Qatar: The Role of Small Countries in International Politics


Small countries have often been viewed as puppet states under the thumb of other nations, lacking the means of conducting independent foreign policy or the means to protect their own sovereignty. After the 2nd World War and the decline of armed violence as a means of achieving geopolitical goals, small states have become much more independent and influential. Qatar is an example small nation that utilizes its incremental, derivative, and collective tools to promote its interests in the international arena.


The second half of the 20th century saw the dissolution of Nazi Germany, 45 years later, followed by the Soviet Union. These geopolitical events of grand proportions saw the reinstatement of numerous independent states back on the geopolitical map, bringing about the topic of importance of small states in international politics. This issue is not limited to Europe alone, as every continent on the map has large and powerful nations neighboring smaller ones. At the same time, the true definition of the “small state” has been an argued notion in the political academia. Historically, small states have always been influenced by larger and more powerful countries neighboring them. However, the 21st century has seen the rise of the concept of soft power, which can be used as a tool for small states to influence the political arena.

Purpose of the Project

The purpose of this project is to analyze and identify the instruments available to a small nation in order to acquire a degree of influence in the international community. For these purposes, the nation chosen to serve as an example would be Qatar. This country fits the majority of the requirements needed to be considered a small nation, while at the same time having a history of expanding its political and economic influence on its own and through participation in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Aims and Objectives of the Study

The aims and objectives of the study are as follows:

  • Provide a working definition of the “small state,” which is congruent with the majority of modern political science studies;
  • To study the history and role of Qatar in the unfolding problems currently occupying the Arabian Peninsula;
  • Highlight the main tools available to smaller states in order to strengthen their role in the political arena;
  • Analyze the history of the formation of GCC in relation to the countries-resources-political arena triangle;
  • Outline the role of energy diplomacy in shaping Qatar’s foreign policy in the modern period.

Significance and Relevance of the Study

The significance and relevance of the study can be quantified not only by the geopolitical realities of modern international relations but also by the prospects of future practice by students and scholars alike. Assuming an individual would work in a foreign relations office, they would either represent a small nation or have to deal with the representatives of such entities as an envoy of a larger nation. In either case, understanding the main motivations and tools available to these countries is invaluable to inform once’s practice.

The significance of small nations is further enhanced by the gradual decline in the use of force by larger countries, which had been happening since the end of the 2nd World War. This allowed for the implementation of economic and political instruments that are more accessible to smaller nations. In addition, the gradual evolution of technology and the growing demand for natural resources to be used in transportation, manufacturing, and high-tech production, in addition to the growing rates of globalization, offered many smaller nations to use these newfound advantages to add weight to their positions in the international arena. Thus, the scope of the study is relevant, significant, and useful in the broader scope of understanding international politics.

Research Questions

The research questions to be answered in the proposed study are as follows:

  • What is the definition of the small state?
  • What is the historical role of Qatar in producing and solving the problems of the Arabian Peninsula as a separate entity and as the part of GCC?
  • What tools are available to smaller states that could be beneficial in international relations?
  • What were the geographical, economic, and political predispositions to the formation of GCC?
  • What is the role of energy diplomacy in Qatar’s modern foreign policy?

These research questions are congruent with the aims of objectives of the study and should be answered as part of the proposed research.

Review of Literature

Researchers in the field of international politics have always struggled to provide a clear-cut definition of the “small state.” For the majority of history, the relative strength of the country was largely determined by three things – the number of its population, the geographical position of its lands, and the of its military (Maas 2009). However, those definitions became outdated a long time ago, as modern economics and politics influenced the position of the countries typically considered powerful, in relation to other states. Maas (2009) highlights the important criteria that make a “small state,” while claiming that no singular country fits the list of criteria specifically, due to a wide range of variables involved. The identified criteria are as follow (Maas 2009):

  • Population size (typically below 15 million);
  • Geographical size;
  • Military strength;
  • GDP;
  • Natural resources;
  • Geographical positioning.

The formation of GCC as a union of pan-Arabic states was a move that allowed the relatively small countries of the Arabian Peninsula to gain a collective voice in the international arena (Sandwick 2019). From the perspective of the classical countries-resources-politics triangle, the nations that made up the economic-political union were natural to form an alliance. First, all of the members have a close geographical, economic, and cultural proximity to one another, essentially being neighbors in the geo-strategically important region that is in the scope of both the US and Chinese interests (Sandwick 2019).

In terms of resources, nearly all members of GCC have access to oil, which is one of the most important energy producers on the planet (Sandwick 2019). Being united allowed the otherwise small states to pool their influence and provide a joint position on the issue of oil prices, to the benefit of the countries involved. Lastly, the formation of GCC allowed its members to present their interests in the international arena without being pulled apart by internal struggles (Sandwick 2019).

Qatar, as an example of vigorous international activity and foreign policy, has been a part of GCC since its foundation in 1981 (Scheldrup 2014). This moment coincided with the development of the oil industry in the region and the increasing influence of the countries found in the Arabian Peninsula. According to Scheldrup (2014), Qatar was involved in nearly all large and small decisions and conflicts that happened in the last 38 years, including the mediation of the Lebanese crisis of 2008, the support of various political formations during the Arab Spring, and constant tensions between itself and Saudi Arabia, as Qatar sought to become the more dominant force in the Middle Eastern political landscape (Scheldrup 2014). At the same time, the ongoing political crisis between Qatar and GCC that started in 2017 was caused by the country’s dealings with the supposed opponents of GCC interests, such as Iran (Naheem 2017).

The tools available to small nations such as Qatar, in the modern political landscape, can be classified into three large groups. Long (2016) identifies intrinsic, derivative, and collective tools for power projection of the smaller states. Intrinsic tools are those particular to a country alone. In Qatar’s case, such powers include its geostrategic positioning, oil supplies, and the reputation of a small neutral power, which allowed the country to serve as a mediator in various crises (Long 2016).

Derivative powers come from relationships with stronger nations, thus providing political leverage to their allies by extension. Saudi Arabia, one of the important power brokers in the region, has a close relationship with the US, which makes it a leading nation in the GCC as well (Kamrava 2013). Lastly, there are collective bargaining powers to be used in international politics. These come from being part of a larger union. If European countries and their interests are represented by the EU, for Qatar, it’s the GCC, through which the country can project its ambitions into the outside world.

Research Design and Methodology

Due to the intrinsic nature of international relations studies and its grounding in politics, sociology, and history, qualitative research design would be the most suited to the subject (Taylor, Bogdan & DeVault 2015). It will follow the methodology of a literature meta-analysis, relying on secondary sources in order to derive answers to the questions highlighted above. This type of methodology relies on rigorous information search and methodical dissemination of findings (Taylor, Bogdan & DeVault 2015).

Sampling Method

The literature collected for meta-analysis would be extracted from various publicly-available databases, including Questia, Proquest, Literature Resource Center, CQ Researcher, the local electronic libraries, and many others. All sources would need to be recent (published within the last 10 years), peer-reviewed, and pertaining to the selected subject (Taylor, Bogdan & DeVault 2015). The samples would be searched for using specific keywords and word combinations. The primary ones include (but not limited to) the following: Small state, small nation, small country, international politics, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arabian Emirates, Kuwait, Gulf Cooperation Council, Middle East, oil, economy.

Data Collection and Analysis

After the initial sampling stage would provide the sources to be used in the meta-analysis, data collection procedures would begin. All articles would be coded based on their relevance to the questions and the availability of answers provided in them. The validity of answers would be established by using triangulation methods, where several sources would be investigated in relation to particular conclusions and events that would take place (Taylor, Bogdan & DeVault 2015). The acquired data would be then subjected to content analysis, which is one of the most common means of analyzing qualitative data. The conclusions would be derived separately by several individuals and then crosschecked, in order to ensure a lack of bias.

Reference List

Kamrava, M 2013, Qatar: small state, big politics, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.

Long, T 2016, ‘Small states, great power? Gaining influence through intrinsic, derivative, and collective power’, International Studies Review, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 185-205.

Maas, M 2009, ‘The illusive definition of the small state’, International Politics, vol. 46, pp. 65-83.

Naheem, MA 2017, ‘The dramatic rift and crisis between Qatar and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) of June 2017’, International Journal of Disclosure and Governance, vol. 14, no. 4, pp. 265-277.

Scheldrup, M 2014, ‘Lilliputian choice: explaining small state foreign policy variation’, UH thesis, University of Colorado, Boulder.

Taylor, SJ, Bogdan, R & DeVault, M 2015, Introduction to qualitative research methods: a guidebook and resource, Wiley, New York, NY.