Qatar is only interested in Europe’s influence in so far as it relates to the role that the European Union and its member states play in the Middle East. The reality is that Europeans have not occupied a pivotal position on the most important regional issues, such as the conflicts and upheaval in Egypt, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen – or, to an extent, the stand-off between Qatar and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that began in 2017.
Qatar and its European partners engage in extensive cooperation on many issues, especially defence, energy, and trade. However, these ties are not so important to Qatar that it will prioritise Europe over other international players, including Russia and Turkey.
For Qatar, the importance of any power derives from three qualities. The first of these is the ability to shift the balance of power in the Middle East. The second is the capacity to support Qatar on the international stage, particularly at the United Nations Security Council. The third is the capability to establish security and defence partnerships that increase Qatar’s military power, thereby helping protect its national security. This quality has become especially important to Doha since the onset of the intra-GCC crisis. Europe has only some of these three qualities.
The EU and its member states have been unable to shift the balance of power in the region in the past few years. Turkey, in contrast, has been able to do so. While it is not a global power, Turkey has demonstrated its value to Qatar through its support for Doha in the intra-GCC crisis.
This has gone hand in hand with Qatar’s long-standing commitment to sustaining relationships with the United States – traditionally the most significant power in the region – and Iran. Doha regards Europe’s inability to overcome the challenges posed by the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal as a sign of weakness. The impression has been magnified by the fact that the agreement received the support of the UN Security Council – on which Europe theoretically has substantial influence, due to the veto power of France and the United Kingdom. The Security Council’s failure to adopt a position on the Syrian conflict in the eight years since it began – despite the convergence of views between France and the UK – has only reinforced the image of European ineffectiveness. Doha believes that European countries’ domestic and intra-EU problems impede their establishment of a strong policy on the Middle East, both collectively and individually.
Finally, while Qatar has strong, long-standing security and defence partnerships with individual European countries, these relationships do not necessarily create geopolitical leverage. The comparison with the US is striking: Washington has a clear advantage over European capitals because of the way in which it translates defence and security partnerships into direct involvement in the balance of power in the Gulf. Unlike those of European states, the US military presence in the Middle East – which extends from Turkey to Yemen – allows Washington to have a direct impact on conflicts in the region.
The EU and the intra-GCC crisis
The 2017 intra-GCC crisis was a watershed moment in Qatar’s modern history, representing the biggest threat to the country since it gained independence, in 1971. Qatar’s view of other countries, including those in Europe, is now largely based on their positions on the crisis.
Europeans do come out favourably on this measure. Firstly, no European country supports the blockading quartet – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – in their campaign against Qatar. Secondly, no EU statement has repeated any of the accusations the quartet has levelled at Qatar. Doha is highly appreciative on both points, seeing Europeans as potential partners in a multilateral regional order that denies its opponents the ability to shape events through coercion.
From Qatar’s vantage point, German support has been especially important. Germany was the first Western country to stand by Qatar’s side in the intra-GCC crisis, despite the potentially negative repercussions this could have for its relationship with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In this context, Qatar sees it as unfortunate that Germany, its closest partner among EU member states, lacks the three aforementioned geopolitical qualities: a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, direct involvement in Gulf regional affairs, and a capacity to shift the balance of power in the Middle East.
The future of European influence
The EU and its member states need to consider how to increase their influence in the Middle East. In this, they have no alternative but to take a more active role in the mediation of conflicts in the region. But Europeans also need to do so partly by highlighting the values-based component of their foreign policy.
There is a widespread perception in Qatar that European countries – with the partial exception of Germany – are far from having ethical positions on the Middle East. For example, despite their claims to the contrary, European countries have not supported the democratic aspirations of people in the region since the 2011 Arab uprisings. Instead, they have proactively supported authoritarian counter-revolutionary forces, especially those in north Africa, and often backed Qatar’s regional opponents. Therefore, if Europeans want to enhance their leverage in Qatar, they will need to address this lack of consistency between rhetoric and policy, establishing a common position within and outside the EU.