How Tiny Qatar 'Punches Above Its Weight' : Parallels Most of the wealthy Gulf emirates prefer to keep a low profile. Not Qatar. Over the past two decades, it has aggressively pursued high-profile projects such as launching the Al Jazeera satellite network and winning a bid to host the 2022 World Cup.
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How Tiny Qatar 'Punches Above Its Weight'

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How Tiny Qatar 'Punches Above Its Weight'

How Tiny Qatar 'Punches Above Its Weight'

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

And this week, I'll be reporting on the Arab state of Qatar. I was there earlier this month. It's a peninsula that juts out of Saudi Arabia into the Persian Gulf and it's the world's leading export of liquefied natural gas. Qatar's capital, Doha, is a city of full of skyscrapers, museums and history, much of it dating as far back as the 1990s.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: What kind of coffee, sir? We have Turkish coffee. We have American coffee, hot latte, cappuccino.

SIEGEL: I'm at a cafe in the old market, the old souq of Doha, Qatar. With me is Bahra Nadi(ph). You're from Doha.

BAHRA NADI: Yes. I'm born and raised here.

SIEGEL: Born and raised. We should say, you learned your English from watching American television programs, really.

NADI: Pretty much, yes.

SIEGEL: So tell me, what is this place? What is - how old is this old souq that we're sitting.

NADI: This souq was - from what I know, is the oldest souq here in Doha. And even though it still has that old-school feel, there are a lot of modern shops and things to it. Also, as you can see, tourist shops where...

SIEGEL: Yeah, Coffee Beanery is not a traditional...


SIEGEL: ...Qatari outfit. It's here. And lots of souvenir shops...

NADI: Mm-hmm.

SIEGEL: ...craft shops. So this is where the marketplace of Doha...

NADI: Mm-hmm.

SIEGEL: ...has always been. But this is not some ancient structure that we're sitting in, right?

NADI: Oh, no, it's not. It's modeled as if it's old.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Sir, also your black coffee.

SIEGEL: Thank you.


SIEGEL: To quote from the Qatar Tourism Authority's Mini Visitor's Guide: with its cobblestone labyrinth of alleyways, mud walls and wooden beams, it's hard to believe this impressive version of Souq Waqif is just a few years old. The government restored it to its original glory in 2004.

The dubious antiquity of the old souq, the ubiquitous Filipino servers, the Tutti Frutti shop across from the Coffee Beanery, all this raises a question about Qatar, a country of just 260,000 citizens. It's the question that puzzles Professor Mehran Kamrava, an American who teaches at Georgetown University's campus in Doha. He's written a book called "Qatar: Small State, Big Politics."

MEHRAN KAMRAVA: What motivated me to write this book was the question of whether or not Qatar is for real. When I started studying Qatar, I realized that here is an extremely small state consistently punching above its weight and playing a larger role than is commensurate with its size, demography and, in many ways, its resources, quite frankly.

SIEGEL: What makes Qatar tick? Why do people who, as one American expat put it to me, could take their highest per capita GDP in the world and retire en masse to the south of France - why do they play what Professor Kamrava calls a hyperactive role in regional and world affairs? Involvement in Libya, Egypt, Syria, ownership of Al Jazeera, buying artworks, hosting American universities, hosting a World Cup.

Shadi Hamid, who's director of research at the Brookings Institution's Doha Center, says it's a kind of branding exercise.

SHADI HAMID: Qatar doesn't want to just be a tiny, small state in the middle of the Gulf. They want to leave their mark on the region's politics, and not just politics, but culture, sports and education. The question is, you know, why do they want that? And I think it's been part of a shift that we saw start in the mid-1990s.

SIEGEL: When there was a palace coup that revolutionized the place. Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani ousted his own father as emir. He survived a failed countercoup that was backed by Saudi Arabia, and together with his wife and prime minister, set out to drag Qatar into modernity.

Something else happened in the 1990s. Iraq invaded the small, oil-rich nation of Kuwait. Allen Fromherz used to teach in Qatar. And he says Qataris have not forgotten that.

ALLEN FROMHERZ: Qatar doesn't want to see itself as being this priceless jewel that can simply be gobbled up by one of its more powerful neighbors, whether Saudi Arabia or Iran.

SIEGEL: So Qatar set about becoming not just rich, but also valuable to the region and to the world.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: OK. Standby, Alpha(ph).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Counting to air in 10, nine...

SIEGEL: Its first big achievement was launching a satellite television network, first in Arabic and then in English. This is the global headquarters of Al Jazeera.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Bravo titles...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Tell us if Bravo's next.

SIEGEL: Al Jazeera is backed by so much Qatari money that this year, when it launched its American channel and bought Current TV for access to cable systems, it paid $500 million for a virtually unwatched channel. That's twice what Jeff Bezos paid for the venerable Washington Post.

And Qatar's hyperactivism goes far beyond Al Jazeera. It mediated Arab disputes among the Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, and also among factions in Lebanon and Darfur. Qatar was a strong supporter of ousting Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. And it backed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Islamist rebels in Syria.

Those efforts have turned out to be to so messy that when Sheikh Hamad stepped down voluntarily as emir this year and handed the reins to his son, who formed a new government, analysts like Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution saw a re-calibration of Qatari priorities.

HAMID: The current prime minister is also the minister of interior, where the previous prime minister was also the foreign minister. So that by itself shows that there's going to be more of a domestic focus.

SIEGEL: They're looking more inward, exactly.

HAMID: Looking - yeah, looking more inward. And I think there's a realization that maybe they went too far with their support of certain Islamist groups in the region that provoked the backlash. And having traveled in the region in places like Egypt and Tunisia, you know, I saw this anti-Qatari sentiment firsthand. So Qatar's stock has taken a hit.

SIEGEL: The Qataris insist that they only backed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt because they were the government. They point out that they've aided Egyptian governments before and since, although they also hosted a prominent exiled Egyptian preacher who's linked to the Brotherhood for over 50 years. As for Syria, they say they deplore the most extreme Islamists but think the U.S. has pushed away others by being too fast to label them terrorists.

More recently, two men who have advised Qatar on philanthropic giving have been accused by the U.S. Treasury of actually aiding groups allied to al-Qaida. These are serious differences between the U.S. and Qatar, but the connections between the two countries are at least as serious.

Al Udeid is about 20 miles from Doha, in a flat, lifeless desert where the wind is incessant. It is home to a U.S. Air Force base that serves as its central command, including U.S. forces in Afghanistan. This is where the Air Force came when Saudi Arabia wanted the U.S. military out. Like every place else in Qatar, al Udeid, or as it's know to the airmen, The Deed, is a massive construction zone.

COLONEL BRIAN BOHANNON: These are more dorms. This is central command dorms. And on your right is our hospital.

SIEGEL: Colonel Brian Bohannon gave me a tour of this huge base that's becoming more permanent.

BOHANNON: On the left here is one of our dining facilities, approximately 3.2 million meals a year served out of here.

SIEGEL: Until this month, the U.S. deferred to Qatari sensibilities and referred to this base as an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia. Now, the Qataris have spoken publicly about it. Qatar is a land of strange bedfellows. It has welcomed the U.S. Air Force and a political office of the Afghan Taliban. It maintains ties with Hamas and Iran, with whom Qatar shares a huge natural gas field. Again, Mehran Kamrava of Georgetown.

KAMRAVA: What Qatar did was to hedge its bets. It placed one big bet one way with American military protection and American diplomacy. But at the same time, it ensured that it also maintained relationships with actors such as Hamas or with countries such as Iran.

SIEGEL: Qatar's aim was to create a space in the Gulf region where differing parties, even rivals and enemies, could do their deals. Alan Fromherz says the Qataris had a history of mediating among tribes and with their more powerful neighbors, the Saudis.

FROMHERZ: They simply extended that to the international affairs arena.

SIEGEL: Allen Fromherz says the Qataris had a history of mediating among tribes and with their more powerful neighbors, the Saudis.

FROMHERZ: They simply extended that to the international affairs arena. Qatar wants to be seen as a forum, a place where people from very divergent ideologies or people from very divergent international strategic positions can meet and hash out their differences. And by doing so, Qatar gains in prestige, Qatar gains in the sense that it becomes an essential player in the region.

SIEGEL: Qataris call it a policy of inclusion. Khalid al-Attiyah, the Qatari foreign minister, spoke about it this year at Britain's Royal Institute of International Affairs, known as Chatham House.

KHALID AL-ATTIYAH: Our country consider that political solution require the representation and participation of all parties to the conflict, no matter how difficult and controversial at the time. It is our belief that only such precondition can allow for viable, legitimate and ultimately long-term resolution to conflict.

SIEGEL: If Qatar has spent the past 18 years or so putting itself on the map to ensure that it stays there, in nine years, it will show up on the map in brighter boldface than ever.

SEPP BLATTER: The winner to organize the 2022 FIFA World Cup is Qatar.


SIEGEL: The Qataris won a bid for soccer's World Cup despite summer humidity that pushes 100 and temperatures that exceed it, and despite a population so small that a million expected visiting soccer fans will increase the population by 50 percent. The bid has accelerated the need for new infrastructure, which means more foreign construction workers, and it has prompted criticism of the country's labor practices. We'll hear about that tomorrow.

The chairman of the national 2022 Committee is a Qatari named Hassan al-Thawadi, whose aides assure me that he speaks French and Spanish like a native. He spoke to me at his office in a Doha skyscraper in English but in full national dress about the pride that people have in the cup coming to the Mideast.

HASSAN AL-THAWADI: And I'll be honest with you, it's not just Qataris, not just the people in this nation. It's also people throughout the region that are proud of Qatar actually hosting the World Cup, that are proud because they feel it is their World Cup.

SIEGEL: Hosting the World Cup or the Olympics typically prompts a debate over whether the huge expense is worth it. Will the facilities be used after the games? Will there really be jobs for the locals in building them? Well, in Qatar, it's different. The construction jobs, like most jobs in the country, are for foreign workers, not Qataris. As for the stadiums, think back to the illusion of the Old Souk and remember that money here is no object. After the World Cup, what will Qatar do with enough seating to accommodate entire neighboring countries for a night of soccer?

AL-THAWADI: Once we're done with the World Cup, what we were going to do was take down these modular seats, reconfigure them into smaller seatings. The number is about 50,000 seats or so, so you can reconfigure them into 5,000-, 2,000-, 3,000-, 10,000-seater stadiums, pass them on to developing nations, especially developing nations that are looking to invest in football infrastructure.

SIEGEL: As Hassan al-Thawadi describes it, the World Cup symbolizes regional leadership, and by creating a novel form of foreign aid - stadiums - it enhances global prestige. And the Qataris have nine years to figure out how to make good on their obligation to make beer available without offending local sensibilities in a country where alcohol is largely banned.

Tomorrow, the people who build the stadiums, the infrastructure and the skyscrapers and why labor activists say their lot is tantamount to modern day slavery.

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