While Doha maintains its traditional balancing foreign policy, Moscow's attack has given it an opportunity to flex its soft-power muscles.
At least rhetorically, Qatar and Kuwait have been the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members standing in the strongest defence of Ukraine’s territorial dignity since the start of the Russian assault on Ukraine.
When speaking before the 49th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Doha’s top diplomat Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani stressed Qatar’s “respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders.”
This is not the first time Doha has stood against the Kremlin. As a counterrevolutionary actor in the Arab world and beyond, Russia has interests in Syria, Libya, and elsewhere that frequently align with those of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and clash with Qatar’s foreign policy agenda.
Although there is no hostility between Russia and Qatar, they have been opposing stakeholders in various conflicts plaguing the Middle East and North Africa. Within this context, Doha siding with Ukraine was no shock.
Along with geopolitical and ideational factors, energy-related interests heavily shape Qatar’s perspectives on the conflict in Ukraine. As a gas producer, Doha could see significant gains, considering that the Gulf country competes with Russia in this sphere.
With the Europeans determined to diversify their gas sources away from Russia, which currently supplies about 40 percent of its gas, EU members are now turning to Qatar and other gas-rich countries, including Algeria, Azerbaijan, Norway, and the United States.
“This war is actually serving Qatari interests,” Andreas Krieg, an assistant professor at King's College London, said in an interview with TRT World. He suggested that European partners would be “looking for alternatives, and Qatar is one of these alternative LNG (liquefied natural gas) and gas providers.”
Realistically, Qatar doesn’t have the capacity to replace Russian exports, but it can help the European countries diversify the sources of their gas imports.
EU members such as Italy are especially concerned about the possibility of western sanctions on Russia leading to their countries suffering from gas shortages, blackouts, energy price increases, and the disruption of commodity flows. They are particularly keen to turn to Qatar and other gas-exporting states amid this international crisis.
For instance, shortly after visiting Algeria, Rome’s top diplomat Luigi Di Maio and the CEO of Eni (an Italian multinational gas and oil company,) Claudio Descalzi, went to Doha on March 5 to discuss Italian-Qatari energy cooperation.
“Qatar could be a winner since the ongoing expansion of its liquefied natural gas capacity may translate into exports that displace some Russian gas sales in Europe by the mid-2020s,” explained Li-Chen Sim, an assistant professor at Khalifa University.
Despite tensions between Doha and Moscow stemming from Russia’s counterrevolutionary agendas in the Arab region, they have found ways to pragmatically cooperate, particularly in the spheres of sports, tourism, infrastructure, and investment.
The Qatar Investment Authority (QIA)’s sizable investments in the Russian oil giant Rosneft have influenced Doha’s perspective on how to respond to this conflict and western efforts to squeeze Russia economically.
Within this context, Doha has been careful to avoid reacting to this conflict in ways that could seriously antagonise Vladimir Putin’s government. Doha has been principled about defending Ukraine’s territorial dignity and sovereign rights, a stance that can help Qatar demonstrate to the US foreign policy establishment that the recent “major non-NATO ally” designation was deserved. However, Qatar has refrained from supporting the West’s financial warfare against Russia.
Although the value of the QIA’s investments in Russia has decimated because of the new sanctions, flight bans, and the rouble’s depreciation, Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund (SWF) will probably not make significant divestments from the Russian economy.
“[W]ithdrawing from Russia…would mean selling at [a] significant loss,” Gulf analyst Alexander Jalil told TRT World. “Divesting from Russia would also be seen by the Russians as Qatar siding with Western sanctions.”
“[M]any Gulf states are in [a difficult position] when it comes to their strategic interests shared with both the US and Russia, as well as their traditional foreign policy of hedging and balancing between regional and global powers,” Anna Jacobs, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute, told TRT World. “However, on the issue of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Qatar has very clearly chosen a side.”
A diplomatic actor
Just as Qatar is not supporting financial warfare against Russia, we can’t expect Doha to be a supplier of weapons to the resistance in Ukraine. Qatar’s controversial experience in Syria soon after the country’s civil war erupted, as well as Doha’s interests in playing a diplomatic role in efforts to end the Russian-Ukrainian conflict could explain why the Qataris won’t join western countries in arming any actors in Ukraine.
“Recent history has shown that it is more profitable and safer for Qatar to remain a mediating and integrating than an intervening actor,” Leticia Rodriguez, a PhD Candidate at Granada University, told TRT World.
Could Qatar succeed as a mediator in Ukraine? The short answer is, not alone. However, in coordination with other countries working to achieve this end, the Qataris could potentially make a valuable contribution to such efforts.
A few hours after Russia’s incursion began last month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Doha’s chief diplomat also spoke to his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts.
“As we saw in Afghanistan and with the Iran nuclear talks, [Qatar] can assist and reinforce international diplomatic efforts by being able to engage with both sides to pass messages and exchange ideas that could help to form the basis for de-escalation and potentially for diplomatic engagement to resolve the conflict,” Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute, told TRT World.
As officials in Doha watch the Russian-Ukrainian conflict unfold, they are cautiously navigating the geopolitical fallout. Like other GCC states, Qatar has an interest in not excessively antagonising either the West or Russia, which is consistent with Doha’s foreign policy goals of fostering positive relations with almost all major actors on the international stage.
As a state capable of meaningfully contributing to efforts to resolve crises between various countries, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is the latest example of a conflict in which Qatar has a chance to support diplomatic initiatives to make a positive difference.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.
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