The end of the embargo on Qatar and the resulting restoration of its ties with the United Arab Emirates will not resolve over their deep-seated differences. But the two sheikhdoms are strikingly alike in many ways, especially in their skillful exploitation of similar economic and demographic circumstances to acquire political clout across the Middle East and North Africa.
In the past decade, they have both punched above their weight as regional powers, using financial, political and military tools to wield ever-expanding influence across the MENA region. They’ve also attached themselves to powerful global and regional alliances — on the same side under the American security umbrella (the UAE and Qatar both host U.S. military bases), and on opposite sides (Qatar also hosts a Turkish military base, much to the UAE’s chagrin).
In population terms, the UAE and Qatar are among the smallest Arab nations, their economies making up for a paucity of citizenry by employing large phalanxes of foreign workers. But their lack of demographic weight has been no impediment to their growing regional and international role. On the contrary, when taken in combination with the absolute power of their rulers, the lack of numbers may have helped make both states more politically stable and economically insulated than their neighbors.
It may be useful to think of the UAE and Qatar as company-states, in which the ruling dynasties exercise power and control resources, analogous to a managing board of directors. The citizens, 1.4 million Emiratis and 313,000 Qataris, are shareholders without voting rights, entitled to dividends in the form of the highest per-capita incomes in the world. The expats — who make up for 88.52% and 90% of the total population in the UAE and Qatar respectively — are workers who receive wages but have little say in how state is run. (Expats have almost no prospect of naturalization.)
It is no mere happenstance that the UAE and Qatar experienced none of the popular uprisings that wracked the Arab world in 2011, including their fellow members in the Gulf Cooperation Council: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait. Expats, after all, have little interest in toppling the regimes that make their employment possible — and have the power to expel them.
And although the economies of both countries have been hit by the weakening of oil and gas prices, the brunt of the pain has been borne by expats; the lifestyles and livelihoods of most citizens have remained largely unchanged. Qataris were able to ride out the embargo as well as lower gas prices without much economic hardship.
On the foreign-policy front, both countries have been able to develop and maintain a high degree of autonomy from their bigger Gulf Arab neighbors, and have grown increasingly influential in the MENA region and the Horn of Africa. Both are also critical actors in the broad regional arrangements that involve Israel, Iran and Turkey.
Here, too, the small populations have been an advantage: In the pursuit of foreign-policy goals, the rulers of the UAE and Qatar are much less constrained than their peers in larger states by national popular sentiment or other internal constituencies. This makes it relatively easier for the UAE than, say, Saudi Arabia, to seek normalization of relations with Israel.
The region’s major players, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are facing major economic and political constraints to sustaining their regional influence: The quest for hegemony comes at a high cost. In comparison, the UAE and Qatar are far better positioned to expand their influence, boost their autonomy — and bear the cost of doing so.
But why have the other small nations in the GCC been unable to follow their example? After all, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman share similar traits: small populations, hydrocarbon wealth and absolute monarchies. None of them has achieved comparable regional influence.
But the UAE and Qatar are different from the rest in important ways. They have the highest per-capita GDP in the GCC: $43,000 and $62,000 respectively in 2019, compared with $15,000, $24,000 and $32,000 for Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait, respectively. They also have the highest proportion of expats in their populations. The rulers of the UAE and Qatar have used their advantages to pursue ambitious foreign policies, while the smaller sheikhdoms have been more cautious.
Now reconnected by the end of the embargo, the UAE and Qatar may be no closer to reconciling their differences, but their rulers would do well to reflect on what they have in common.- Bloomberg