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The tiny Persian Gulf nation of Qatar occupies a big role on the world stage

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The tiny Persian Gulf nation of Qatar has come to occupy a big role on the world stage. It has roughly 300,000 citizens, lots of expat workers and wealth from fossil fuels. And it has become a crucial mediator in many of the Middle East's conflicts. Yesterday, Qatar announced it brokered a new deal between Israel and Hamas to allow medicine to be delivered to Israeli captives in exchange for increased aid for Palestinians in Gaza. Qatar also helped negotiate the release of Israeli hostages back in November. So what does Qatar gain? Our co-host Leila Fadel spoke with Mehran Kamrava about that. He is a professor of government at Georgetown University in Qatar.

MEHRAN KAMRAVA: In the 1990s, as part of its survival strategy, Qatar decided to minimize the number of its potential adversaries and to maximize its friends. And so it decided to be friendly with as many countries and different actors as possible. And, of course, some of those actors and countries, Qatar was more friendly with. It houses the largest U.S. base outside of the United States, a few kilometers from Doha. And at the same time, in order not to antagonize a country like Iran, it continued to maintain relations with Iran. And this policy of kind of maintaining as many friends enabled Qatar to maintain open lines of communication with a number of different actors who wouldn't otherwise talk to each other.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: So in the past, Qatar's ambitions and its approach to have a very non-adversarial relationship with as many countries as possible has ruffled feathers in the neighborhood, especially its relationship with Iran. So where does that leave Qatar with its Arab neighbors? - I mean, especially after a diplomatic crisis in 2017 that saw an economic and diplomatic blockade from Saudi Arabia and the UAE until 2021.

KAMRAVA: One of the problems with maintaining as many friends as possible and as few adversaries as possible is that if you look at it from the outside, that foreign policy does not look coherent because sometimes you're talking to groups that you consider as your adversary. Throughout the 2000, the Qataris lost sight of their small size and became extremely confident to the point of coming across as, at times, even arrogant by countries that saw themselves more appropriate to positions of leadership, namely Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. And so there was an effort, first in 2014 with the withdrawal of ambassadors, and then in 2017 with the blockade, to put Qatar in what was considered its proper place, to teach it a lesson.

FADEL: How important is a role like the one that Qatar plays? I mean, having somebody who speaks to everybody, which is a very difficult position to be in, but it also means there's an open line of communication, even when it seems closed.

KAMRAVA: When the United States wanted to talk to the Taliban, it was through the good offices of the Qatari government where those negotiations happen. When the U.S. wanted to exchange prisoners with Iran and affect the transfer of Iranian funds from South Korea, it was through Qatar that that happened. And now in the latest episode, we see that it was through Qatar that mediation resulted in the release of Israeli hostages that have been held by Hamas so far. So Qatar's so-called maverick foreign policy has actually been extremely useful for the United States.

FADEL: That's Mehran Kamrava. He's a professor of government at Georgetown University in Qatar. Thank you so much for your time.

KAMRAVA: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.