Qatar invests billions of dollars a year in Europe, including millions in the real estate, hotel, sports and media sectors. This small country — with an area no larger than 12,000 square kilometers and 500,000 people — has become one of the world’s biggest investors, and invests particularly heavily in Europe. Qatar’s relationship with France however, is one exception. There, it maintains a "more private" strategy.
Given that its oil and gas revenues are in the hundreds of billions of dollars each year, Qatar is able to aspire to broad goals.
The small nation of Qatar has developed its soft power capabilities in Europe and in France, taking advantage of a variety of factors and surpassing the many barriers and prejudices preventing it from reaching its goal. This goal was summed up by the Qatari ambassador to Paris, Mohammed al-Kuwari, who was quoted in the French newspaper Le Monde as saying, "Qatar's financial resources have allowed it to open up to the world, which is crucial to its future."
Qatar, which has witnessed major growth over the past 15 years, is trying to improve its image in Europe by investing in this continent suffering from a serious economic crisis and sluggish growth.
The Gulf state’s influence first emerged in Europe’s banking sector, especially in those countries experiencing accrued crises as a result of the economic recession taking hold of the "old" continent. It then expanded its presence in the real estate and tourism sectors before moving into media and sports.
Price decreases have provided many investment opportunities for the Gulf states at large, and has allowed them high annual revenues.
"Every step Qatar has taken, comes within a deliberate policy designed to make the nation emerges as a major power on the international landscape, through the use of soft power," said the director of the French Institute of International and Strategic Relations, Karim Bitar, in an interview to As-Safir.
According to Bitar, "This small country in surrounded by two militarily powerful nations, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Investments in Western countries, especially in major sectors in Europe, serve as a lifelong guarantee to Qatar."
It is clear that Qatar’s ambitions are not only economic, according to Bitar. "These investments are designed to make the best use of oil revenues and work on finding new sources of diversity, for a better future," he said.
The economic crisis in Europe has come to pave the way Qatar’s objectives, which has taken advantage of the situation to reposition itself on the international level.
The need for France
Qatar shifted its focus toward Europe many years ago. However, in France, Qatar can be said to be following a more ambitious strategy, one that was born during the era of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
According to Bitar, "Qatar wanted to quickly expand its influence on the international scene, and it took advantage of Sarkozy's desire to find a different angle from which to reach out to the Arab world, one less focused on the image of him being close to Israel."
Political analyst Nabil Nasseri, who specializes in Qatari affairs, shares Bitar’s opinion on this idea. However, he cited another factor that has contributed to the development of the Qatari-French relationship: Nasseri told As-Safir, "Doha was hoping to strengthen its cooperation with Paris based on its need to diversify its alliances, so as not to rely exclusively on US support."
This cooperation has become clear at a military level, said Nasseri. He also stressed that "despite the fact that the US has many bases in the country, 80% of Qatar's military equipment is manufactured in France. This is not to mention the already existing cooperation at the economic levels and the investments in sports."
Nasseri confirmed that this relationship and political alliance will lead to "profitable results for the two countries."
This appears in the re-positioning of France “by increasing its market share and Qatar’s giant economic developments.” It will also help Qatar to develop “more solid relations with a first class diplomatic power, and ensure the support of Paris in the event that the Gulf region is subjected to a serious crisis.”
Nasseri says that Qatar, “which lies in the eye of the storm, between the Saudi appetite and Iranian threats, has a sharp awareness of its primary weaknesses.”
Qatar does not deny Nasseri’s analysis in this regard. Qatar has found itself compelled to justify its [emerging] appearance on the French arena and its growing economic clout, especially after news broke about its investments in the French suburbs. Le Monde carried an article by Ambassador Kuwari, in which he said that Qatar “is a small country with a small population, which is a source of weakness in a world governed by giants states.”
Qatari investments in the UK, Spain, Germany and other European countries were not highlighted in the media. However, they were extensively written about in the French press, causing a stir and raising eyebrows, especially following an announcement by this “emirate” — as the French media likes to call it — of allocating 150 million euros [$199 million] for investments in French suburbs inhabited by a Muslim majority.
Still, this stir might be merely “empty media hype,” which has not yielded any results especially in light of the continued Qatari strategy. Doha has recently announced that it is studying an investment worth about $13 billion in French companies.
Although investments in French suburbs constitute a small portion of the overall Qatari investments in France, the French media has launched a fierce campaign against them, citing what can be described as “an Islamic state that is trying to preach political Islam economically.”
In an article in Le Point, French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy said investments by this “emirate” are “a source of charity to whom it may concern, and a source of humiliation for the recipient country, which appears bankrupt to the point of beggary.” He said that the announced amount of investments in French suburbs is “nothing but a hoax or propaganda.”
Levy reiterates his idea, saying that the “non-costly” amount has helped Qatar, “whose commitment to democratic values is continuously questionable,” to “purchase a certificate in ethics.”
Furthermore, this French philosopher expresses astonishment over the political concept of these funds. To him, “this money is tainted with the color of a country that deprives its citizens of general freedoms, and treats immigrants (Indians, Pakistanis and Filipinos) as less than citizens, even less than humans or as slaves.”
Levy refers to “another problem,” which is “suspicion of political-religious preaching,” saying it is “impossible not to address [this aspect] as it involves a regime whose support for radical Islamist currents is no secret.”
Nasseri, who also heads the Association of Muslims in France, indirectly refuted what Levy said. He responded to the media campaign against the [Qatari] investments in the suburbs, saying that the media outlets that launched the campaign are “just like part of the political class, hostage to a vision filled with fanaticism against everything related to the Arab-Muslim world, and everything associated with Islam.”
Nasseri explains that “Qatar did not invest in the French suburbs on its own, but that these suburbs turned to it and requested support.” He says that all the Qataris did was “seize the opportunity and help a marginalized population in France, which comprise a set of resources and skills.”
As for concern that the Qatari money would go to extremist Islamic groups in the French suburbs, Nasseri says that it is a “fictional and unjustifiable excuse being used by the extreme right to scare the French from the Qatari presence in France.”
It is undeniable that Qatari investments in the French suburbs come amid general concern by the French over political Islam. This is especially true since “Qatar is a source of double fear for the French: fear of Islam on the one hand, and fear of losing economic sovereignty given the current crisis,” according to Bitar.
Also, Qatar is more criticized than others because “its investments are but a part of a greater project aimed at a strong economic and diplomatic rise,” says Bitar.