This week, 48 Iranian prisoners being held by rebels in Syria were freed, in return for 2,100 prisoners being held by the Syrian authorities. It was one of the biggest prisoner swaps since the uprising against Bashar al-Assad began nearly two years ago. But that is not the only interesting thing about the deal, which was brokered by Qatar and Turkey.
Qatar is a tiny Gulf state. Rich in oil and gas, it has a population of just 1.7 million. For many years, the country was viewed mainly as an appendage to Saudi Arabia, its larger and more dominant neighbour. But over the last two decades, it has deliberately sought to increase its global profile. This can be seen in the purchase of football teams, expensive art collections, and skyscrapers worldwide, and the unprecedented opening up to foreigners that will come when it hosts the Fifa World Cup in 2022.
Yet it has also taken on an increasingly important diplomatic role in the Middle East. The rather frenetic pace of this foreign policy is evidenced by a look at this week: in addition to brokering the Syrian deal, Qatar's emir signed nine economic accords with Algeria and gave Egypt an extra $2.5bn in aid money. This is on top of an on-going programme of reconstruction in Gaza.
The sudden mushrooming of Qatar's international activities is actually the culmination of nearly two decades of efforts to increase the country's global role. Since 1995, when the current emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, took over, the small nation has been looking outwards, most notably with the establishment of Al-Jazeera – the television network which dominates the Arab world – and Qatar Airways.
While the country has played a key role in mediation efforts in Lebanon, Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti in recent years, it was the Arab Spring of 2011 that really established it as a major player. Qatar supported many of the rebellions sweeping the Middle East with diplomatic action, money, and weapons. It actively supported the fall of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya and is working for the removal of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Inevitably, these actions have not come without controversy. Qatar has been accused of double standards for failing to support the popular uprising in Bahrain, instead standing with the regime and Saudi Arabia. Bahraini revolutionaries point out that their uprising gets barely any airtime on Al-Jazeera when compared with other movements in the region. Others have seen Qatar's support for the ousting of dictators in Syria and Libya as evidence that it is acting in western interests. Certainly, the country is a close ally of the US, which has a substantial military base there. This military base is the headquarters of operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But despite this, and its close alliance with Saudi Arabia, Qatar retains a good relationship with Iran, demonstrating a somewhat more complicated role.
Another charge levelled at Qatar is hypocrisy, given that it funds revolutions in neighbouring states but remains an absolute monarchy. Elections have been proposed for this year but it remains to be seen how much impact this will have.
Given the rapid shift of power in the Middle East and the decline of traditional regional powerhouses, it is inevitable that someone would step up to fill the gap. Along with other Gulf states, Qatar has taken up this role enthusiastically. Whether this influence will be retained as other nations build up their nascent democracies – or whether the breakneck pace of foreign policy involvement will be matched by reform at home – remains to be seen as the new reality of the Middle East develops.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.