Power Play in the Gulf: Tiny Qatar Has Big Diplomatic Ambitions

By and

With his wealth, diplomatic skills and Al-Jazeera television network, Qatar's Emir Hamad Al Thani has become one of the most important politicians in the Middle East. The tiny state is becoming a force to be reckoned with, but the emir's motives are obscure.

Photo Gallery: Qatar's Growing Ambitions Photos
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He is completely in his element here, underneath the heavy chandeliers in the ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton, surrounded by dignitaries from neighboring countries and delegates from the United Nations and the Arab League. He practically purrs when the Palestinian president praises him as the man who brings "oil into the mosque," in other words, providing light and inspiration among the faithful. Here in this ballroom, His Highness the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, is completely himself -- or rather, completely the man he wants to be.

He is today's version of the classic oil sheikh, a global player, intermediary between east and west and the ruler of a "new world power," as a French weekly recently described his small realm.

He looks serious as he takes notes. He sports a large moustache above a double chin, and the gold hem of his robe practically glows with dignity. The emir loves these events, like the "International Conference for the Defense of Jerusalem" in late February or a meeting that was held in January to help bring about reconciliation between the Palestinian factions. The events usually end in some "Doha declaration," ensuring that, once again, the name of the Qatari capital goes down in the annals of history.

"Getting back to oil…" says Sheikh Hamad, and proceeds to describe how his emirate is supplying the Gaza Strip, which is under an Israeli blockade, with money and food. There are murmurs of approval from his audience, which includes representatives from Ramallah, Yemen, Morocco and the new Libya, because they know they will always have good credit here in the Emirate of Qatar.

At the Center of Diplomacy

Qatar is a peninsula in the Persian Gulf, roughly the shape of Denmark but only a fourth the size and consisting mainly of sand. In 1949, it had an estimated population of 16,000, of which only 630 could write more than their names. Today Qatar is the world's richest country, with an annual per-capita income of $98,000 (€73,000). It will host the 2022 football World Cup, for which it will spend at least $150 billion on the construction of stadiums, expressways and a subway system.

"In the name of God…," says the emir as he gets up for lunch. He is a large man, although no longer quite as imposing as he was when former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi used to make jokes about the emir's girth at Arab League meetings. But Gadhafi is no longer around.

The emir of Qatar, by contrast, has gone from strength to strength. He stands at the center of Middle Eastern diplomacy, the place where key decisions are made. He convinced fellow Arab League members to approve the critical resolutions against Gadhafi, helping to advance the NATO mission in Libya. He was also the first to call for arming the Syrian rebels, and has even advocated military intervention to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad.

He was also involved in similar activities before the beginning of the Arab Spring. He dispatched his diplomats to mediate between the Sudanese government and the rebels in Darfur, between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and between the United States and the Afghan Taliban. He wasn't always as successful as in 2008, when he prevented the renewed outbreak of civil war in Lebanon. But for the emir and his country, every diplomatic success represents a little more recognition of their increasingly important role as negotiators.

Doha's diplomatic district is in the process of turning into a kind of miniature international organization, where the forces of good and evil alike are permitted to hoist their flags. Secular opponents of the Somali Al-Shabab militants, deposed Iraqi generals and members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood have found refuge there. The emir urged the Palestinian organization Hamas to move its headquarters from the Syrian capital Damascus to Doha. Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal already maintains a residence in Qatar, and the Taliban will soon open an office in Doha -- its first representation in a foreign country.

When that happens, US generals from the Al Udeid air base could find themselves crossing paths with Hamas strategists and black-robed Taliban officials at Doha's Diplomatic Club, in an atmosphere reminiscent of the film "Casablanca."

Eggs in Different Baskets

The Almighty has provided the sea floor off the coast of this tiny patch of sand with the largest known naturally gas reserves on the planet. Unfortunately, he has also sandwiched Qatar between two large neighbors that are not on the best of terms: Saudi Arabia and Iran. Under these conditions, Qatar has no choice but to assert itself.

For years, the Saudis refused to sign a treaty delineating their border with Qatar. The emir looked around for other alliance partners, developing diplomatic ambitions that put all other Arab countries to shame. He convinced Washington to move one of the headquarters of the US Central Command and one of the largest US air bases to Qatar, while at the same time inviting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to attend Arab summits in Doha.

He offered the World Trade Organization (WTO) his capital as a site for the negotiations that have come to be known as the "Doha Round," he encouraged free political forums like the "Doha Debates," and he invited Israelis, like former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and current President Shimon Peres to participate in discussion forums.

"The emir is the ultimate practitioner of Realpolitik," says Ibrahim Sharqieh of the Brookings Institution's Doha Center. "He makes sure that he never puts all of his eggs in the same basket."

Carving Out a Niche

Qatar has used its wealth to carve out a niche for itself in world politics. The emir opened his checkbook when the Libyan rebels ran out of money, and he sent weapons and Mirage jets to Benghazi. The new Egypt received $500 million in aid and assurances of another $10 billion in future investment.

A group of French local politicians with immigrant roots recently wrote a letter to the Embassy of Qatar, asking the emir to help the troubled Paris suburbs known as banlieues, in light of their "abandonment by the French state." Qatar promptly set up a €50 million fund for the suburbs.

All this and more is reported, preferably live, by the Al-Jazeera television network. Next to his billions, the station is Hamad's most important tool. Al-Jazeera broadcasts in Arabic and English, and it now has a station devoted solely to the Balkans, as well as new programming for Latin America and Africa.

The influential cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the master thinker of the Muslim Brotherhood, uses Al-Jazeera to disseminate his message. Sheikh Hamad is an admirer of the theologian.

Sinister Designs?

Many find this suspect. Some speculate that the emir has a religious agenda, namely to strengthen Sunni Islam, the country's dominant religion. There are even those who believe that tiny Qatar has sinister designs to "conquer the world", as the French newspaper Le Monde puts it. In Germany, Qatar's sovereign wealth fund, the Qatar Investment Authority, owns 17 percent of the carmaker Volkswagen, 10 percent of Porsche and 9 percent of the construction giant Hochtief. The emirate is buying agricultural land and investing in banks, tourism and real estate from Ukraine to Pakistan to Thailand.

Qatar is seeking to acquire a stake in the aerospace corporation EADS in France, where it already owns shares in the Suez energy group, Dexia Bank and the Lagardère publishing group. The emir has also acquired the football club Paris Saint-Germain. "Qatar occupies positions that pose a threat to our national independence," said the far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. "I say solemnly: The Qataris are financial supporters of Islamic fundamentalists, madmen of Sharia."

Is this true? And what exactly is the emir up to?

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