Qatar is increasingly flexing its diplomatic muscles. A high-profile prisoner exchange between the United States and Iran earlier this month is the latest in a string of painstaking agreements mediated by the Gulf state, and could lead to further diplomatic efforts as the countries try to jumpstart stalled nuclear talks. The prisoner swap was the product of almost two years of delicate negotiations involving Qatar that secured the freedom of five U.S. citizens in exchange for five Iranian citizens, along with the release of $6 billion in Iranian assets that were frozen in South Korea under U.S. sanctions—Doha even reportedly agreed to pay the banking fees from its own coffers and monitor how the cash is spent to cement the deal.
Qatar was also instrumental in facilitating talks between the U.S. and the Taliban that culminated in the 2020 Doha Accord and led to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. Ongoing mediation efforts in Lebanon, Libya, Chad, Venezuela, and Palestine are also positioning the small Gulf nation as a diplomatic heavyweight with expanding geopolitical influence. Yet there are still ways Qatar can refine and improve these efforts to increase their impact and its own status on the international stage.
Mediation Amid Regional De-Escalation
Mediation has long been a cornerstone of Qatar’s foreign policy—a key strategy by which the country garners outsize prestige within the international system, while hedging its bets and maintaining ties with a wide range of actors. Doha has made itself indispensable to Washington as a go-between with various states and non-state parties, including Iran and the Taliban. Officials from the United States, the European Union and the United Nations have praised the country for facilitating evacuation efforts from Afghanistan, which helped mitigate the humanitarian consequences of the hasty 2021 withdrawal by the U.S. and its allies.
This strategy arguably took a hit in 2017 when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates imposed a three-and-a-half-year blockade on Qatar, leading the country to temper its efforts abroad even after the blockade ended in 2021. But its more recent engagements show that Doha can still punch above its weight by mediating conflicts and alleviating tensions in the Middle East and beyond.
Indeed, as the region enters a period of de-escalation after the post-Arab spring era of intense conflict and competition, Doha has the opportunity to expand its diplomatic efforts. This could include recalibrating its strategy to maximize the impact and minimize the costs of its foreign policy, strengthening its reputation for neutrality and targeting its efforts based on lessons learned from the past.
In the context of rapprochement between key regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran, Qatar has a chance to capitalize on the broader regional momentum as erstwhile spoilers to protracted conflicts in places like Yemen now appear to be seeking resolutions to them. Qatar can play its role by aiming to achieve durable outcomes such as long-term reconstruction and conflict resolution, rather than transactional fixes that may not translate into sustainable peace. Qatar also has an interest in supporting economic recovery in conflict zones. In both Yemen and Iraq, Qatar has long-standing ties to political factions whose involvement in recent de-escalation efforts could be channeled to this end. In Iraq, Doha has signed a number of commercial deals and committed to major investments in the south of the country, including three agreements worth $7 billion with the National Investment Commission earlier this year.
Doha’s improved ties with Riyadh provide an opportunity to work in tandem with Saudi Arabia as the kingdom also expands its footprint in Iraq. In 2020, the Saudi-Iraqi Arar border crossing was reopened for the first time in 30 years. Riyadh has committed to contributing $3 billion to Iraq’s investment fund for private sector initiatives, while also expanding its presence in the electricity and gas sectors. These moves demonstrate that Qatar’s capital-rich Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) neighbors are hungry for a greater stake in Iraq, giving the bloc’s members an incentive to cooperate to fulfil and protect their investments in Iraq’s volatile political and security environment.
Qatar can therefore place its mediation in the context of investment and trade. It would, however, need to ensure that its economic engagement with post-conflict transitioning countries is not premised around or perceived as financial aid, which could diminish the incentives for peace and sustainable governance. Doha should avoid “band-aid” peace deals and aim instead to finance peacebuilding and reconstruction initiatives designed to sustainably address long-standing grievances, structural issues, and other local drivers of conflict. In arenas such as Syria, Doha has rightly adopted a wait-and-see approach, given the limits of the so-called normalization with the Assad regime, the range of external actors playing an outsized role in the conflict, and the plethora of outstanding issues that could spark a return to conflict at any moment.
Further institutionalizing mediation through the prism of economic statecraft would provide a distinct edge to Qatari foreign policy and cultivate an institutional culture that is conducive to the country’s long-term interests. Qatari decision-making regarding mediation has historically been highly personalized and involved the country’s top leadership. While this demonstrates buy-in and commitment, giving it an edge in the short term, it could undercut the strategy’s efficacy in the long term if key figures are no longer involved. Moreover, institutionalization can encourage distance between the countries’ immediate foreign policy interests and their mediation role, thus helping the country to counter accusations of bias and repair its reputation for neutrality.
To ameliorate this, Doha should maximize its investments in its diplomatic training programs and the already rich ecosystem of universities and institutions it has established, in order to educate and train aspiring diplomats into skilled mediators. Through such institutions, Qatar can create a hub for network development to create opportunities in mediation in an increasingly multi-polar world, rather than wait for opportunities to present themselves. Although there is clearly willingness to cultivate a larger network of young Qatari policy professionals, more can be done to grant greater responsibility and visibility to career diplomats. Ideally, these diplomats would develop deep knowledge and relationships across the region, rather than forming a rotating cast of officials and diplomats. Institutionalization can sometimes result in rigidness and excessive bureaucracy but this can be mitigated by ensuring there are clear pathways and principles for ensuring that, over time, the most skilled of these diplomats should be given greater autonomy and mandates akin to those of Special Envoys. This would both empower them and create incentives for talented young people to embark on such a career path.
Qatar’s history as a mediator gives it a unique place in the region, which it can continue to use to further its own interests. Doha has also learned the lessons of the Arab Spring by recognizing the limits of its own influence, and that of outside actors more generally in increasingly complex and multi-layered political and socio-political arenas. To make this strategy effective, the country should carefully select which conflicts to address, create an institutional order around mediation at home, make the best use of economic statecraft abroad and, where feasible, promote the collective security of the GCC. Such a strategy could help revive Qatar’s foreign policy in the wake of the Arab Spring and make the country a lynchpin for lasting peace in the region.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Council on Global Affairs.