Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

The Qatar skyline is seen in this aerial view taken December 20, 2008. (FADI AL-ASSAAD/Reuters)
The Qatar skyline is seen in this aerial view taken December 20, 2008. (FADI AL-ASSAAD/Reuters)


How a Persian Gulf backwater became an international power broker Add to ...

They came to discuss the conflict in Libya, but equally interesting was where this week's landmark meeting of rebel and NATO leaders took place.

Qatar, a tiny, gas-rich emirate on the Persian Gulf, has proved more than a backdrop. It has emerged yet again as a key player in a complicated conflict, the perennial problem-solver in a troubled region.

Qatar became the first Arab country to grant political recognition to Libyan rebels, and the only one to send fighter jets in support of a Western-led assault to assist them. It has donated food, fuel and medical supplies to the rebels, and struck a deal to buy their oil. It has helped them broadcast their message via satellite TV. It has also armed them with French-made missiles.

Qatar's bold intervention is evidence of its remarkable evolution. In less than a generation, it has transformed itself into the diplomatic centre of the Arab world, an astonishing feat for a country with a native population of just 200,000 people. And it has sidestepped the Tunisian-inspired protests that have swept the region.

A decade ago, the emirate was a backwater, dwarfed by the ambitions of its neighbours - Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq. Glitzy Dubai and oil-rich Abu Dhabi outshone the sleepy city-state of Qatar. It was a dreaded destination for business people, who joked the only danger of travelling to the capital, Doha, was death by boredom.

Now, you'd be hard-pressed to find a part of the world where Qatar doesn't hold diplomatic or economic interests.

It has negotiated with rebels in Yemen and Morocco, waded into conflicts in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and even taken a stab at resolving the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not to mention brokering an end to Lebanon's political crisis in 2008.

It's home to al-Jazeera, the influential international Arabic news channel. And in 2022, Qatar will play host to the World Cup.

The Qatar Investment Authority, the emirate's secretive sovereign wealth fund, has gone on a spending spree in the last five years, snapping up significant stakes in the London Stock Exchange, Harrods Group, Sainsbury's and the Walt Disney Company's Miramax Films.

"It's trying to be little Switzerland at the moment," said Christopher Davidson, a professor of Mideast politics at Durham University in the United Kingdom. "It's doing a pretty good job."

In an interview on CNN, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani explained his country's foreign policy as pure self-interest: "We are a small country and we have to defend the interests of Qatar," he said.

Engaging with Washington and Tehran means "both of them they have to accept our policy," he said. "This is our policy, we are open for all the countries. … We will defend our interests"

The House of Thani, which has ruled Qatar as an absolute monarchy since 1825, is fuelled by the twin factors of fortune and fear.

Vast natural gas and oil reserves have given Qatar an astonishing GDP per capita of $145,300, the highest in the world.

Qataris are so wealthy that the majority never have to work, profiting from a law that requires businesses to be majority-owned by a citizen, though foreigners do the actual work.

Its giant northern gas field, which straddles the border with Iran, is a guarantee of future wealth. It also serves as a stark reminder of how susceptible the desert kingdom is to a takeover.

"They have incredibly fortunate circumstances but they are also in an incredibly vulnerable position. Saudi Arabia could roll in tomorrow and nobody could stop them," said Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Iran could do the same."

The ruling family has decided the best way to mitigate this risk is to make friends with the right people, namely the Americans, and it's working.

U.S. President Barack Obama recently singled out the Emir of Qatar for his role in navigating the crises in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia.

"We would not have been able to shape the kind of broad-based international coalition that includes not only our NATO members and also includes Arab states without the Emir's leadership," he said.

But Doha's extended circle of friends is an awkward group.

It has maintained close ties to Iran, and has financed Hamas after it won Palestinian elections in 2006, but Qatar also plays host to Israeli officials.

It is home to one of America's largest airbases and U.S. Central Command, but Qatar has also offered sanctuary to Chechen rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev and Saddam Hussein's widow, Sajida Khairallah Tulfah.

Qatar's ability to align itself with pretty much anyone is a testament to its neutrality, say supporters. Critics say its foreign policy borders on the schizophrenic. Its increased prominence has also earned the ire of the region's traditional power brokers, such as Saudi Arabia, which severed diplomatic ties to the country, and Egypt.

"They are resentful of this little tin-pot country. This nouveau city-state has so much influence, not the great historic nations with 5,000-year-old traditions," Ms. Coleman said. "Who are these people? Who are these Qataris? It drives them mad."

Toby Jones, an expert on the modern Middle East who teaches at Rutgers University, says Doha is seeking something more valuable than money - influence.

"Qataris don't seem to think they need anything in a tangible way, so it's all symbolic," he said. "That's important in the Middle East. Who's going to carry the mantle of Arab nationalism? Who's going to lead the community?"

Sheik al-Thani took power in a bloodless coup in 1996 while his father was on a ski holiday in Switzerland. His rule has coincided with the country becoming the world's biggest gas exporter.

"There was a lot of frustration amongst the Qatari people about the gas wealth and how it was going to be spent," said Prof. Davidson, of Durham University.

Since then, the Emir and his favoured wife, Sheikha Moza, have projected themselves as the modern face of the Middle East. They frequently travel as a couple and dine out together in restaurants. She wears glamorous designer clothes beneath her full-length abaya.

Unusually outspoken for an emir's wife, she is understood to be one of the driving forces behind Qatar's Education City, home to satellite campuses of Ivy League schools and al-Jazeera children's channel.

Al-Jazeera itself has proven hugely influential in the decade since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, becoming a credible source of international news and hugely popular in the Arab world.

"Basically al-Jazeera has become more well-known than Qatar itself," said Mustafa Alani, a senior adviser at the Gulf Research Center, based in Dubai.

Some analysts argue the ruling family has used al-Jazeera, and other symbols of democracy, such as the Doha Debates, as a front, deflecting attention from its own authoritarian rule.

"By creating al-Jazeera they actually negate the need for democratic political institutions," Ms. Coleman suggested.

For the moment, nobody inside the tiny kingdom seems to be complaining.

"They have their own calculations," Mr. Alani said. "In international politics, they have walked a long way. Once, nobody had even heard of them. Now, they are dancing in every party."


More related to this story

In the know

Most popular videos »


More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular