Following its work as part of negotiations between the US and the Taliban relating to the Afghanistan crisis, Emily Barley takes a closer look at Qatar's current role in world affairs, as well as its own domestic situation, to shed light on a country know for little else other than its hosting of next year's World Cup.

Earlier this month, the now ex-Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab highlighted Qatar's influence and important role in the conflict in Afghanistan and the wider region, and British policy experts scrambled to find out what gives the tiny Middle Eastern monarchy such status.

Most people know precisely two things about Qatar: first, that it is hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2022, and second, the controversy concerning its use of migrant labour, particularly in the construction sector. But there's a lot more about this rapidly developing, valuable ally that policy wonks in the UK ought to know.

Global Diplomacy

Qatar is an important military ally for the west. The US has an air base at Al Udeid, and the UK has a joint Qatar Air Force/Royal Air Force squadron which flies missions together. Qatar's location in the Persian Gulf, attached to Saudi Arabia and near to key conflict hot spots in the Middle East makes it strategically important, and the close relationship between British officials and the country's leaders – many of whom were educated at UK universities and went through army officer training at Sandhurst – means there is a lot of trust between the two. This relationship between Qatar and the West came into its own in August, when the country played a key role in helping the allies evacuate Afghanistan.

Qatar also maintains good international relations with a broad range of countries and regularly hosts peace talks and other kinds of international conferences. Talks hosted by Qatar have included international trade negotiations, the UN climate change conference, and negotiations between the US and the Taliban. As an ally to the West and a trusted country in the Islamic world, Qatar is expected to continue playing a key role in Afghanistan as the Taliban increases its grip on power. The country has also been an important link between Iran and the wider world, and has stepped in to help with conflicts in Syria and Lebanon.

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Domestic Progress

Qatar has experienced major changes in recent decades. As the world's second largest exporter of natural gas, gas makes up about 60 per cent of the country's $170 billion plus GDP. But it wasn't always this way. Until the discovery of its massive natural gas reserves (along with plenty of oil), Qatar's main industry was pearl diving.

With these changes have come huge numbers of migrant labourers, which is where much of the attention on Qatar before the situation in Afghanistan has centred. Following international attention on migrant worker deaths during the construction of venues for next year's FIFA World Cup, officials worked with the International Labour Organisation to address failings, and it now has the strictest rules in the region to stop work outside during hot conditions. Other reforms include introducing rules around living conditions for migrant workers, untangling workers from their employers and allowing them to move jobs easily, and sanctioning employers who don't pay their staff on time.

Away from labour reforms, the Government has invested heavily in public services. Qatar now has the fifth best healthcare system in the world and the best system in the Middle East, with the Qatari Government spending more than $6 billion a year on health. Services are staffed by people from around the world, and with expansion of access and increases in quality Qatar has seen dramatic improvements in key indicators such as infant mortality and life expectancy.

The country's education system is of a high quality too. Qatar provides 12 years of free education to citizens, and a range of private options are available for ex-pats. But it's higher education where Qatar really stands out: citizens are able to complete undergraduate degrees for free, and while women in Qatar are still restricted by Islamic laws in many ways, they are encouraged to participate in higher education and a full 75 per cent of students are women.

Political reform is also imminent, with the first elections for 30 out of 45 members of the ruling Shura Council scheduled for October this year. Once elected, the Shura will advise the Emir, Sheikh Tamim al-Thani. While the Emir will retain important powers, this first election is a welcome step on the way towards constitutional monarchy and democracy in Qatar.
These reforms, along with the action taken on workers' rights, show that Qatar is serious about becoming an accepted member of the international community and not just a military ally.

Change has been rapid and dramatic in Qatar over recent decades, but its journey is not yet complete. Economic diversification and the expansion of individual rights and protections will provide a solid foundation for the next steps in the country's journey, which observers hope will include progress on women's rights, better enforcement of existing laws, and further movement towards democracy. With the World Cup next year, along with growing recognition of Qatar's critical status as an ally to the West, we are sure to hear much more about this tiny desert nation.

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