What Does Power Look Like?

Interview by Steven Gertz

On October 23, 2013, Dr. Mehran Kamrava, director of the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar, spoke at CCAS about his recently published book Qatar: Small State, Big Politics (Cornell, 2013). CCAS interviewed him after his talk to discuss the book’s arguments and gauge the impact it is currently making in Qatar.

What led you to write this book, and where do you think it is making its primary impact?

Qatar is a very understudied country in an understudied region of the world. Compared to other Middle Eastern heavyweights like Egypt, Syria, and Iran, or political hotspots like Israel/Palestine and Iraq, Qatar has received little attention from either the academic community or the popular press. But Qatar has acquired increasing international importance over the past decade or so, and I felt it was important to analyze its domestic political makeup in an effort to understand that influence and determine whether it was lasting or fleeting.

As far as its impact is concerned, this book is one of the very first in-depth analyses ever written on Qatar, and as such, it is making an impact—even bigger than I was expecting. I have heard from Qataris and non-Qataris alike since the book’s publication; while I feared that some would think the book too laudatory of Qatar and others think it too critical, I have generally found a positive reception for my arguments. This said, the book has raised some controversy; some Qataris found just the mere discussion in my book of a Sunni-Shi‘a divide an unwelcome subject. But I would posit this is because Sunni-Shi‘a relations is a delicate issue that the government has carefully monitored and managed thus far.

Let’s talk about some of the concepts and arguments you put forward in your book. You mention that political scientists have in the past conceived of power as being “hard” and “soft” (and “smart” when combined), but suggest that Qatar has created something new—what you call “subtle” power. Define these terms for us and what they mean in the context of Qatar’s ascendancy in the Middle East.

When political scientists have talked about “hard power,” what they are generally referring to is the strength of a country’s military and the size (and thus influence) of its population, while “soft power” has been understood to be the cultural influence a nation projects outside its borders. But Qatar is a tiny country in the Gulf (bigger only than Bahrain), with an indigenous population no larger than 200,000. Moreover, it has little if any cultural influence outside its borders—it has not exported its cuisine or its music, as the United States has, for example. Yet Qatar does have power, and this book is in large measure an attempt to describe what that power looks like.

What I call “subtle power” is a combination of carefully crafted strategies to build political influence in the international arena. So the impact on media by Al Jazeera, the careful diplomatic “hedging” in which Qatar has retained relations with nations that are enemies to each other (the U.S. and Iran, for example), the strategic investments in European real estate after the 2008 economic crisis—all of these have combined to put Qatar on the map, so to speak, and give it a political gravitas that it had formerly been lacking in the international arena.

Can you describe in more detail what you mean by “hedging?” Some have called Qatar’s dealings with political enemies a “maverick” foreign policy, but is it not true that Qatar has aligned itself militarily, economically, and culturally with the United States? You mention in your book, for example, that Qatar houses the two largest American military bases outside the U.S. Might hedging simply be a kind of cover for Qatar’s loyalties, a way of making its alliance with the U.S. more palatable to its neighbors?

There is no doubt that Qatar has aligned itself with the United States militarily, culturally, and economically. But then so have other Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the Emirates. Indeed, all of these countries have jumped on the bandwagon of the American military juggernaut in the Gulf. What sets Qatar apart from the rest is that the Qatari government has worked hard to make sure the U.S. does not take its friendship for granted. So it maintains open channels with Iran, the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other organizations with which the U.S. does not have good relations. Qatar does this, however, not to antagonize the U.S. but to remind it that Qatar is a sovereign entity that needs to be respected.

Let me give you a personal example of this kind of diplomatic maneuvering. When Secretary Hillary Clinton came to Qatar in February 2010, I was in my office at Georgetown’s campus in Doha. Intending to attend Sec. Clinton’s address, I then received a phone call notifying me that the Iranian ambassador was going to be visiting Doha that same day, and I was invited to come hear him speak. This kind of double booking is politically calculated, intended to keep the Americans off balance. Indeed, I later received a call from the American embassy that was clearly troubled by Qatar’s entertaining dignitaries from both countries on the same day. Hedging, then, is a clever and carefully thought-out strategy that Qatar uses to retain its independence from any would-be patron or benefactor state without cutting ties with that state altogether.

You mentioned in your book that Qatar has carefully crafted its image—what you call “branding”—and that this has been critical to its success. How has Qatar gone about this, and what have been the critical elements in its strategy?

As I pointed out in my book, Qatar has done incredibly well with its aggressive investment porfolio, buying up major but distressed Western companies such as Harrods during the economic crisis. Thus it has become a major economic player on the world stage, showcasing a world-class capital city, airline, etc. Another very important key to its branding strategy has been the part Al Jazeera has played in raising Qatar’s international profile. I mention in my book that in 2010, 78 percent of Arabs said Al Jazeera was their major international news source. This is because the station introduced critical analysis, debate, and commentary into the news media when before such programming had only been a compilation of sanitized information approved by the various Gulf governments producing it. Al Jazeera revolutionized the industry, and Arabs soon began to view it as their most trusted news source. I should mention, though, that Al Jazeera has lost some ground on this due to its slanted coverage of the protests in Bahrain during the uprisings there that began in 2011.

Let’s talk a bit about some of the challenges facing Doha, including its problematic treatment of migrant workers, of whom there are some 800,000 (or four times the number of indigenous Qataris). The international press has particularly highlighted the abysmal living conditions of workers laboring to prepare Doha for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Are problems such as these damaging the “brand” that Qatar has worked so hard to develop, and if so, what is the government doing about it?

Qatar’s branding has most definitely taken a beating. But the government is working to address this. It is conducting regular investigations into abuses of migrants, for example, and it has made the practice of withholding passports from migrants illegal. There is also a greater public awareness of the problem and a political will to prevent further abuses. When Georgetown was building its campus in Doha (2008–11), it hired an agency at the Qatar Foundation’s expense to oversee the building of the university and ensure safety measures for its workers were observed properly. At the time this was a revolutionary idea, but this has now become standard practice in Qatar.

Finally, can you talk about Georgetown’s Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) in Qatar, which you direct? What are some of the center’s priorities and what impact is it making on Qatar in particular?

CIRS was founded in 2007, and for the center’s first couple of years, I would regularly give talks in Doha about what it meant to do research in the social sciences. We determined that we wanted to do original work at the Center, delving into questions that had not yet been asked in the Gulf. We pushed the envelope with our projects—researching, for example, how we might introduce positive innovations into Islam, something that militated against the negative traditional concept of bid‘a. I stressed in my talks that if Qatar wanted to build a knowledge-based economy, it needed to foster an atmosphere of academic freedom. I’m happy to say that I’m no longer invited to give such talks because the government has incorporated such an approach into its thinking. The Social and Economic Survey and Research Institute (SESRI) at Qatar University, for example, was founded to research public opinion, and is part of a broader effort on the part of Qatar’s government to foster a society more encouraging of open inquiry and less inclined toward censorship.