Almost precisely twenty years after 9/11, the world seemed stunned in disbelief as the Taliban reclaimed control over Afghanistan within a matter of days. Video footage of chaotic conditions recording the United States’ hectic evacuation efforts and widely circulated across broadcast and social media, led many observers to once again question the purpose of the 20-year military campaign. America’s “longest war” came to an ignominious end with the departure of the last American plane in late August. With the West’s failure to win the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan people, deeper concerns quickly emerged about how the world could engage with a Taliban-led Kabul to prevent conditions in Afghanistan from deteriorating. As these concerns grew, Qatar was able to step in and leverage some of its most useful diplomatic assets.
From the onset of the U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan, U.S. and other international officials publicly praised the significance of Doha’s diplomatic contributions to the effort – not only as a host and logistical hub but also as an intermediary for negotiations between the Taliban and the West. It was Qatar that provided an appropriate, reliable platform for negotiations and ultimately helped the retreating powers disengage. Today, any forward-facing dialogue regarding Afghanistan remains best facilitated through Doha.
Qatar’s emergence as a key diplomatic partner during the evacuation was not a coincidence, but the result of the small peninsular emirate’s continued soft power diplomacy over the past 25 years. Along with an array of sophisticated long-term measures towards economic diversification, infrastructure, human and societal development across almost every sector, Doha’s calculations have included establishing Qatar as a diplomatic hub and an essential member of the current multilateral system.
Humanitarian aid has served as a linchpin for Qatar’s efforts to secure a leading role as an international mediator. While Qatar has repeatedly underscored the importance of separating politics from critical support for the Afghan people, humanitarian aid does have a long tradition in the Arab world.
Humanitarian Aid in the Gulf
There are four main foreign aid donors in the Gulf region: Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia (KSA), and the United Arab Emirates (UAE); of these, the UAE and Qatar are the leading contributors today. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently reaffirmed Qatar’s vital role in the humanitarian context, noting that it had consistently provided not only dedicated aid, but also financial assistance and strategic support for emergency programs. Gulf donors have typically considered aid as a duty under the South-South-Cooperation. In the understanding of Arab solidarity, humanitarian and development aid are interlaced, and not intended to be reciprocal – a notion well-reflected, for instance, in the Islamic concepts of ‘Zakat,’ a mandatory, charitable contribution, and ‘Sadaqah,’ which can be outlined as voluntary offering without seeking anything in return.
Over the years, perceptions have evolved in line with the pioneering Gulf states’ remarkably rapid development. During the 1970s and 1980s, humanitarian assistance was typically motivated by religious and ideological thought, given to mold regional identities and forge alliances among cultural partners. The 1990s saw a sizable decline and cutback in such financial support.
Since the turn of the millennium – and particularly since the 9/11 attacks – humanitarian aid from the Gulf has become much more transparent, and flows of aid can be analyzed more accurately. The largest proportion of aid from the four biggest Gulf donors can now be seen as going primarily to recipients in bilateral contexts. International organizations continue to receive funds for further distribution, but in smaller dimensions. In both areas, aid from the Gulf has mostly been a response to catastrophic incidents or conflicts.
Humanitarian Aid in Qatar
In Qatar, government entities, private organizations, and individuals each separately engage in charity and humanitarian aid. The country actively implements its global humanitarian aid activities at both the intergovernmental level and with multilateral organizations. Its efforts also include domestic-origin corporate resources with the clout of a global brand. A prominent example is the nation’s flag carrier, Qatar Airways, which, under the initiative titled “WeQare,” is a strategic partner to the UNHCR. Through WeQare, Qatar Airways Cargo supports projects along its “four pillars” – economic, environmental, social, and cultural – while promoting the global air cargo industry and taking actions to benefit the global public good. By all accounts, Qatar Airways Cargo takes this pledge very seriously. Humanitarian relief shipments, once booked, are never replaced by commercial shipments even those contracted before departure. Beyond the standard corporate social responsibility exercise, WeQare’s global humanitarian mandate has noticeably transcended into the national airline’s corporate philosophy and the way it delivers its work.
Leaning on Doha’s state-of-the art infrastructures at Hamad International Airport (HIA), Qatar Airways Cargo has likewise been instrumental in providing several countries around the world with urgently needed COVID-19 supplies during the most intense periods of the pandemic. Along with its air transport capacities, Qatar also employs maritime transportation to deliver in-kind aid contributions globally. In the summer of 2021, for instance, as India reckoned with the emergence of the “Delta” variant, the country delivered 1,200 metric tons of liquid medical oxygen in support of its healthcare system.
Qatar’s employs a multi-faceted help pattern. On the one hand, the country publicly offers bilateral aid of its own volition with enthusiasm. On the other, it cooperates extensively with multilateral organizations such as the UN, a clear reflection of the country’s reinforced commitment to multilateralism, especially following its four-year blockade. Among other engagements, Qatar supports the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs of the United Nations (UNOCHA), which brings together actors in humanitarian aid to optimize and coordinate coherent responses to emergencies worldwide. In 2020, Qatar was the only one of the four biggest Gulf donors to hand out un-earmarked funds, amounting to $10 million, leaving it up to the UN’s discretion to allocate these funds most appropriately. All other contributions from Qatar to the UNOCHA are earmarked funds, which in 2020 covered 1 percent of the overall budget of UNOCHA, a similar value to the entire contribution of the European Commission for that year. Apart from the UNHCR and UNOCHA, Qatar also supports the United Nations Office for South-South-Cooperation (UNOSSC). The UNOSSC generally fosters self-reliance among developing countries, and triangular cooperation in the context of UNOSSC means that a donor, in collaboration with a multilateral organization, facilitates greater “south-south cooperation,” for example through funding.
Like the other Gulf donors, Qatar favors bilateral humanitarian aid. Two main agencies are deployed for its implementation: Qatar Charity and the Qatar Red Crescent Society (QRCS). Qatar Charity has often been a first responder in times of crises. The organization has been acknowledged as a significant partner to the UNHCR; it has contributed more than $48 million for internally displaced persons and refugees since 2012, reaching more than 1 million beneficiaries over that period. However, critics in both the West and the Arab world have argued that the group’s activities sometimes blur the line between humanitarian effort and support for questionable groups, as in Syria or Libya.
The QRCS is a member of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and was founded in 1978, making it Qatar’s first volunteering charitable organization.In 2017, the QRCS extended more than $46 million in humanitarian aid, with its main engagements in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria and Iraq. These are complemented by the group’s seasonal and relief campaigns. In addition to its role as a charitable group, the QCRS has also negotiated access to populations in difficult conflict environments, such as in Sudan, Somalia, or Afghanistan.
Doha’s Humanitarian Diplomacy
By combining financial aid with mediation and negotiation, Qatar has sensibly and effectively cultivated a number of key partnerships to achieve its humanitarian and development goals. Given the complexity of the modern world’s geopolitics, financial help alone often falls short of actually addressing the developing world’s most important problems. While some analysts have accused Qatar of cynically intertwining financial aid with political objectives, the concept of humanitarian diplomacy often includes both as two sides of the same coin, as the United States’ USAID program freely admits. Humanitarian diplomacy can require the exertion of financial clout, while building soft power at the same time.
Of all the Gulf donors, Qatar has been the most active in ensuring its involvement in high-profile diplomatic and mediation efforts. The approach has sometimes been dubbed as ‘hyperactive foreign policy,’ although that moniker fails to consider that Qatar has clearly interpreted the use of soft power diplomacy to resolve armed conflicts, and mediate between conflicting nations, as a moral obligation, rooted in its ethical standards and religious convictions. Article 7 of Qatar’s 2003 constitution lays out and formally defines the nation’s commitment to conflict mediation.
Meanwhile, Doha’s foreign policy initiative in humanitarian projects and overall conflict resolution cannot be seen as detached from the interests of its security guarantor, the United States. Afghanistan perhaps being the most prominent case in point. After the U.S.-led alliance withdrew, Qatar assumed a unique and indispensable role in facilitating contacts with the new Taliban government and ensuring a peaceful evacuation process. In late 2021, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that Qatar would represent Washington’s interests in Kabul for the foreseeable future. Building on its traditionally strong ties with Washington, this development has further elevated U.S.-Qatari relations, reaffirming an array of shared security and economic interests.
In the Gulf’s regional context, Doha stresses the relevance of diplomacy, attempting to strike a balance between Saudi Arabia on one side and Iran on the other. Qatar’s ability to maintain political autonomy and integrity in this situation is rooted in its internal cohesion, financial power, and gravitas on the international stage. It is worth highlighting that independence for Doha does not mean a diversion from multilateral obligations. On the contrary, Qatar respects the UN Security Council Sanctions List in full, and has always conducted its humanitarian and diplomatic efforts within boundaries set by UN.
Doha’s diplomatic track record of either directly mediating or providing a negotiating venue is impressive, not merely because of the country’s obviously small geographical size, but because of the enduring settlements that Qatari diplomats have helped to achieve. Long before hosting talks between the Taliban and Western leaders in Doha, Qatar played a key role in finalizing the Doha Agreement during the 2008 Lebanon conflict, the cease-fire agreement in the Yemen conflict in 2008, the cease-fire agreement in the Second Sudanese Civil War in 2010, the Doha Agreement in the Fatah-Hamas conflict in 2012, and further diplomatic successes in Western Sahara, Algeria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Somalia, among others.
Meanwhile, Qatar’s aid to Gaza, while controversial in some corners, is likely among the biggest and longest-standing pillars of the country’s humanitarian and diplomatic aid efforts. Reuters reports that Doha’s financial contributions to Gaza may have amounted to more than $1 billion since 2014, with another $500 million pledged in May 2021. In its distribution of aid, Qatar has worked with other stakeholders in the Israel-Palestine conflict – chiefly the United Nations, the United States, and Israel – to ensure that its funding aids the civilian population of the Gaza strip most effectively. While Qatar has so far ruled out adopting the Abraham Accords, the 2020 pact which formally normalized ties between Israel, Bahrain, the UAE, Morocco and Sudan, the Accords did not negatively impact Qatar’s collaboration on the Palestine issue. Doha’s recent signing of an agreement with Israel in regards to diamond trade indeed illustrates the continuation of pragmatic bilateral relations.
Qatar’s commitment to diplomatic conflict resolution was equally visible when four of its neighbors put pressure on the country itself during the 2017-2021 blockade. To resolve the crisis, Doha formally called upon international institutions and the international rule of law. Remarkably, Qatar’s humanitarian foreign policy was not significantly affected by the rift, which demonstrated to many outside observers the country’s consistency in upholding its international commitments and maintaining both its regional and international responsibilities.
Qatar’s Relief Efforts in Response to COVID-19
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Qatar has stayed steadfast to its international support commitments. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, the Qatar Fund for Development, Qatar Charity, QRCS, and Qatar’s private sector have each delivered humanitarian relief contributions around the world. So far, Qatar’s total governmental and non-governmental financial aid exceeds $88 million, with assistance provided to the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UNHCR, and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), as well as 78 other countries. Along with other in-kind contributions to countries around the world, Qatar Airways supported more than 1 million passengers globally who found themselves stranded while traveling during the pandemic’s first phase.
The engagement of Qatar Airways in Qatar’s relief efforts as part of the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic potentially marks a new quality of aid from Qatar, especially in the sensitive area of in-kind contributions. Qatar Airways and its cargo arm possess significant resources and infrastructures to serve the globe with first-responder capabilities. The existing infrastructure at Hamad International Airport includes temperature-controlled facilities that could easily be used for medical purposes, such as for the global distribution of vaccines or other key pharmaceuticals. As Qatar provides help to countries in the region and throughout Africa, adding to the country’s already-superior air transport capacities may prove to be a critical asset in future disaster recovery efforts. Qatar Airways Cargo may have a double advantage in this point, as it has established routes to India, where key pharmaceutical producers are located. The carrier could efficiently link centers of production in India with centers of need in Africa, a key partnership for future humanitarian aid scenarios.
Looking at the example of refugee evacuation from Afghanistan, Doha’s logistics capabilities played a key role in missions from the United States and other Western nations in 2021. Hamad International Airport (HIA) could be further expanded to integrate a dedicated hub for humanitarian logistics. Resources at the airport could serve as physical storage and distribution centers, a function not new to Qatar. During its four-year blockade, the country also established a Strategic Food Storage Facility (SFSF) at its new maritime port, ensuring its provision with over 20 key food and supply items to become independent from imports in times of conflict. The learning points from this project will surely help to establish the proposed “Strategic Humanitarian Supply Storage Facility.”
In summary, Qatar’s humanitarian and diplomatic efforts have been remarkably consistent for decades. Recent geopolitical developments, and Qatar’s widely-lauded response to them, give reason to believe that the country will soon attain an even more vital position on the global chessboard. Qatar might use its influence for its own purposes but will almost certainly also use it to make itself available as a center for dialogue and negotiation at the crossroads of East and West.
For now, Afghanistan continues to be a main hotspot for the world. Observers have described the current conditions there as a humanitarian catastrophe. The economy has largely ceased to function, unemployment has soared, and it is clear that the country will continue to need substantial support from the international community. Doha will continue to have an imperative role in this process, both in the immediate and in the long term.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.