Qatar’s Balancing Act (from National Post)
Fascinating article on Qatar – thank you, John Mueller, who sends me these great news articles.
From the National Post
Qatar’s balancing act
Fadi Al-Assaad, Reuters Files
Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, has steadily built a reputation for mediation and seeks to be regarded as an “honest broker” in the Middle East.
Peter Goodspeed, National Post · Feb. 25, 2012 | Last Updated: Feb. 25, 2012 5:16 AM ET
The tiny country of Qatar used the slogan “Expect the Amazing” when it successfully bid to host soccer’s 2022 World Cup.
It’s a phrase that could summarize the reign of Emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, who in just 17 years has turned a small Arabian peninsula of salt and sand flats, once one of the poorest countries in the Persian Gulf, into the world’s richest country and possibly the Middle East’s most influential state.
A former British protectorate, which was noted for its declining pearl fishery when it became independent in 1971, Qatar was once described by the Lonely Planet Travel Guide as “possibly the most boring place on Earth.”
Now, according to the World Bank, its 250,000 citizens and 1.5 million foreign workers have the highest per capita income in the world (US$84,000, twice that of the United States) and an economy that outstripped China by growing 15.8% last year.
Since 2006, Qatar has been the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas and the kingdom is transforming its new wealth into worldwide influence.
Qatar recently led the Arab League’s expulsion of Syria and, on Friday, called for the creation of an Arab military force to open humanitarian corridors to protect civilians in Syria.
Last month, it allowed Afghanistan’s Taliban to open an office in Doha to facilitate peace talks with the U.S.
And in the spring, it was the first Arab country to recognize the rebel government in Libya.
The emirate sent six Mirage fighters to Crete to help NATO enforce a no fly zone over Libya.
It also supplied rebels with the fuel, weapons, cash and the training they needed to overthrow dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Qatari special forces provided basic infantry training in the Nafusa Mountains, west of Tripoli and some helped lead the final assault on Col. Gaddafi’s compound in the capital.
They were so proud of their achievement, they hung a Qatari flag from the wreckage of his palace.
“The Qataris have really adopted a kind of adventurous foreign policy in the last couple of years and shown a willingness to send special forces to these kind of areas of conflict,” said Andrew McGregor, senior editor of the Global Terrorism Monitor for the Jamestown Foundation.
“They’ve used their considerable wealth to supply arms and whatever else is needed.
“I would be keeping a close eye on what they are doing [in Syria]. They are rapidly emerging as a real power in the Arab League, despite their size. They are very influential and very wealthy, and they have shown a willingness to be engaged.”
The Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, sometimes referred to disparagingly as the “Arab World’s Henry Kissinger,” has steadily built a reputation for mediation and seeks to be regarded as an “honest broker” in the Middle East.
“Since the mid-1990s, Qatar has pursued an activist foreign policy, using its affluence, unthreatening military position and skills as a mediator to interject itself in conflicts around the Middle East and beyond,” said David Roberts, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute’s Doha Centre.
In recent years, Sheikh Hamad has carefully inserted himself in conflicts in Libya, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank, Sudan, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan.
In 2008, an agreement negotiated in Doha averted another civil war in Lebanon by establishing a power sharing agreement between the country’s different factions. Around the same time, Qatar helped negotiate a short-lived ceasefire in Yemen, mediated a border dispute between Djibouti and Eritrea, and hosted peace talks between Sudan and rebel groups in Darfur.
A regional actor with international reach, Sheikh Hamad has pursued a foreign policy that is ripe with conflicts and contradictions.
Qatar maintains good relations with Iran, while still offering the U.S. its biggest and most important air base in the Middle East at al-Udeid, a few kilometres outside Doha.
Unlike most Arab states, Qatar has generally had good relations with Israel and allowed the Israelis to maintain a commercial office in Doha until the 2009 Gaza invasion.
At the same time, it has warm relations with Israel’s enemies Hamas and Hezbollah, and provides safe haven to hardline Islamists from all over the Arab world.
Leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria fled to Qatar in the 1960s and 1970s, even though the kingdom’s rulers frown on organized political Islam and ban all political parties.
Qatar “has a reputation for ‘omni-balancing’ between seemingly incompatible policies,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Gulf expert at the London School of Economics.
“Qatar’s rise, seemingly from nowhere, is rooted in deeper political, economic and security shifts and, in turn, is reconfiguring the balance of regional power.”
Those changes highlight Sheikh Hamad’s own rise to power and his reign in Qatar, where his family has ruled since the 19th century.
Raised by a maternal uncle’s family, after his mother died young, the Emir attended the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, west of London, graduating in 1971, the year Qatar won its independence and when its first natural gas field was discovered.
He was made a lieutenant colonel in Qatar’s army and, after his father deposed an uncle to become emir in 1972, he rapidly rose to become commander-in-chief of its armed forces.
As crown prince, Sheikh Hamad was gradually given the power to run the country day-to-day, while his father cultivated a taste for extravagance and spent most of his time on the French Riviera.
Sheikh Hamad oversaw development of Qatar’s oil and gas industry and carefully planned an economy that provides Qataris with free education, health care, housing and utilities – and no taxes.
But when his father returned home briefly in 1995 and arbitrarily demoted another son from his position as prime minister, Crown Prince Sheikh Hamad staged a bloodless coup. He informed his father by telephone while he was holidaying in Switzerland.
The old emir returned to the Gulf the following year, publicly disowning his son and trying to drum up support for a countercoup, but Sheik Hamad snuffed out the plot by freezing billions of dollars in his father’s overseas bank accounts.
Then, just 44 and the youngest ruler in the Gulf, he set about to reform and redefine Qatar.
Surrounding himself with young, Western-educated advisors, he drew up a longterm plan to develop a post-oil knowledge-based economy.
He has allocated 40% of Qatar’s budget between now and 2016 to massive infrastructure projects, including an $11billion international airport, a $5.5-billion deep-water seaport and a $1-billion transport corridor in Doha, as well as $20billion in new roads.
He has also invited foreign universities to establish Middle East campuses in a $100-billion Education City in Doha.
Without an elected parliament to advise him, the Emir has final say in the disposition of the country’s $70-billion to $100-billion sovereign wealth fund, which has made it a financial powerhouse internationally by investing heavily in everything from German carmakers Porsche and Volk-swagen to the Agricultural Bank of China, Harrods department store in London, a Brazilian bank, Chinese oil refineries, a Spanish soccer team and a French fashion house.
The Emir’s most influential investment was his creation of the 24-hour Arab-language Al Jazeera television network in 1996.
Granted a level of editorial independence unheard of in the Arab world, Al Jazeera is encouraged to report freely and aggressively on everything but Qatari politics, and is the most watched TV network in the Middle East.
The broadcaster was widely regarded as one of the driving forces behind the spread of the Arab Spring.
“Qatar hopes to insert itself as the key mediator between the Muslim world and the West,” Mr. Roberts said.
“Qatar sees its role as a highly specialized interlocutor between the two worlds, making – from the West’s point of view – unpalatable but necessary friendships and alliances with anti-Western leaders.”
Sheikh Hamad Bin Jasem Al-Thani, Qatar’s Prime Minister and a distant cousin of the Emir, likes to say his country is small and has to be proactive to protect its interest and avoid being run over by more powerful neighbours.
“Our policy is to be friendly with everybody,” the Emir said recently in a television interview. “We are looking for peace. It doesn’t mean if two parties turn against each other, we have to go to one party. No, we would like to stick with the two parties.”
- Formerly a British protectorate, Qatar has been ruled by the Al-Thani family since the mid-1800s. The current Emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, overthrew his father in a bloodless coup in 1995.
- Oil and natural gas revenues have enabled Qatar to attain the highest per-capita income in the world (US$84,000 according to a report this year by Global Finance).
- Oil output at current levels should last 57 years, according to the CIA World Factbook.
- It has a zero unemployment rate and zero percentage below the poverty line.
- The mostly flat and desert land is 11,586 square kilometres – only slightly larger than Jasper National Park.
- It has a population of 848,016 – similar to the population of Edmonton.
SOURCE: NATIONAL POST NEWS SERVICES
JONATHON RIVAIT / NATIONAL POST
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