Qatar is carving out a leading role for itself within international diplomacy - particularly in light of recent events in Afghanistan - through its mediation-oriented foreign policy. This occurs after — and despite — three years of political and diplomatic crisis between the Quartet (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates-UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt) and Qatar. Doha’ diplomacy appears better positioned — and influential — today than before the eruption of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) rift, occurred in 2017. This reveals how Qatari foreign policy has remained the same in spite of pressures, cultivating autonomous alliances and strategies.
Since the 2000s, Qatar has focused on mediation to affirm its international prestige, as insightfully explained by Mehran Kamrava in his 2011 essay “Mediation and Qatari Foreign Policy”. For this reason, Doha’s recent diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan aren’t surprising.
However, differently from the past (for instance, Qatari mediation in Yemen, Lebanon, and Sudan), Qatar’s diplomacy in Afghanistan now stands at the crossroads of a broader geopolitical game involving most of the regional and international state players: the United States, China, Russia, Iran, Turkey, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, to cite only the most influential among them.
Such a diplomatic window builds upon the autonomous foreign policy Qatar has continued to exert despite the crisis that divided the GCC —a political rift formally reassembled in January 2021 with the “Al-Ula Declaration”.
As regards Afghanistan, Doha is in fact benefitting — at least so far — from its 2013 risky choice, when it allowed the Taliban to open a political office to engage in talks with the US hosting, since 2018, Taliban’s leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Doha was later the venue for the inter-Afghan talks and US-Taliban negotiations, which resulted in the signature of the “Doha Agreements” in 2020.
Therefore, it is not by chance that Qatar was the only Arab country invited, on August 30th, 2021, to the US-organized virtual meeting discussing a coordinated approach after the American withdrawal from Kabul. Qatar has so far successfully managed to present itself as the main facilitator — and possibly mediator — among a variety of actors with interests in Afghanistan.
Qatar’s diplomatic window in Afghanistan is also boosted by logistics capabilities, security ties, and the media. The American base in the emirate, al-Udeid, and Doha’s airport were crucial during the US military withdrawal and civilian evacuation flights from the capital. Alongside Turkey, Qatar is sending technical civilian assistance to reopen Kabul’s international airport. Before the Taliban entered the capital, Qatar (a NATO partner as part of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative-ICI) was in talks with NATO to provide a military base to train Afghan Special Forces after the Atlantic Alliance’s departure.
Moreover, the US, the UK, Japan, and Netherlands are relocating their Afghan diplomatic missions to Doha. Meanwhile, the Qatari-based TV channel Al Jazeera is playing a prominent role in covering the Taliban’s first pictures and declarations in Kabul.
In terms of strategic leverage, today Qatar is the best positioned country within the GCC as regards Afghanistan. Differently from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Doha didn’t recognize the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate between 1996-2001. By contrast, both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi suffered from overexposure in Afghanistan: in the 1980s, Saudi Arabia supported the mujaheddin against the Soviets, while the UAE (a NATO partner as part of the ICI) deployed ground troops in the country since 2003 focusing on Afghan security forces’ training and counterinsurgency. In 2017, five Emirati diplomats, included the Ambassador, were killed by a supposedly Taliban car bomb in Kandahar.
At a diplomatic level, the UAE still has something to play: Abu Dhabi has hosted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani since he left Kabul and has long-time connections with the Massoud clan.
In Afghanistan and beyond, the regional scenario has rapidly transformed. In this context, the UAE — and most of all Saudi Arabia — are not interested in fuelling further tensions and rivalries in the GCC — this time regarding Kabul — as they are contemporarily engaged in de-escalation in the Middle East. In fact, the Saudis and the Emiratis have begun, since 2021, to reduce tensions and open lines of communication with Iran and Turkey, who are Qatar’s close allies. Three recent events help make sense of this shifting picture: Saudi and Iranian officials are engaging in direct talks in Iraq; the Abu Dhabi crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nayhan and the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan had a constructive phone call; and all Middle Eastern big players joined the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership in late August 2021.
Nevertheless, intra-GCC competition still persists and may resurface in light of recent events in Afghanistan. All GCC members aim to preserve good relations with the United States and fight the ISIS terrorist threat. But Qatar’s diplomatic activism could trigger opposite Gulf alignments, and then counter alignments, around the Afghan issue. As the UAE prepares to sit as non-permanent member in the United Nations Security Council for 2022-23, the Emiratis are not willing to concede too much ‘diplomatic stage’ to the Qataris.
On international diplomacy, Qatar is ambitiously working to build a common ground around Afghanistan among top players, including the United States and NATO allies as well as China and Russia. Doha’s message to the Taliban for an inclusive government and to “combat terrorism” has to be framed as part of said diplomatic effort. For Qatar, some sort of American and Chinese consensus on Afghan diplomacy is fundamental: Doha — as other GCC countries — can preserve its national interests only by keeping parallel partnerships with the US and China, thus balancing security imperatives and economic-commercial ties.
Whether Doha will decisively contribute to forging a broad diplomatic accord on Afghanistan, and how much leverage it really has on the Taliban, is still to be seen. In past mediation experiences, the emirate proved to be capable at reducing tensions, not at durable conflict resolution, as Kamrava rightly noted in 2011. In the meantime, Qatar shows that its mediation efforts are producing results, if only to strengthen its role on the international stage.
 For instance, Qatar mediated: in Yemen, between the Houthis and the government (2007-2009); in Lebanon, among rival factions in 2008; in Sudan, between the government and Darfur’s rebels in 2009.