By Dr Hend Al Muftah
Until the last few decades, Qatar’s identity was closely tied to being a small state located in the Middle East region, whose economy was centred on pearl fishing, with a small-size indigenous population. Now the population living in Qatar has grown to a total of over two million people, out of which 70% are foreigners (working mostly in the private and construction sectors). Today, Qatar has a sovereign wealth fund that manages and controls natural gas reserves of 900 trillion cubic feet, positioning it as the third largest gas provider in the world after Russia, and Iran. It has managed to successfully develop a solid identity, and has been gaining recognition and credibility on the world stage. Qatar’s brand is now the ninth-most powerful in the world, according to an annual ranking released by UK-based consulting firm ‘Brand Finance’ in 2015. As a progressive country, Qatar, through its visionary leadership, has used many strategies, in particular its soft power, to enhance its position in the international community.
In order to extend its international influence in the fields of culture and education, over the last two decades Qatar has invested hugely in public diplomacy through cooperation with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and Multinational Corporations (MNCs). It has been promoting cultural awareness (QF, Qatar Museum Authority, Qatar Airways, Katara); enhancing education, particularly for vulnerable children (Education above all), as well as research and community welfare, and establishing its flagship- Education City, which hosts branch campuses of some of the world’s leading universities. In addition, Qatar has promoted tourism through hosting mediation forums/conferences.
The exposure given to the conflicts in the Arab world and the ‘humanitarian’ acts of protecting civilians within the region have provided Qatar with various diplomatic opportunities to distinguish itself as a peacemaker. It has also been mediating conflicts and giving out financial aid to countries that have suffered from natural or political disasters as Gaza, Darfur, Somalia,and Lebanon. Hence Qatar, the small state has been turned into a powerful and capable state, making its own independent decisions regardless of the stance of its neighbouring countries. In doing so, it is obvious that Qatar has used its influential soft power to shape up the preferences of other countries, by persuading states to buy into the Qatari culture and values. Playing the role of the regional mediator has given Qatar more credibility and legitimacy to pursue its foreign policy objectives.
With respect to the economic branding, there are the leading oil and gas companies such as QP, Ras Gas and many other international joint-ventures. In addition, other business sector companies as Qatar National Bank (QNB),Ooreedo, Qatar Rail, Qatar Investment Authority, Qatari Diar and many other companies have paved the way for Qatari companies to take their rightful place in the international business arena. In this regard, Qatar’s high-profile investments and purchases, such as the acquisition of London department store Harrods, Volkswagen, Total, Sainsbury’s, and Barclays Bank, have highlighted the country’s immense wealth. Other companies’ brands such as Qatar Airways have helped by representing Qatar on a large scale by carrying its name into over 140 destinations, and using the word “Qatar” in its advertising campaigns. Additionally, Qatar Tourism Authority has promoted Qatar’s tourism worldwide and this has contributed to the marketing of Qatar, placing an emphasis on luxury, prestige and modernity combined with tradition.
Needless to say, the Al Jazeera News channel, considered one of the world’s most respected and influential media organizations. This has proved to be a successful tool that has been used by the Qatari government to maximise its diplomatic influence regionally and internationally through allowing more freedom of the press and liberalisation in the Arab World. Today, it is clear that Al Jazeera’s branding has changed the political landscape in the region, helped to bringing revolution to some Arab countries, and focused the world’s attention on conflicts previously considered ‘insignificant’ by international media.
Qatar is also using sports diplomacy as a form of international communication. Qatar’s ambition to distinguish itself via a sports development and diplomacy route reached a peak when the nation was selected to host FIFA’s 2022 World Cup, despite the skeptics. Indeed, Qatar is creating a legacy for sporting events while building capacity for Qataris- transferring knowledge and skills to its citizens for long term sustainability, prosperity and well-being.
Indeed, by branding the small peninsula through the international media, as a crisis mediator, and sports sponsor, Qatar has again succeeded in building an image for itself as a credible actor that has the ability to influence the dynamics of international relations.
Generally speaking, Qatar’s oil and natural gas wealth and production, associated with the visionary leadership of both Shaikh Hamad and Shaikh Tamim have been part of the state’s branded image in order to serve its economic objectives. Most of the published news and research articles about Qatar, usually begin by describing the wealth of the country and that it has the highest Gross domestic product (GDP) in the world, and the very ambitious visionary leadership.
When His Highness Sheikh Hamad came to power in 1995, he had a very clear goal of placing Qatar on the world map by exploiting the gas resources and taking a key role in international diplomacy. During his 18 years in power, Sheikh Hamad has been considered a progressive and visionary leader and by combining efforts with Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, he has successfully branded Qatar through vocally supporting children’s charities and encouraging education along. He has also played an active role in developing sports in Qatar, leading to the country hosting high profile tennis and athletics events, and securing the 2022 FIFA World Cup. In 2022, Qatar will become the first Muslim country to host the World Cup, and it is already turning Paris Saint-Germain into one of Europe’s major football teams.
With a stable and supportive government and citizens, Sheikh Hamad was able to focus on turning Qatar from a small hot desert into a major world power. Qatar’s improved standing on the international arena continued later under His Highness Sheikh Tamim, who proceeded on the path set by his father. The clear vision of both Emirs, His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and His Highness Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has turned billions of dollars in oil and gas revenues into strategic international investments, for example in alternative, renewable energy development, better ways to desalinate water, and ways to ensure a more stable and healthy food supply.
Re-establishing international credibility as good and trustworthy has increased Qatar’s political influence and diplomatic role and strengthened international alliances, in addition to stimulating tourism, and encouraging exports. The improved social image of the nation on the global stage through its sponsoring of international conferences, sports events and art exhibitions, has led to Qatar becoming more than “tiny state” or simply a place where oil or natural gas is produced, and hence Doha has become more than an anonymous city with skyscrapers and modern shopping malls. The small peninsula has effectively seized the initiative by investing in creating a national brand, an identity that will differentiate the small state from its Middle Eastern neighbours. This has also had one of the desired effects of stimulating foreign investment in Qatar.
As a small state equipped with visionary leadership, Qatar has proved that it still can have a say- making an impact and being involved in shaping up policies in the global arena, regardless of the rise of suspicions creating Qatar Phobia! However, if the branding of Qatar is to be continued by the government, this mission should be part of a long-term strategic marketing campaign to help the government achieve its diplomatic objectives. Part of this has to be to continue the real improvements in migrant workers rights, without whom all the development would have been impossible, through a more equitable sharing of the country’s wealth, and to improve Qatar’s very large ecological, especially carbon, footprint, both issues currently detracting from Qatar’s good reputation on the world stage.
The country needs to increase trade and investment, especially in value added products, designed and made in Qatar; improve education at the school and family level, and to promote tourism that is combined with tradition. All Qatari citizens should take greater roles in formulating policies and decision-making, and strengthen their active participation in the country’s development. Qataris could then feel even more proud of their country’s role and its leadership, and the traditions that they have inherited, proud of who they are and what they stand for.
The author is Associate Professor,
Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. Twitter: @halmuftah