Georgia and Qatar: Taking Stock

The Arab states of the Gulf are among the important emerging economies and political players today. For decades, the pivotal country has been Saudi Arabia with its ability to influence world oil markets. More recently, the smaller countries of the Arabian Peninsula successfully started carving out niches for themselves, acquiring unprecedented economic and political weight on the global stage. Qatar’s decision in the mid-1990s to develop the offshore gas field it shares with Iran turned the tiny country into the second largest gas exporter after Russia. Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar are therefore forces to reckon with in global energy markets. What Saudi Arabia is in oil, Qatar is in gas. Despite its size, Qatar has the capacity to market its liquefied natural gas (LNG) worldwide. Its fleet of gas tankers offers much more flexibility than any network of fixed pipelines. In energy, logistics, aviation, and transnational media, Qatar matters more than its size would suggest. In addition, Doha has become an important venue for international events ranging from sports to diplomacy.

When Georgia regained statehood and independence, its first foreign policy priorities were Europe, including the newly free countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the United States, as well as Turkey and Iran, both constituting Georgia’s wider immediate neighborhood. While formal relations with the Arab states of the Gulf date back to the early 1990s, Georgia’s diplomatic, political, economic, and cultural presence has begun to be rolled out only over the past ten years.

When Georgia and Qatar opened embassies based on reciprocity in 2012 / 2013, substantial work had already been done. For a number of years, political dialogue has been conducted through high-level visits, familiarizing the Qatari leadership with the issues facing Georgia and common interests in addressing them. Qatar has been a firm supporter of Georgia’s territorial integrity and its policy of non-recognition vis-à-vis Georgia’s Abkhazia and Tskhinvali / South Ossetia regions. Earlier this year, the Qatar Olympic Committee graciously hosted a group of internally displaced youth on the occasion of this year’s school Olympics. In addition, Georgia has been a regular and esteemed interlocutor at the Doha-based Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) in which Qatar has been using its leverage to influence geopolitical challenges in the Middle East and Europe. Through a number of leading think tanks, among them the Brookings Doha Center, the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University, and the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Georgia has made its voice heard in current affairs. Likewise, Arabic and English channels of the influential Qatar-based Aljazeera media network have covered Georgian affairs. This has raised awareness among international audiences that the days of old empires and zones of influence are gone. In terms of multilateral political consultations, Georgia has been successfully using international events hosted by Doha as a platform to showcase achievements, most recently with contributions to UNODC’s 13th Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice.

In the economic field, Qatari corporations showed an early interest in exploring Georgia’s tremendous opportunities. This responded to Qatar’s pressing food security issues and focused on agriculture, in addition to monitoring opportunities in real estate and hospitality. Clearly, Qatari investors were encouraged by reforms undertaken in Georgia. A number of business delegations visited Georgia to assess the country’s investment opportunities. The fact that Qatar Airways has been flying to Tbilisi for almost five years now brought Georgia closer to investors from around the globe, not only Qatar. The same applies to international tourism that benefits from having reliable air carriers with regular daily flights. Across the Gulf, Georgia has become an increasingly attractive destination for enjoyable short-term holidays. The number of tourists, including foreign residents forming the overwhelming majority of the population, have started going up again, notably after the most recent visa facilitation.

Another driving force in this growing interest in Georgia among Qataris and expatriates in the Gulf is its rich culture. Through a series of well-received events co-hosted with leading Qatari institutions, the Embassy of Georgia has reached out to interested Qataris and residents alike. Among the prestigious partners are the Qatar Photographic Society, with whom a highly acclaimed exhibition of early color photographs on Georgia and the Caucasus was organized last year, the cutting-edge Katara Cultural Village that will host a show of Georgian heritage and creativity in early 2016 as well as other events. With the start of the academic year 2015-2016, Georgian students will continue their higher education in Doha, be it in Arabic studies at the homegrown Qatar University or at Qatar’s international university colleges, including Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

Across the wide range of political, economic, and cultural cooperation, Georgia and Qatar have moved considerably closer over the past three years. Will this positive trend continue? A lot depends on how world leaders address fragmentation and instability in geopolitical hotspots important to Qatar and Georgia, spanning the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and the Persian Gulf. International relations are at their best when rules-based and inspired by common values. Everything else follows suit.

Ekaterine Meiering-Mikadze
Ambassador of Georgia to the State of Qatar