Monday, February 25, 2008

What is Qatar up to? by Olivier Guitta

Last summer, after contributing to the liberation of the Bulgarian nurses from Libya, French President Nicolas Sarkozy profusely thanked Qatar for its help in solving this thorny matter. According to reports in the French media, Qatar allegedly offered to pay for the compensation of the Libyan children infected with HIV (estimated at about $460 million).

The involvement of Qatar in this diplomatic matter is not an exception, but rather the rule. Qatar has been popping up all over the place on the diplomatic and economic stages in the past few years. What is the tiny Gulf emirate up to?

This new strategy really started after the 1995 coup where Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani unseated his father. The new ruler's main goal was to put Qatar on the map. One of his close advisers explained to the French daily Le Figaro: "When Sheikh Hamad was traveling to Europe during his youth, he was upset that customs officers asked him where Qatar was."

With huge reserves of oil and gas, only 900,000 inhabitants (of which only 200,000 are Qataris) and a current GDP per capita of more than $120,000 (when accounting only for the Qataris), Doha has the means of its ambitions.

Two major projects that were undertaken at the start of the reign of the new sheik were the TV channel al-Jazeera (launched in 1996) and Qatar Airways (really started in 1997). In just a few years, al-Jazeera has become a household name. Qatar Airways is now a huge multinational with 12,000 employees, 58 planes and 70 destinations and it just ordered 80 Airbus A350s and five A3BOs – incidentally, a Qatari investment fund was just authorized by French authorities to invest in the European consortium EADS (European Aeronautic Defense and Space) that manufactures Airbus planes – and 22 Boeing 777s. Doha has the goal of welcoming 50 million passengers by 2015.

The emir's main ambition for his country is to become a diplomatic superpower.

That is why for example Qatar has been heavily financing the reconstruction of southern Lebanon, mediating at one point between the Palestinian Hamas and Fatah, and also doing the same between the al-Huthi rebels (supported by Iran) and the Yemeni regime.

Qatar is sometimes in a paradoxical situation, befriending enemies such as, for example, Israel and Hamas (its leader Khaled Meshaal is a regular in Doha), or Fatah and Hamas. Right after Hamas' coup in Gaza, Muhammad Dahlan, Fatah's ex-security chief accused: "Qatar also gave Hamas $400 million that was used to slaughter Palestinians."

Also Qatar is at the same time home to many ex-Iraqi Baathists and Saddam Hussein's widow, Sajida, and the largest U.S. base in the Middle East.

But this strategy has been hampered by Qatar's most famous creation – al-Jazeera – a fact that has created many enemies for Qatar in the Arab world, from Saudi Arabia (that actually broke diplomatic relations with it) to Jordan and Tunisia. These regimes are upset over the fact that al-Jazeera criticizes them and/or gives airtime to "dissidents." An Arab diplomat quoted by Le Figaro sums up quite well the feeling of Qatar's fellow Arabs: "Qatar loves to give us lessons, but it would be more credible if it cleaned up its own backyard." In fact, censorship in the Qatari press is high and Qatar does not have an elected parliament.

To prevent the risk of an Islamist upheaval, Doha is hosting a who's who of Islamists from Abassi Madani, the leader of the ex-FIS (the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front) which fought a bloody civil war against the Algerian regime in the 1990s, to Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the prominent Muslim Brotherhood leader (incidentally one of al-Jazeera's superstars) who justified suicide bombings against Israeli children and U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

The reason for this frenetic activity might be the emir's obsession with keeping its independence. According to a European diplomat quoted by Le Figaro: "The emir has long had the Kuwait syndrome vis-à-vis Iraq, he is scared to find himself one day with Saudi troops occupying his country and no one would say anything about it."

In light of this fear and of Tehran's threats to attack Qatar in case of a U.S. attack on its nuclear facilities, one can easily understand why Qatar has been handling Iran carefully. For proof, Qatar was the only country to reject a U.N. Security Council resolution against Tehran. Another reason for this policy is that 30 percent of Qataris are of Iranian descent.

But will this strategy of modernizing the country and trying to befriend everyone work?

Nothing is less sure. First, Qatar is trying too hard: being friendly with everyone is impossible. For instance, back in March 2005 in Doha, a suicide bomber (most likely linked or inspired by al-Qaida) killed one Briton and wounded 12 people in an attack at a theater frequented by Westerners. Then in June 2006, the Kuwaiti daily al-Seyassah reported that Qatar had foiled a destabilization plot against the regime and that Qatari authorities had arrested about 100 Syrian workers and five Syrian intelligence officers. This while Qatar is the only country, besides Iran, heavily investing in Syria.

Last but not least, the emir is changing his country while his people still remain very religious and conservative. Qatar is a devout Muslim country where most women wear the niqab (veil showing only the eyes) and where there is a prayer site every 150 meters (about 164 yards). The clash between modernity and tradition is bound to have unhappy consequences.

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