Future of Globalization

Battling for Independence: Small States Stake Their Claim

Beyond the present efforts in Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan: How do the strategies of existing small states Singapore, the UAE and Qatar compare?


  • Independence movements are gaining pace because of a realization that the benefits of being big have decreased.
  • in the current international system, being small is easier than ever.
  • Small states are either more homogenous or, like Singapore, find it easier to cater to different segments of a heterogeneous population.
  • What Singapore, Qatar and the UAE have in common is that their quest to guard their ability to chart their own course is driven by fear.

Efforts by peoples like the Catalans in Spain, the Kurds in Iraq or the Ambazonians in Cameroon to secede have put a new global focus on the ability of small independent states.

In a book published more than a decade ago, The Size of Nations, political scientists Alberto Alesino and Enrico Spolaore argued that both large and small states have to make cost/benefit trade-offs.

It is these calculations that determine their ability to provide populations with public goods and services and carve out their place in an international order.

Feeling not represented

The integrity of larger states like Iraq and Spain whose size means that their populations are more heterogeneous is called into question by groups who feel that the state does not serve their interests and needs.

Small states are either more homogenous or, like Singapore, find it easier to cater to different segments of a hetero¬geneous population.

At the same time, they need to maneuver more nimbly internationally to ensure their independence.

Big is no longer automatically better

The struggle of smaller states to escape the yoke of a regional behemoth and various groups to carve out small states of their own may have gained pace because of a realization that the benefits of being big have decreased.

Accordingly, there is an expectation, articulated by political scientists Sverrir Steinsson and Baldur Thorallsson, that big states will grow increasingly smaller.

“Thankfully for small states, it has never been as easy being small as it is in the current international system with its unprecedented degree of peace, economic openness and institutionalization,” Steinsson and Thorallsson said in a recent study entitled “The Small-State Survival Guide to Foreign Policy Success.”

The Gulf area’s small states

The current Gulf crisis also fits the mold of smaller states seeking to carve out their place in the regional and international order.

What is at stake in the Gulf is more than just the ability of small states to chart their own course. No doubt, that is one aspect of Qatar’s refusal to bow to demands by the UAE-Saudi-led alliance that it radically alter its foreign and security policies.

Yet, the root of that particular dispute goes beyond that. The Gulf crisis is a clash of diametrically opposed strategies for the survival of autocratic rule.

It is a battle between two small states with massive war chests garnered from energy exports that have megalomaniac ambitions to shape a swath of land that stretches from North and East Africa into Asia in their own mold.

To achieve their respective goals, the UAE and Qatar act not as small states but as big powers. They use the kind of tools that big powers use: financial muscle, support of opposition forces to stimulate or engineer regime change, foreign military bases, military coups, covert wars and cyberwar.

Buried in their megalomania is a naïve belief that the consequences of their actions will not come to haunt them.

Contrast with Singapore

This puts the ambitions of Qatar and the UAE into stark contrast to small countries like Singapore who rely more on soft power.

The latter is a telling case of opting to fly more under the radar, and sticking more to strategies generally associated with small state efforts to ensure their independence of choice.

What Singapore, Qatar and the UAE have in common however, is that their quest to jealously guard their ability to chart their own course is driven by fear.

Singapore’s fear, unlike that of Qatar and the UAE that face very different demographic challenges involving citizenries that account for only a small percentage of the population, is grounded in race riots that surrounded its birth.

There is also the perception of living in a volatile neighborhood, and a concern about the possible wider ramifications of the fallout of convoluted transitions that have wracked the Middle East and North Africa and fueled religiously-inspired militancy.

While all three states are in some ways corporations, Singapore, in contrast to Qatar and the UAE, has institutionalized its system of government to a far greater degree than the Gulf states in terms of institutions, the rule of law – and, irrespective of its warts, checks and balances.

National pride as a factor

Qatar has so far ignored the opportunity offered it by the wave of unprecedented nationalism unleashed by the Gulf crisis as Qataris rallied around the ruling Al Thani family.

The debate in Singapore focuses on survival as an independent state — rather than survival of a ruling family. In Singapore, the debate about what it can and should do to stand up for its interests is public.

In Qatar and the UAE, far bigger restrictions on freedom of expression effectively stymie any public debate about these issues or drive it into the underground.

While there is no public debate in either Gulf state about governance, Singapore’s transition away from the Lee family’s dominance and to a post-Lee generation is one that is cushioned by discussion and expression of aspirations.

In contrast, Qatar and the UAE project themselves as regional and global hubs that are building cutting-edge, 21st century knowledge societies on top of tribally-based autocracies.

Both Qatar and the UAE have glimmering and bold skylines that rival those of Singapore. But beyond the trappings of modernity, neither are states that empower their citizens.


Qatar, the UAE and Singapore are all unique in their own ways. In many ways, they don’t fit the mold of the world’s average small state. Yet, they all offer lessons for other small states or territories aspiring to join the international community as independent countries.

Singapore, unlike Qatar and the UAE has established itself as a model of good governance and of a small state that turned the liability of having no resources but its human capital into an asset.

The UAE has so far succeeded in positioning itself as the small state most capable of punching above its weight.

Qatar, for its part, has become the example of a small state capable of resisting heavy external pressure.

Ultimately, however, Singapore may prove to have a more sustainable survival strategy by grounding it in institutions, performance and human capital.

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About James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist. [Singapore]

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