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How Germany Could Bring Qatar to See Reason

Qatar has made no secret of its ambitions to become a serious player on the international stage and has worked hard to foster closer relationships with Western states. Despite facing significant opposition from left-wing activists, Germany has actively worked to cultivate stable economic relations with the Gulf State, navigating through a number of controversies in the process.

The FIFA World Cup 2022 and the energy crisis following the Russian invasion of Ukraine gave Qatar the perfect platform to court European powers, consolidate its influence on the world stage and achieve its strategic geopolitical goals. European powers urgent need for new energy sources, notably for Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) opened up a space for Qatar to fill, and it has done so willingly.

But the geopolitical elevation of Qatar has not come without obstacles, notably scrutiny of its human rights record, its treatment of the LGBTQ+ community and other minorities, and the apparent incompatibility of the Qatari state with the progressive values championed in the West. Out of this complex situation has risen a strange geopolitical dichotomy between Qatar and Germany, where the latter, despite its robust defence of Western morality, has had to acquiesce Qatari ambitions in the face of cold, hard political realities. But this situation may yet yield an opportunity to bring the Gulf state to reason through diplomacy, especially in the field of human rights.

A Qatari solution to energy needs

The Russian invasion of Ukraine was a crisis for all of Europe, but particularly for Germany, which, in early 2022, imported 55% of its LNG from Russia. The sudden cut off required a quick solution to ensure German energy needs were met in the winters of 2022 and 2023.“The attack on Ukraine has changed an incredible number of things,” said Vice Chancellor and Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Action, Robert Habeck (Greens). “A fundamental part of the change is that Germany must become independent of Russian energy imports.” Consequently, in late 2022, it was announced that German companies had entered into a 15-year agreement to purchase 2 million tonnes annually as of 2026 of liquefied gas from Qatar.

Naturally, the deal immediately raised questions about Germany's stance on human rights in the Gulf, its commitment to achieving a carbon-neutral energy supply, and, more recently, Qatar’s latent support for Hamas, whose leadership it has been harbouring. Germany is of course a staunch supporter of Israel. "Future energy partnerships should only take place with partners who recognize Israel's right to exist and do not fight it," said Michael Kruse, the energy policy spokesperson of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), part of Scholz's coalition alongside the centre-left Social Democrats and Habeck's Greens.

The deal, announced by the state-owned Qatar Energy, is set to commence deliveries in 2026. Qatar will sell the gas to the US company ConocoPhillips, which will then transport it to the LNG terminal in Brunsbüttel, as stated by Qatar's energy minister, Saad bin Sherida Al Kaabi, in the capital, Doha. Germany's vocal criticism of Qatar's treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals and concerns about labour conditions for stadium construction workers at the World Cup seems to have been superseded by Germany’s critical energy needs. Habeck has indeed emphasised the necessity of diversifying energy sources due to the imperative to reduce dependence on Russian gas supplies.

Habeck underlined the importance of maintaining the supply of Qatari gas even during the recent corruption scandal that shook the heart of EU institutions. When confronted with the allegations that Qatar has been paying bribes to officials in Brussels and questioned on whether the gas deal should continue, he replied, simply: “These are two different things.”

Future moderation?

A recent visit from the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, to Berlin, was met with skepticism by many in both the Middle East and in Germany. But officials on both sides have been keen to promote a mutually beneficial relationship. Qatar has pursued an independent political path for several years, displaying ambition and assertiveness while avoiding influence from Saudi Arabian hegemony, and at times, conflicting with it (Qatar was under blockade by Saudi Arabia and its partners 2017-2021). Indeed, the Emir’s visit highlights how Qatar needs Germany as much as Germany needs Qatar. Widespread criticism in the lead up to and during the 2022 FIFA World Cup has endured, and Qatar is keen to clean its image in the West to facilitate trade deals and bilateral partnerships. Paul-Anton Krüger writes in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, "Economically, Qatar is not reliant on selling LNG to Germany. Politically, however, Doha has been seeking closer cooperation with Berlin for some time."

According to the Emir, when Western nations seek to purchase liquefied natural gas, critiques tend to diminish, with recurring accusations largely ignored. The Emir notes that Western media seldom highlights the progress and reforms in Qatar. Despite extensive initiatives, the emirate has struggled to garner significant sympathy in the West, receiving more attention than genuine understanding. Nevertheless, even this attention holds value for a country that, not long ago, was predominantly desert and places considerable importance on its traditions.

In this sense, Qatar seems to consistently act according to a rigid agenda, driven by support for radical Islamist groups, opposing Zionism and regional dictatorial regimes but it has often shown pragmatism and flexibility regarding political and economic interests. These are certainly policies contrarian to the progressive, Western values espoused by the German state, and are in direct conflict with its firm support for Israel. It would be "irresponsible not to use all contacts that can help in this dramatic situation," exclaimed Chancellor Scholz. "We are doing this in close coordination with Israel and for those who have been kidnapped by Hamas."

There is growing optimism that engaging with Germany could pave the way for Berlin to exert influence on Qatar, encouraging the small oil state to adopt a more moderate stance and align itself with pragmatic and liberal trends in the Middle East. This prospect is bold, given that Germany is currently demonstrating a keen interest in collaborating with Qatar, primarily driven by its reliance on Qatari fuels. Whether they have transpired after the emir's visit or not, discussions seem to be initiating concerning sophisticated military equipment. A delegation from Qatar visited Rheinmetall's factory in Hungary in late 2023, indicating a growing interest in advanced weaponry. The Qatari army has been examining this issue for a number of years, and various projects such as the Boxer have not yet come to fruition. Despite Germany maintaining Qatar as a dialogue partner for hostage matters, perhaps it is opportune for Germany to adopt a more assertive stance in the upcoming arms agreement, addressing areas where leniency has been demonstrated thus far.

Lukas Menkhoff, in his study entitled ‘Foreign World: Only a Minority Shares Germany's “Values’’’ argues that Germany, with its value system, is not at the centre of the world but rather on the periphery. This is evident in numerous individual values and becomes apparent in aggregated analyses. The number of genuine value partners outside Europe is small. This underscores the cultural clash at play, and the fragility of what Bundestag member Alexander Radwan (CSU) called Germany’s “moral imperialism” in a speech to the chamber. It remains to be seen if Germany can temper perceived Qatari transgressions and help improve its human rights record long term.