced countries, for instance those of the Gulf, the response has by and large not been political because the pressure was less political. There was very little popular pressure in places like Qatar and the UAE for significant political reform. The political reform that is being carried through in Qatar is essentially a decision by His Highness The Emir, which has been 10 years in preparation and which is part of a longer-term vision that says that we have to ensure not just legitimacy and international credibility today, but into the future. The only place in the Gulf region where there has been some not insignificant political response is in Oman. There, the Sultan has acted quickly. First, by sacking virtually the whole government including some people who had been in positions of power for a long time and who, by some in the population, were seen as part of the problem; and secondly, by significantly expanding the power of the Majlis Al Shura. So Oman, under Sultan Qaboos, is ahead of the curve in the case of the Gulf States. Some people would say that Kuwait was already ahead of the curve. That’s true, but they’re dealing with different sets of problems in terms of paralysis of the political system and an ongoing attempt by the Royal Family itself to figure out what they think about this and what different people within the Royal Family think is the best way to move forward. Kuwait hasn't resolved that. The Arab Awakening or the economy has nothing to do with that in the case of Kuwait. They’ll have to resolve that themselves. But that doesn't tell us much about what’s likely to happen in places like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, or Qatar. Bahrain is the outlier in the Gulf. They are not well endowed, they are not rich, they’re not very populous; and it’s a small country. There is unemployment and there is extensive deprivation, there is no doubt about that. The problems have been triggered by the economy but built on a long history of political and social grievances. So it’s the combination of those things that eventually led to an eruption. In all of these cases, and indeed other cases, it’s all very well to talk about grievances and structural problems and economic issues. But then you also have to take into account what’s the regime response, what’s the government response, what do they do, how effective it is, how well judged it is, and how well the leaders get what’s going on at a popular level. In the case of Bahrain, while clearly the King and the Crown Prince understood this, others perhaps did not understand it quite as well. That led ultimately to a response that was not as well advised as it could have been and that then worsened the problem. One can only hope that they can now regroup and get back to some sense of compromise on both sides.