Rich though they are, Qataris do not like losing money. Investing in Sudan is no different: it requires a return. On April 2, Qatar’s emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani spent a few hours in Khartoum; at the end of the visit Sudan’s minister of finance announced $1 billion would be deposited by Qatar in the Central Bank of Sudan, to shore up foreign exchange reserves.
To explain the emir’s visit and the money as primarily a Qatari effort to find a friend amidst regional isolation, and/or as support to an ideologically akin state is unsatisfactory. Paramount are simpler Qatari interests: economic diversification, food security, maintaining an independent foreign policy and making money.
While the intra-GCC dispute, with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on one axis and defiant Qatar on the other, has been remarkably public, from Doha one does not get the sense the Qataris feel or face an existential threat. It would be foolish not to be worried, but even unhappy Saudis and Emiratis prize regional stability and can only go so far in their attempts to change Qatar’s policy positions. Some of these attempts are laughable: the Saudis are deluded if they seriously think Qatar would shutter Al Jazeera on their say-so, for example.
In this neighbourhood spat the issues are many, and relations with Sudan probably do not even feature in the top five: relations with Egypt, relations with Iran, the role of Al Jazeera, engagement in Syria, and the treatment of Qataris detained abroad are all more important areas of dispute. So while GCC politics will probably be strained for some time to come, outreach to Sudan cannot really be explained by Qatari desperation to find or buy friends. (And with friends like Sudan…) Consider opportunity instead: if Saudi Arabia or the UAE turn away from Sudan as a place to invest, obtain land or labour, the field is clear for others to enter.
The second commonly heard thesis, supporting Sudan is motivated by a common Islamist orientation, overlooks one important fact: Sudan’s Islamist credentials (suspect though they maybe) aren’t freshly obtained. The Qataris aren’t naïve: they know just how Islamist Sudan is. Doha didn’t wake up one morning and decide Sudan should be admitted to some special club of Wahhabi state wannabes. Timing, and events elsewhere, are more important: Sudan can commiserate in Qatar’s loss of the Morsi regime in Egypt, even though no matter the regime in Cairo the fundaments of Sudan-Egypt relations will be the same until the Nile dries up: water and proximity. The adventurism of Addis 1995 casts a much shorter shadow today.
Instead, Doha’s engagement with Khartoum mostly brings credit to Qatar: a poor and troubled state with lots of economic potential is grateful, whatever it receives; whomever runs Sudan in future is likely to be orientated towards dependent relations with Doha; the opportunity to be an outsize player in Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s back yard; more opportunities for Qatar’s expeditionary foreign policy. Qatar is not primarily responsible for failures to implement the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (DDPD), or for the worsening of the situation in Darfur, even if the Qataris have failed to fulfil their DDPD funding pledges. (No one else has, either.) But having taken on the Darfur file, getting rid of it is hard: to be told the Doha process has failed and there’s little Qatar can do as remedy is not a message Doha is keen to hear, even if privately, they know it is true. And so, at the root of Qatari foreign policy, pragmatism: why contribute money to a failing process in Darfur? And why offer Sudan a billion dollars with no strings attached? Khartoum is grateful for any support; better to keep the Sudanese in throe with scraps and promises. Even friends don’t just give away a billion dollars.
(For more background to Sudan-Qatar relations, see ‘Qatar_Sudan_ties_are_laced_with_Doha_pragmatism,’ August 2013, an article to which I contributed. I am required to note that this is an electronic version of an article published in The Oxford Analytica Daily Brief.)