Gulf State Foreign Policies and Non-State Actors (part II)

This post is the third of a three-part series based on a panel titled ‘Middle Eastern Pragmatism and the Islamic State’ which took place at the Tenth Nordic Conference on Middle Eastern Studies Centre for Contemporary Middle East Studies 22-24 September 2016 at the University of Southern Denmark, Odense.

Dr David B Roberts

This post carries on from the first part of this piece titled: Gulf State Foreign Policies and Non-State Actors (part I).


After a state decides that it wants to involve itself in a given conflict or it has otherwise resolved to attempt to exert influence, a range of pragmatically-based issues come into play and direct, sometimes quite explicitly, how, why, and with what groups the Gulf States will engage.

In some instances, if a state wants to counter a particular group or government, it has no choice but to engage with certain actors. This rationale arguably best describes Qatar’s apparently curiously close relations with groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, an explicitly al-Qaeda affiliated group in Syria. Evidence for their relations stems partly from Qatar’s unusual ability to extract hostages from the clutches of extreme rebel groups in the Syrian and Iraqi conflict. Also, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Mohammed al-Jolaini has been interviewed several times on al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based new channel. Though al-Jazeera is more independent than many give it credit for and the Qatari government does not direct its coverage as is sometimes suggested, it is inconceivable that someone like al-Jolani appeared several times for long, in-depth interviews on the show without some kind of informal acquiescence or understanding from the authorities. Moreover, these interviews were quite clearly attempts by al-Jolani (and Qatar) to present a more amenable, moderate vision for the group to make Qatar’s tacit support and relationship with the group more acceptable.

The underlying rationale for Qatar’s apparent relations with al-Nusra is the group’s importance in the Syrian civil war. Like it or loath it, al-Nusra is indisputably one of the most important fighting forces against the al-Assad government. This is the dynamic that is important to Qatar. It wants, first and foremost, to get rid of the al-Assad government, the entity that it sees as above all else the underlying cause of the entire Syrian conflict. Under this rubric, Qatar engages with al-Nusra.

Otherwise, for all states seeking to assert some kind of influence on the on-going civil wars in the Middle East, there are a range of obvious impediments. Unsurprisingly, public opinion tends to preclude states from simply sending their armed forces into the Syrian civil war grinder. Nor would this necessarily be an idea welcomed by locals. As such, support for locally-based NSAs is a crucial plinth of policies for the Gulf States and western states alike. Necessity, then, in these examples is the handmaiden of Gulf State interaction with NSAs as much as any necessarily overt preference for one group over another.

Similarly, as is evident in the Qatari example, happenstance is a curiously important phenomenon in determining exactly which NSA a state ends up supporting. Specifically, it was haphazard links with Ali al-Sallabi, an influential Libyan Imam exiled in Qatar that proved to be a central link in how Qatar channelled huge amounts of support to NSAs in Libya. The link with al-Sallabi was far from premeditated, while a smorgasbord of al-Jazeera journalists have also provided utility for the government throughout the Arab Spring. Indeed, the very youth of the Qatari state and the immaturity of its Foreign Ministry that was suffused with a top-down culture for decades, left the state reliant upon random, personal links as opposed to systematic, institutionalised political links, as I argue in my book titled Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City State.

In a similar fashion, if a state is lacking in human resources capacities, it will rely on whatever faculties it does have. Kuwait’s dinar diplomacy of the 1970s in particular is evidence of this. Like Qatar more recently without the capacities to engage on a formalised level through its Foreign Ministry, it preferred to simply use its significant cash reserves instead. This often means fiscally supporting NSAs in the MENA region in lieu of being able to interact in a more traditional, formal Ministry-to-Ministry fashion. In short, states play to their strengths. Another example of this is Saudi Arabia, which is rich in religious capital and how it can use this to effect its foreign policy.


The frequent and consistent reliance upon NSAs by the Gulf States (and others) in the various on-going conflicts in the MENA region has a number of related consequences. There is an ever present concern that utilising NSAs in such a proxy manner dilutes the link between action and consequence. It is, essentially, potentially too easy for a government to send money or otherwise support an NSA without doing enough due diligence or exerting enough control over their actions. Certainly, this kind of criticism is levelled at Qatar and its relations with groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, where other Gulf States like Saudi Arabia and the UAE disagree that Qatar’s ultimate goal of removing al-Assad from power is worth the interim cost of supporting a group such as al-Nusra. Similarly, with these proxy relationships with NSAs, there are inherent concerns about oversight and control. Diplomats conducting missions is one thing. But in the flux of civil conflict where groups are frequently mutating, allying with different entities, gaining, and shedding members, a state is always taking a certain leap of faith when supporting a given NSA. Aside from the potential consequences on the ground if a state’s support is used in ways that it does not want, to say nothing of simple, blatant corruption, there is potentially significant reputational damage at play.

Different states supporting different NSAs, something that was readily apparent in the earlier years of the civil war in Syria and in Libya, can also be disastrous for cohesion for opposition groups. Nominally, many of the different groups supported by, for example, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were united in their opposition to the al-Assad Syrian government or the al-Gaddafi Libyan regime. But just as Qatar found with its mediation attempts in Darfur, the more money that it put up to support the opposition groups, the more factions became apparent. Empirical research has shown that civil wars are longer and bloodier the more there are less powerful groups in play, exactly the kind of bi-product produced from disunited Gulf support in places like Syria in the initial few years of its Arab Spring.

To a degree, the most egregious differences have been overcome in recent years, thanks to concerted pressure from the likes of the US as well as intra-Gulf powers like Saudi Arabia and the UAE that have sought to actively coordinate their support channelled to various NSAs. Qatar has felt the brunt of these attempts at cohesion and has often come under pressure to divest itself of supporting certain groups.

Otherwise, the usage and support of NSAs by Gulf States – as with all states – needs to be considered carefully. They should not be seen as an easy or cheap way to conduct a state’s foreign policy or as a short-cut to influence. Rather, supporting these groups needs to be contingent upon elevated levels of in-depth understanding of their modus operandi and strategies. Without a sufficiently nuanced grasp of the context and relevant variables, the blow-back for the state, the NSA, and the arena in which both are attempting to exert influence can be deeply harmful to all concerned.

Image: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stands with his fellow Foreign Ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council – representatives of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and the GCC itself – on April 7, 2016, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Manama, Bahrain, amid a series of multilateral meetings focused on regional issues. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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