Qatar Emerges As Major Force In Arab World

The tiny Persian Gulf state of Qatar has deep pockets and a big microphone in the form of its news network, Al Jazeera. In recent months, those assets have been used to propel the Arab Spring forward. Qatar has supported rebel movements in Libya and Syria, and is promoting a "Marshall Fund" for Oman, Morocco and Jordan. The country's emir has close, personal relationships with the emerging Islamist leaders from Casablanca to Cairo — and meanwhile provides a home to the largest U.S. military base outside the United States.

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The Persian Gulf State of Qatar has emerged as a new power in the Middle East. Last month, it led a reluctant Arab League to take decisive action against Syria. And earlier, jets from Qatar flew with NATO in the campaign against Libya's former dictator Moammar Gadhafi. It's also home to Al Jazeera, the provocative Arab satellite channel.

NPR's Deborah Amos traveled to Qatar and has this report on how it projects its power.

HASSAN AL-IBRAHIM: It's here by the roundabout. Just take a left.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Driving through the capital, it's bumper to bumper traffic. Hassan al-Ibrahim gives directions to friends who are lost in Doha's rapidly changing landscape.

AL-IBRAHIM: Because of the speed that Qatar is growing in, every day, you would have a new street, a new construction happening. And that's why it's harder for people to get to the Majlis.

AMOS: He works at one of the country's largest natural gas companies. It's the commodity that makes all this remarkable growth possible, 20 percent a year, and citizens are the richest on Earth. Tonight, Ibrahim is hosting a Majlis, an informal discussion group. The topic: Qatar's new role in the region.

AL-IBRAHIM: I would say Qatar's role now is way bigger than its weight. I mean, it's punching over its weight.

AMOS: Qatar emerged as the champion of the Arab uprisings, funding Libya's rebels, calling on Yemen's president to step down and leading the campaign to isolate Syria for its bloody crackdown on dissent. Ibrahim says Qataris are proud of the new role crafted by the emir, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Qatar's absolute monarch and its chief policymaker.

AL-IBRAHIM: And because of its size, it gives it the agility needed to move fast and move quick and make a decision and take risks as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

AL-IBRAHIM: Let me take this phone call. Hello?

AMOS: The risks have paid off. Qatar seems to have picked the winners in the Arab uprisings and now, has close ties with new leaders, says Blake Hounshell based in Doha with Foreign Policy magazine.

BLAKE HOUNSHELL: They keep their ear to the ground, and they have a good finger on who's popular in various countries. They support Islamist movements all across North Africa. They're very influential in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt. And in Syria, they have close ties to a lot of different groups but, you know, especially the Islamists there.

AMOS: With Islamists likely to come to power through the ballot box, Qatar has backed the shift and is poised to play a pivotal role. And that could help the United States, he says.

HOUNSHELL: What the Qataris would say is, we understand these people and we can talk to them. You may not be able to talk to these groups, but we can talk to them, and we can pass messages back and forth.

AMOS: How did this tiny state become such a power? Foreign policy wonks say Qatar is simply following a textbook strategy for a small state in a tough neighborhood seeming to play ball with all sides. Qatar is the only Gulf State to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran while it hosts Centcom on the largest American military base outside the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AMOS: This is Qatar's soft power. Al Jazeera's Arabic broadcasts are seen as an arm of foreign policy. But another factor in the outsized role, there's a power vacuum, says Fawaz Gerges with the London School of Economics.

FAWAZ GERGES: Where are the Egyptians? Where are the Saudis? Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the two most pivotal states in the Arab State system, yet Qatar now has emerged as the lead player.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: A parade of camels lopes through this park on Qatar's National Day, a commemoration of the old desert culture, says Amanda Abu Abdullah, a correspondent with Doha TV.

AMANDA ABU ABDULLAH: It's a celebration of tradition, Qatari tradition. You can see what women used to do, the tents where the old Bedouins used to sit and the Majlis.

AMOS: Does anybody do this any more?

ABDULLAH: I don't think so.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

AMOS: But they did only a few decades ago. Qatar's climb to wealth and power began in the mid-'90s when the current monarch ousted his father in a bloodless coup. He modernized and liberalized, opening six U.S. university branch campuses. He built world-class art museums and super highways. He allowed women to drive and provided churches for expat workers. There are more than a million of them. Even alcohol is tolerated here.

These days, the 250,000 Qataris are more likely to be found at Villagio, a massive shopping mall that looks like Las Vegas without the gambling.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER)

AMOS: I am riding in a gondola in a canal through the shopping mall. It's filled with crystal clear water. There's also an indoor merry-go-round and a Ferris wheel. There's an ice skating rink for hockey competitions, where spectators can sit along the edge and drink brand name coffee.

But with all this wealth, what are the long-term intentions of Qatar's leader? No one has a good answer, but the role he plays now draws admiration, as well as irritation, says Blake Hounshell.

HOUNSHELL: Well, there's definitely, I think, an element of Qatar being too big for its britches. There was a famous TV meltdown by a Libyan diplomat a few weeks ago where he said, you know, what is Qatar? Who are these guys? The Qataris population could fit into one neighborhood in Libya. But diplomacy is a confidence game, and Qatar is filled with confidence, and they know how to play this game.

AMOS: Confidence helped Qatar win the bid for World Cup soccer in 2022, that and a promise to change the weather for the playing fields in the desert. But Qatar has already helped change the political climate in the Middle East. Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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