Yesterday, the Security Studies Group co-sponsored a conference that was principally sponsored by Dr. Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Forum. Dr. Pipes asked a question of one speaker on one panel that I would like to explore further. The speaker is Alberto Fernandez, a long time State Department official who is currently the head of the Alhurra network, a public television channel in Arabic that is operated by the United States.
You can watch the panel here:
Fernandez describes the way in which Qatar’s Al Jazeera network promotes Islamist grievances throughout the region, as a way of encouraging what he says the network portrays as “the great champions of… the Arab masses, whether the [Muslim Brotherhood], or Hamas, or Hezbollah, or al Qaeda.” On Fernandez’s account, this network is intentionally feeding the world view that produces revolutionary Islamist movements that aim, among other things, to overthrow traditional Arab monarchies. The Arab Spring, as it was called, was made up of such movements.
This prompts Dr. Pipes to ask a question about why Qatar, which is itself such a monarchy, would pursue this policy. Pipes said that he had conceived of Al Jazeera as more an exercise in using “its soft power, because it doesn’t have hard power” but Fernandez’s account suggested it was pursuing an outright revolutionary agenda. How, Pipes asked, does Fernandez reconcile those views?
What Fernandez says is that Qatar is like a man feeding others to a tiger because he hopes to be eaten last. On that view, these revolutionary Islamist movements like al Qaeda might not target Qatar for a long time, instead focusing on overthrowing Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. Qatar might hope to be last.
As Pipes suggests, that would be a dangerous game.
Qatar is playing a dangerous game, but it is not that one. Qatar is pursuing a grand strategy in which destabilizing its enemies is a method of increasing its own relative strength. The reason why is that Qatar faces a massive hard power threat to its very survival. This is not posed by its foreign enemies, in spite of the blockade they are conducting against it. Qatar has more than adequate resources to survive this blockade and continue to prosper. It has adopted universal conscription, and has structured its tiny military to make itself dangerous to swallow by invasion: even should its regional enemies wish to conquer it, they would find it impossible to digest the insurgency that could be provoked by a population with universal military training.
Rather, Qatar faces an ongoing and immediate threat of destruction by revolution. It is not these Islamist revolutionaries that it is encouraging that poses this threat, but its population of foreign workers. Qatari citizens make up only 12% of the actual population of Qatar. 88% of the populace are imported labor, and Qatar treats them horribly. It is a case that the UK Independent rightly describes as “modern slavery,” and there are far more slaves being abused than there are citizens abusing them.
For every Qatari citizen — male, female, adult, child, elderly — there are seven working age foreigners walking around who have legitimate reasons to hate them. The situation is rather similar to the case of the Haitian revolution, in which the slave population rose up and killed the entire population of Frenchmen lording it over them. The Qataris don’t worry about al Qaeda because al Qaeda is nowhere near the most immediate threat that they face. The Qataris are afraid of their slaves.
That is what explains the attempt to foment revolutions in neighbor states. It needs them to be internally troubled so that it can focus its limited military power not on repelling invasion, but on defending against the immediate danger of insurrection. The Qataris have to fear being murdered in their beds by the people they have been abusing so badly. The proper tiger metaphor is Thomas Jefferson’s. Qatar, as Jefferson said of his own country in his own era, has a tiger by the ears. It can neither hope to hang on to the tiger forever, nor can it safely let go.
Understanding this fact explains Qatar’s troublesome behavior. It also explains Qatar’s sudden decision to purchase many new tanks and mobile artillery, allegedly to prepare itself against soccer riots in the 2022 World Cup. You don’t need tanks to stop a soccer riot. However, the Leopard tank variation they are purchasing is optimized for urban warfare; and the mobile artillery can be used to fire canister, while providing the gunners with cover from improvised weapons like Molotov Cocktails, or rifles seized from the police.
Qatar’s aggressive actions, both regionally and globally, are expressions of this fear. When addressing the problems that Qatar poses, Americans should always talk first and foremost about the need to end their practice of modern slavery. Ending Qatar’s status as a slave state is a necessary condition to any improvement.