Russia Spreads Its Wings in the Gulf

Qatari cooperation with Russia reflects new global realities.

January 22, 2017

Qatari cooperation with Russia reflects new global realities.

A Qatari investment in Russian oil company Rosneft underscores the way in which Russia projecting itself as a key player on the world stage.

Owing to a combination of the rise of populists in the United States and Europe as well as Russia’s successful intervention in Syria do countries like Qatar sense a new reality.

Long under pressure from Western organizations to clean up their human rights act, they no longer feel the need to at least pay lip service to Western admonitions.

Dividends of Russia’s intervention in Syria

The Qatar Investment Authority’s decision to invest $5 billion in Rosneft had as much to do with geopolitics as with economics. Qatar sees the investment as a way to strengthen political links with Russia as well as develop new business opportunities.

The deal was remarkable for a country that uses investment as a tool to forge relations. To put it mildly, Russia and Qatar have not been the closest of friends.

Russia suspects Qatar of supporting militant Islamist and jihadist groups in Syria and of having done so earlier in Chechnya when Russia was battling Chechen Islamists there. Russian agents in 2004 assassinated Chechen rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in the Qatari capital of Doha.

Gulf states hedge their bets

All of this is not to say that Qatar is switching allegiances. Dealing with Russia is hedging its bets in recognition of the bear’s rise and the rise of populists in the West willing to deal with Russia.

At the same time, Qatar has said it is committed to investing more than $35 billion in the United States over the next five years, including $10 billion in infrastructure.

“A significant part of Qatar’s economic portfolio is its robust relationship with the United States,” said Qatari businessman Muhammad Al Misned in a Forbes magazine op-ed.

Few good options for Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia

Qatar’s hedging of its bets comes as it together with other backers of Syrian rebels opposed to President Bashar al-Assad suffered severe setbacks because of Russian backing for the Syrian leader and the fall of Aleppo, the rebels’ last urban stronghold.

The Russian-backed Syrian advances have left Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia with few good options to shape the battlefield by funding and arming the rebels.

The weakening of the West

In the wake of winning hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup, Qatar has had to contend with human rights and trade union activists who used the Gulf state’s World Cup hosting rights as leverage to demand an end to kafala, the labor sponsorship system that puts employees at the mercy of their employers.

The rise of Russia and the populists appears to have emboldened Qatar to backtrack on pledges it made to reform, if not eliminate the kafala system.

In a move that has undermined whatever confidence existed in Qatar’s sincerity and willingness to work with its critics, the country has backtracked on the easing of exit visa restrictions for migrant workers.

FIFA to the rescue?

Human Rights Watch charges that “Migrant workers will not be able to switch employers, even if the workers experience abuse, and will still need their employer’s permission to leave the country.”

FIFA president Gianni Infantino nonetheless insisted last month that “we will put pressure, we will continue to do that.” However, doubts are in order about FIFA’s already weak resolve to pressure Qatar to fundamentally reform if not abolish kafala.

The turning tide could prompt activists to attempt to step up pressure on Qatar with calls for boycotts.

Takeaways

Countries like Qatar no longer feel the need to at least pay lip service to Western admonitions.

Qatar dealing with Russia is hedging its bets in recognition of the rise of populists in the West ready to deal with Russia.

The rise of Russia and the populists has emboldened Qatar to backtrack on pledges it made to reform.