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With Taliban ‘embassy,’ Qatar again punches above its weight

From hosting the al-Jazeera news network to sending warplanes to bomb Libya and calling for the ouster of Syria's dictator Bashar al-Assad, Qatar is staking a claim as a key player in a region in turmoil, willing to rile its bigger neighbours in pursuit of its own interests.

In its latest diplomatic coup, Qatar will host a Taliban "embassy" – apparently at Washington's request. Accepted by Kabul on Tuesday, the liaison office is designed to be a forum for peace talks that could end the decade-long war in Afghanistan.

While some see a sectarian pro-Sunni impulse in Qatar's activist foreign policy, others regard it as purely pragmatic, coupling self-interest with ambitions to star on the international stage.

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"This has been a sophisticated policy where Qatar managed to have a good relationship between the United States and other rivals in the region, like Iran," Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center, said in an interview with National Public Radio. "In order to protect yourself as a small, wealthy country, some sort of striking a balance is needed."

With some of the globe's biggest natural gas reserves, Qatar wields wealth and seeks influence far beyond its size. Occupying a sandy, low-lying 11,000-square-kilometre peninsula jutting into the Gulf, it would easily fit into Lake Ontario. Most of its 1.7-million residents are foreigners. Only about 300,000 are citizens.

Qatar is a dynamic conundrum, a desert wasteland with glittering city towers, booming trade, innovative investments and global ambitions.

It is home to a huge U.S. airbase yet remains on friendly terms with Tehran's ruling mullahs across the Gulf. The Muslim country will be hosting the 2022 World Cup and despite fears that it will crack down on the consumption of alcohol, it promises to make allowances for the event.

To some extent, Qatar has nimbly stayed on the protesters' side of the unfolding Arab Spring. It has backed pro-democracy forces in Libya, even to the point of training militias. It has marshalled Arab League sanctions against Syria's embattled and brutal regime. In recent weeks, Qatar closed its embassy in Damascus and led the Arab League effort to force the recalcitrant Syrian dictator to accept an intrusive monitoring team.

But its pro-democracy stance is selective.

Qatari troops and tanks joined the Saudi-led intervention to crush the largely Shia uprisings in Bahrain last spring.

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"When Qatar supports the call for democracy and free elections in Libya but assists in the smashing of demonstrations in Bahrain it is pursuing a foreign policy detached from principle," wrote Elliot Adams, a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Qatari diplomatic activity is designed to advance the interests of the tiny country and of its ruling family."

Host to one of the world's wealthiest populations, Qatar remains an absolute monarchy. While it prides itself on loudly calling for democracy in other Arab states, it allows none at home. The royal family owns al-Jazeera, the news network most widely watched and trusted in an Arab world usually stuck with dull and tame state broadcasters. Its bold, often ground-breaking coverage is rarely if ever at odds with the emirate's domestic or international policies.

Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani remains the driving force behind Qatar's transformation from sleepy Gulf backwater. For a few months, Canadian warplanes were based there during the 1991 Gulf War and it was the most excitement Doha had seen in decades. Four years later, then-crown-prince Hamad staged a quiet coup, ousting his father while he was vacationing in Switzerland, only to discover the tiny nation's treasury was bare. Since then, the discovery of massive natural gas reserves, coupled with the emir's unbounded ambition and a willingness to take risks rarely found among the conservative rulers of the Gulf, has transformed Qatar.

The latest gambit, hosting what seem certain to be Taliban talks with the Karzai government and perhaps with the United States raises Qatar's profile once more.

Qatar has long maintained good relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic political movements. And the presence of senior Taliban in the emirate may confer legitimacy on the long-disparaged Islamic movement.

Qatar's controversial decision was only grudgingly accepted by Mr. Karzai, who apparently fears that foreign powers – including the United States – will deal directly with the Taliban, sidelining his fragile and corrupt government. For Washington, a negotiated return to Taliban power-sharing in Kabul may allow U.S. President Barack Obama an exit with honour from Afghanistan.

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