How Tiny Qatar ‘Punches Above Its Weight’

· Dec. 23, 2013, 6:40 pm

Qatar is a tiny place that insists on being heard.

The Arab nation just off the coast of Saudi Arabia has made itself a major diplomatic player, a generous donor of foreign aid, and a leader in modernizing education in the region. The ultra-modern capital Doha is full of skyscrapers, museums and history, much of it dating as far back as … the 1990s.

Qatar is also a commercial capital that aims to become a cultural, sports and tourist center for the Gulf region despite having just 260,000 citizens.

Those citizens are outnumbered by foreign workers more than 5 to 1. The citizens and foreigners alike are governed by an absolute monarchy that was passed down earlier this year from the emir — the man responsible for Qatar’s ascendancy — to his 33-year-old son.

All of these head-spinning changes prompted Professor Mehran Kamrava, an American who teaches at Georgetown University’s campus in Doha, to write Qatar: Small State, Big Politics.

“What motivated me to write this book was the question of whether or not Qatar is for real,” Kamrava said. “When I started studying Qatar, I realized that here is an extremely small state consistently punching above its weight and playing a larger role that is commensurate with its size, demography and, in many ways, its resources.”

So what makes Qatar tick? As one American expat put it to me, Qataris could take their money — they have the highest per capita GDP in the world at more than $86,000 a head — and retire en masse to the South of France. So why do they play what Kamrava calls a hyperactive role in regional and world affairs?

Qatar is involved in Libya, Egypt and Syria. It owns the Al Jazeera satellite channel. It hosts satellite campuses of American universities. And the 2022 World Cup will be held there.

A Branding Exercise

Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center, views this as a kind of branding exercise.

“Qatar doesn’t want to just be a tiny, small state in the middle of the Gulf,” he said. “They want to leave their mark on the region’s politics — and not just politics, but culture, sports and education. The question is why do they want that? And I think it’s part of a shift that we saw start in the mid-1990s.”

Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani — often refererred to as HBK — became the emir in 1995 when he ousted his father, who was on an extended summer vacation in Europe. Sheik Hamad then survived a failed countercoup backed by Saudi Arabia.

Together with his wife and the prime minister, Sheik Hamad set out to drag Qatar into modernity.

Something else happened a few years before Sheik Hamad took over. Back in 1990, Iraq invaded the small, oil-rich nation of Kuwait and occupied it for seven months before a U.S.-led coalition drove the Iraqis out.

Allen Fromherz, who used to teach in Qatar and has written a book on the emirate, Qatar: A Modern History, said the Qataris have not forgotten Kuwait.

“Qatar doesn’t want to see itself as being this priceless jewel that can simply be gobbled up by one of its more powerful neighbors, whether Saudi Arabia or Iran,” said Fromherz.

So Qatar set about becoming not just rich, but also valuable to the region and to the world.

Launching Al Jazeera

Its first big achievement was launching the Al Jazeera satellite television network, first in Arabic and then in English. This was a revolutionary step in a region that had been dominated by staid, state-run broadcasters.

Al Jazeera is backed by so much Qatari money that when it launched its American channel and bought Current TV for access to cable systems, it paid $500 million for a virtually unwatched channel. That’s twice what Amazon chief Jeff Bezos paid for the venerable Washington Post.

Qatar’s hyperactivism goes far beyond Al Jazeera. It has mediated Arab disputes among the the main Palestinian factions — Hamas and Fatah — and also among factions in Lebanon and Sudan.

Qatar was a strong supporter of ousting Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, and it backed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Islamist rebels in Syria.

Those efforts have turned out to be so messy that when Sheik Hamad stepped down voluntarily as emir this year, and handed the reins to his son, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, analysts like Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution saw a re-calibration of Qatari priorities.

“There’s going to be more of a domestic focus,” said Hamid. “I think there’s a realization that maybe they went too far with their support of certain Islamist groups in the region. That provoked a backlash. Qatar’s stock has taken a hit.”

The Qataris insist that they only backed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt because the group dominated the government until the military seized power last July. They point out that they’ve aided Egyptian governments before and since the Brotherhood ruled — although Qatar has hosted a prominent exiled Egyptian preacher, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has been linked to the Brotherhood for decades.

As for Syria, the Qataris say they deplore the most extreme Islamists but think the U.S. has pushed away others by being too fast to label them terrorists. More recently, two men who have advised Qatar on philanthropic giving have been accused by the U.S. Treasury of aiding groups allied to al-Qaida.

Relations With The U.S.

There are serious differences between the U.S. and Qatar. But the connections between the two countries are strong.

At al-Udeid, about 20 miles from Doha, the U.S. Air Force has a base in a flat, lifeless desert where the wind is incessant. The base services the U.S. Central Command, including U.S. forces in Afghanistan. This is where the Air Force came when Saudi Arabia wanted the U.S. military out.

Like every place else in Qatar, al-Udeid, or, as it’s known to American airmen, The Deed, is a massive construction zone that is becoming more permanent.

Until this month, the U.S. deferred to Qatari sensibilities and referred to this base as an undisclosed location in southwest Asia. Now, the Qataris have spoken publicly about it.

But Qatar is a land of strange bedfellows. While it welcomes the U.S. Air Force, the country also has permitted the Afghan Taliban to establish a political office. Qatar maintains good ties with Iran, and the two countries share a huge natural gas field.

“What Qatar did was to hedge its bets,” said Mehran Kamrava of Georgetown. “It placed one big bet one way, with American military protection and American diplomacy. But at the same time, it also made sure it maintained relationships with actors such as Hamas or countries such as Iran.”

Qatar’s aim was to create a space in the Gulf region where differing parties, even rivals and enemies, could do deals. Allen Fromherz says the Qataris had a history of mediating among tribes and with their more powerful neighbors, the Saudis.

“They simply extended that to the international affairs arena,” said Fromherz.

Policy Of Inclusion

Qataris call it a policy of inclusion. Khalid Al-Attiyah, the Qatari foreign minister, spoke about it this year at Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House.

“Our country considers that political solutions require the representation and participation of all parties to the conflict, no matter how difficult and controversial,” he said. “It is our belief that only such preconditions can allow for viable, legitimate and ultimately long-term resolution to conflicts.”

If Qatar has spent the past two decades putting itself on the map, it has even bigger ambitions ahead.

The Qataris won a bid for soccer’s 2022 World Cup despite summer humidity that pushes 100 percent and temperatures that exceed it — and despite a population so small that a million expected visiting soccer fans will increase the population by 50 percent.

The bid has accelerated the need for new infrastructure, including new highways and a subway. This is a big cause of the traffic jams, and it has prompted criticism of the country’s labor practices.

The chairman of the national 2022 Committee is Hassan al-Thawadi, whose aides assure me he speaks French and Spanish like a native. He spoke to me in English at his office in a Doha skyscraper. He was in full national dress and expressed the pride Qataris have in the cup coming to this region.

“It’s not just Qataris. It’s people throughout this region that are proud of Qatar actually hosting the World Cup,” he said.

Hosting the World Cup or the Olympics typically prompts a debate over whether the huge expense is worth it. Will the facilities be used after the games? Will there really be jobs for the locals in building them?

In Qatar, it’s different. The construction jobs, like most jobs in the country, are for foreign workers, not Qataris.

As for the stadiums, after the World Cup, Qatar’s plan is unique.

“Once we’re done with the World Cup, what we’re going to do is take down these modular seats, reconfigure them into smaller seatings,” al-Thawadi said.

A stadium that seats 50,000 in Qatar can then be turned into a 5,000-seat stadium, which Qatar will then “pass on to developing nations,” al-Thawadi added.

As he describes it, the World Cup symbolizes regional leadership, and by creating a novel form of foreign aid — stadiums — it enhances global prestige.

And the Qataris have nine years to figure out how to make good on their obligation to make beer available without offending local sensibilities in a country where alcohol is largely banned.

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