For much of the last two decades, few Middle East experts gave serious consideration to Qatar, its governance structure or its decision-making process. The few and far away exceptions were scholarly articles, some admittedly very insightful, that noted Doha's mediation role in trying to solve various diplomatic puzzles, such as the Lebanese crisis of 2008 or the Sudanese civil war. With the uprisings that swept the Arab world in 2011, journalists, pundits and scholars started paying closer attention, as Qatar played a key role in several of the upheavals. For example, the state-owned Al Jazeera television network became the voice of many revolutionaries. Qatar's air force joined the NATO-led campaign against Muammar Qadhafi in Libya, and Doha funded and armed Libyan and Syrian rebels. At the time, a flurry of articles discussing how Qatar "was punching above its weight" were published. The attention grew, even after the revolutionary dust started to settle as many Islamists — some enjoying close ties to Qatar's ruling elite — won successive elections from Morocco to Egypt.
Doha's role in the Arab uprisings put a swift end to the lull in Qatar-related research. By 2012, the sprint was on to publish the first book on Qatar, and the last few years have witnessed an explosion of manuscripts in the United States, the UK and France. However, the quality of the work has varied widely. Most of the books published in the Anglo-American world were respectable, but usually focused on one aspect of the emirate, such as the "subtle nature" of Qatari regional power or the sustainability of its tribal sociopolitical order. Others were excessively academic and not accessible to a wide readership. Many publications on Qatar from France were either too descriptive and lacking in analysis or crossed into the territory of conspiracy theories.
Having waited a few years, the respected scholar Kristian Coates Ulrichsen has published the first well-researched book assessing Doha's approach to the Arab uprisings. By taking his time, Ulrichsen was also able to consider the impact of two watershed events of the summer of 2013: the royal transition of power from Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani to his son Tamim and the coup d'état against Mohammad Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt.
Qatar and the Arab Spring is split in two equal parts followed by an epilogue. In the first section, Ulrichsen recounts the story of Qatar's rise from sleepy city-state to pivotal regional player with ties to international partners. The author takes a familiar route, retelling the story of how the discovery of oil and gas enabled Qatar to leap from a disenfranchised tribal society dependent on pearl trading to a globally connected metropolis. Ulrichsen then details how senior Qatari officials skillfully integrated their country into the rapidly changing international system. He focuses on five major elements: the nurturing of Al Jazeera, the positioning of Doha as an educational and cultural hub, the hosting of major international sporting events, the development of Qatar's tourism sector and the (ironic) attempt to present Qatar as an environment-friendly country. He then elaborates on the drivers of Qatari regional policies, correctly arguing that Qatar's mediation role and its balancing between regional powers — such as Israel and Iran — is a calculated strategy of survival for a small state geographically caught between larger and more powerful neighbors.
Diving into interesting granular details, Ulrichsen examines Qatar's foreign policy elite during the Arab uprisings. By "elites," he essentially means a handful of individuals: then-Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, his prime and foreign minister, his second wife, and his then-heir-apparent Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Ulrichsen understandably concludes that having such a small number of senior policy makers helps to hasten the decision-making process, but, as several interviewed public- and private-sector employees told him, there is a "growing mismatch between leadership intent and diplomatic capacity" (p. 92).
Ulrichsen starts the second part by describing how the lack of domestic constraints — an essentially apolitical population — enabled Qatar to leverage its longstanding ties to Islamists and embrace the changes sweeping the Arab world, with the sole exception of Bahrain. He then dedicates a chapter to Qatar's approach to the Libyan and Syrian uprisings. According to Ulrichsen, the results of Doha's support for regional change have been more or less negative. For example, Qatari leaders' carefully guarded image as impartial brokers came to end when they tried to "pick winners," such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Ulrichsen also highlights the growing, but still very manageable, signs of domestic discontent against the ruling family's economic and social policies.
In the epilogue, Ulrichsen recounts the peaceful transition of power from Emir Hamad to Tamim. Looking forward, the author believes that the new Qatari leadership will concentrate on domestic issues — such as organizing the 2022 soccer World Cup and addressing the social malaise taking root within the indigenous population — and on recalibrating its foreign policy by aligning itself closer to its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) neighbors. Events taking place after the publication of the book have proven Ulrichsen right. In late 2014, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Manama agreed to return their ambassadors to Doha, bringing an end to an eight-month dispute over Qatar's support for Islamists. Likewise, earlier in 2015, Qatar joined the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthi-led government in Yemen.
With Qatar and the Arab Spring, Ulrichsen offers a clear, concise and reader-friendly evaluation of Doha's foreign policy. Readers of all stripes, from scholars of the Middle East to government officials to casual readers, will all find it informative.