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.
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?
The Rise of Arab Nationalism
Sheikh Hamad is the prototype of a second-generation Persian Gulf monarch. Born in 1952, he grew up in the modest affluence of a Bedouin ruling family and was sent to Britain's Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. When he was 20, he returned to Qatar, which, like other Gulf countries, became independent in 1971. He entered the Qatari armed forces and was later promoted to the rank of major general and commander-in-chief.
When his father refused to step down, the ambitious crown prince simply deposed him. The Saudi royal family, fearing its own palace coup, has never forgiven him for the move.
Hamad's character, as well as that of the rulers of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, who are all about the same age, was largely shaped by three experiences: the bleak years between the Suez War and the Arab defeat in the Six-Day War, the condescension with which the urban elites of Cairo, Beirut and Baghdad treated them as the sons of Bedouins, and the enormous wealth they acquired after the first oil crisis in 1973.
The political reference point of this generation was the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Although he failed to provide the Arabs with a victory over Israel, Nasser did give them a feeling of self-worth. The sons of emirs and sheikhs had no use for Nasser's socialist ideas. They adopted his Arab nationalism, but they never became Nasserists.
They were united in their deep aversion to Nasser's heirs, men like Moammar Gadhafi, former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and former Syrian dictator Hafez Assad, the father of the current Syrian president. In their eyes, the dictators who had forced their way into power in Tripoli, Baghdad and Damascus were usurpers, and they felt what these men did to Libya, Iraq and Syria was a betrayal of true Arab nationalism.
The desire to revive this Arab idenitity, rooted in the tribal traditions of the Arabian Peninsula, is one of the strongest motives behind the emir's political activism. This desire was also behind the establishment of Al-Jazeera, says Palestinian journalist Ahmed Sheikh, one of the first employees and later the editor in chief of the news channel.
The emir's role changed with the Arab Spring. He has gone from being a mediator to a political player. "Qatar has adopted a more aggressive and potentially more risky foreign policy," writes Meghan O'Sullivan, former US President George W. Bush's Iraq envoy.
Now the emir's friendships have come to fruition, including his ties to Libyan Sheikh Ali al-Salabi, who mobilized Islamist networks in the eastern part of the country to bring down Gadhafi. In covering the uprisings in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, Al-Jazeera delivered the iconic images of the Arab Spring. The station broadcast live from Tahrir Square in Cairo for several days during the Egyptian revolution.
To this day, the Qatari flag still flies next to the Libyan flag at checkpoints in that country. "We expect only good things from Qatar. It is a true partner in the Arab spring," said Rachid al-Ghannouchi, Tunisia's new strong man. Qatar's ruler already sees himself at the head of what he calls the "Arabellion." On the first anniversary of the Tunisian revolution, Hamad gave a speech in Tunis that sounded as if he had taken part in the uprising himself. The revolution must go on, he said, adding that he was prepared to send troops to Syria "to stop the killing."
But Qatar's alliances change from country to country and from crisis to crisis. On Libya, Qatar cooperated with Saudi Arabia to get rid of Gadhafi, their common enemy. When Hamad noticed that the king of Saudi Arabia was not as determined as he was to convince then Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down, he quit the negotiations and left it up to Washington to apply pressure on the Saudis.
When Hamad realized that Saudi Arabia would have preferred to keep former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in power, he sought the support of the Turks. But when it became clear that Riyadh wanted to bring down Syrian dictator Assad, he revived the axis with Saudi Arabia. The emir's policy of shifting alliances is worthy of a master diplomat and statesman.
One could, however, also call him unprincipled. All its revolutionary posturing aside, Qatar is everything but a model democracy. The emir is responsible for appointing the Advisory Council, which has even less influence than its Saudi Arabian counterpart. The expanded voting rights promised years ago have yet to materialize. Amnesty International cites cases of whippings and the exploitation of foreign migrant workers. The strict Wahhabi form of Islam is the state religion in Qatar. And Al-Jazeera did not even report on the suppression of the protest movement in the Kingdom of Bahrain, in which Qatar was involved.
Recently, however, Sheikh Hamad has hit a wall in his new role. The transitional council in Tripoli now seems to feel uneasy about the emir's presence. "Our brothers from Qatar helped us but I fear Qatar will meet the same fate as Libya because of Gadhafi's megalomania," said Libya's UN representative Abdel-Rahman Shalgham.
A World Power in Miniature
Hezbollah once received the emir like a hero in southern Lebanon, because he had helped rebuild the cities there after the 2006 war. But that has now changed. "The emir, along with his Al-Jazeera station, has become a persona non grata in Lebanon and Syria since he came out against Assad," says a German observer in Damascus.
Thomas Birringer, a Persian Gulf expert with Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation, compares Qatar to Luxembourg, with its media conglomerate RTL and influential prime minister, Jean-Claude Juncker. "But a strong television station and a zealous diplomat do not make a leading power out of a tiny state," he adds.
Is Qatar a new world power? It's more like a world power in miniature. Even Qatar's sovereign wealth fund is smaller, in absolute terms, than that of the United Arab Emirates. The emir has no divisions of his own, and his army consists mainly of mercenaries. When Qatar sent its Mirage pilots to Libya, they were escorted by American and French fighter jets so that nothing would happen to them.
Because Qatar has relatively little to show for itself militarily, the emirate is in fact something of a lightweight in terms of realpolitik. But perhaps this isn't the emir's intention at all. Perhaps having the heavyweights as his friends is enough for him.