Qatar’s interests push mediation role deeper into EA

Sunday April 02 2023
Outspoken Rwandan government critic Paul Rusesabagina

Outspoken Rwandan government critic Paul Rusesabagina who was recently freed from prison. Doha may profit from his release by boosting Qatar’s expanding diplomatic influence in the region and beyond. PHOTO | COURTESY


Qatar is making a big diplomatic push in East Africa as it seeks to expand its economic interests in the region in the aftermath of the Gulf crisis in 2017, which saw Doha face a blockade by several of its Gulf neighbours, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain.

Last week on Monday, Paul Rusesabagina, a Rwandan opposition figure, arrived in Qatar after his 25-year jail term was commuted by President Paul Kagame. He had served 938 days in prison for terrorism-related charges.

His freedom was due to a deal mediated by Qatar, between the US government and Rwanda.

Read: How Qatar secured Rusesabagina’s freedom

“It is a relief to know that Paul is re-joining his family, and the US government is grateful to the Rwandan government for making this reunion possible. We also thank the government of Qatar for their valuable assistance that will enable Paul’s return to the US,” said Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State in a statement released on March 24, shortly after his release.

Close ally of US


Qatar is a close ally of the US in the Middle East, with the two countries having strong economic ties and hosting a significant number of US military personnel and assets, including the Al Udeid Air Base, the largest US military installation in the region. Doha was credited with brokering a deal between the US and Rwandan government leading to Rusesabagina’s release.

Read: Qatar seeks to break DRC, Kigali impasse

“It appears that the US sought Qatar’s help, as an actor equally trusted by the US and Rwanda. The US recognised that it couldn't negotiate its way through the Rusesabagina case on its own. This fits a bigger picture of Qatari diplomacy, as we have seen in its brokering of peace talks in Darfur, Chad and between the US and the Taliban,” Phil Clark, a professor of International Politics at SOAS University of London told The EastAfrican.

Soft diplomacy

Securing the release of Rusesabagina, a permanent resident in the US, may not have been entirely an American interest. In fact, Doha may profit from it by boosting Qatar’s expanding diplomatic influence in the region and beyond.

Qatar has been involved in diplomatic efforts in East Africa, including mediation between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2018, and hosting peace talks between the Sudan government and rebel groups in 2019. It helped bring a two-decade animosity between Addis Ababa and Asmara, resuming diplomatic relations and solving one of the most enduring border row in the Horn of Africa.

Qatar also helped quell rising tension between Kenya and Somalia, which had seen Mogadishu sever diplomatic ties for six months from December 2021. Somalia had publicly accused Kenya of interference in internal affairs.

Back-channel dealings

After back-channel dealings, both governments announced reopening of their embassies. They have gone on to agree on a number of bilateral trade deals, aimed at easing business.

In fact, on Kenya’s insistence, Somalia is now a candidate to join the East African Community.

These efforts, it seems, have helped to strengthen Qatari political influence in the region.

Most recently, Qatar has engaged in shuttle diplomacy, and is still trying to convene a meeting between Rwandan President Paul Kagame and the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Felix Tshisekedi to bring rapprochement amid escalating tensions.

Failed peace talks

Attempts to host peace talks between Rwanda and DRC by Doha failed in January due to a no-show by Tshisekedi.

Doha says it is ready to try again.

Analysts say Qatar sees domains such as sport and conflict mediation as a crucial projection of its soft power around the globe.

 “The Saudi- and Egypt-led embargo against Qatar in 2017 (because of its links to Iran) forced Qatar to look for other diplomatic, economic and military partners nearby. East Africa and the Horn provided important opportunities in that regard. Various African states have benefited from massive Qatari investments — for example, the building of huge dams in Ethiopia ...,” Clark said.


There are risks, however, such as that of African states getting sucked into tensions between Qatar and its main regional rivals, the UAE and Egypt. These are powerful states with which many East African governments also have close ties. This presents a delicate balancing act for states in East Africa, according to Mr Clark.

Qatar has also been involved in security-related activities in East Africa, including training and equipping Somali security forces to combat piracy and terrorism.

It has also provided support to peacekeeping efforts in Somalia, which is an important regional security issue.

One of the main reasons for Qatar’s diplomatic influence is its vast wealth derived from its vast reserves of natural gas, which has enabled it to become a major player in the global economy.

Expanding interests

Qatar is now actively expanding its economic interests in East Africa, particularly in Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania.

In December 2019, Qatar Airways agreed to take a 60 percent stake in a deal valued at $1.3 billion in Rwanda’s new airport, Bugesera International Airport which is expected to be a regional aviation hub.

Qatar Airways is set to acquire a 49 percent stake in RwandAir in a deal valued at least $28 million, according to financial statements submitted to the US Department of Transportation in 2021.

Oil and gas

Qatar has been exploring for oil and gas in East Africa, with a particular focus on Mozambique. The discovery of large natural gas reserves in Mozambique has made the country an important destination for Qatar’s energy interests in the region.

Qatar has invested heavily in infrastructure projects in East Africa, such as the construction of new ports, airports, and highways. It funded the expansion of Mombasa port in Kenya and construction of a new port in Tanzania.

On Energy, Qatar has also invested in the energy sector in East Africa. Qatar Petroleum has signed several deals with companies in Mozambique to develop the country’s natural gas reserves.

Qatar has invested in renewable energy projects in Kenya, such as the development of a wind farm in Marsabit County.