The rise of Qatar has been one of the most remarkable developments in the recent history of the Middle East. How this small, oil-rich Gulf state built Al Jazeera and parleyed the TV station's influence into a diplomatic role across the region is an insufficiently explored issue.
The list of the monarchy's achievements is impressive, even putting aside how they secured the football World Cup for 2022. Qatari diplomats have mediated in Lebanon, helped rejuvenate the Arab League, led condemnation of Bashir al-Assad and joined the fight against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi. In a way, Qatar has become one of the region's lynchpins, second only to Saudi Arabia as the West's go-to country. The Prime Minister is said to speak regularly to his Qatari counterpart as part of a relationship that may now have surpassed the considerable UK-Omani link.
Yet in this strong UK-Qatar relationship lies more than just diplomatic partnership and inward investment. Dangers lurk too, for many of these Gulf states are not only undemocratic, but also often undermine Britain's goals and credibility elsewhere.
Britain is slowly getting a reputation for diplomatic two-facedness, willing to talk tough and fight hard for freedoms across North Africa, but quick to defend the likes of Qatar, Saudia Arabia, Oman and — to a lesser degree — Bahrain. Among European allies, there were raised eyebrows when the UK apparently managed to limit the mandate of the new European ‘Arab Spring’ envoy, Spanish diplomat Bernadino Leon, steering him away from the Gulf.
A strong British relationship with the Gulf states — especially a rising power like Qatar — is important, indeed unavoidable. But Cameron must be careful to temper his enthusiasm for our new-found Gulf allies. Why Labour has not made more of this, taking the opportunity to draw a line under Tony Blair's Saudi connection and differentiate itself from the government's policy, is perplexing. But it should not excuse the Prime Minister from thinking hard about how to balance his Gulf policy.