Qatar feels pull of new Arab world - and global stage

 

United Nations

For years, the tiny oil sheikdom of Qatar has been a reliable US partner in the Middle East — as a host to the largest American military base in the region and as a diplomatic bulwark against Iran. It has backed the fall of autocratic rulers in Libya and Syria.

Two years after the start of the Arab Spring, however, Qatar's carefully cultivated reputation as a U.S. partner — and as a neutral broker in the region — is increasingly muddled. With billions of dollars in natural gas and oil revenue, it is bankrolling a new generation of Islamists across the Middle East, raising questions about its vision for the region and whether some of its policies are in direct conflict with U.S. interests.

Those questions are complicated by the country's apparent eagerness to retain influence in the West. It is increasingly underwriting Qatari outposts of Western universities and think tanks, including Georgetown University and the Brookings Institution, to help inform Western views about the region's future and Qatar's role in it.

Among some observers, the overarching questions about Qatar, as one senior Arab diplomat put it, is this: What, exactly, does it represent?

"I think that is part of the conundrum that is Qatar," said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity but whose government maintains close ties with the Persian Gulf country.

Officials at the Qatari Embassy in Washington and the Qatari mission to the United Nations did not make themselves available for interviews for this article.

In the past, Qatari officials have taken pride in their country's growing role on the world stage.

Since deposing his father in a bloodless coup in 1995, the country's emir, Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani, has transformed its capital, Doha, from a dusty Persian Gulf backwater into the undisputed intellectual and diplomatic capital of the Middle East. Slightly smaller than Connecticut and with a population of about 2 million, the country is home to now-global institutions, including the television network al-Jazeera.

Among other benefits, analysts say, Qatar's growing clout and its alliance with the United States have won it diplomatic leeway from Washington.

When Turkey's prime minister announced plans to visit the Gaza Strip recently, American officials made clear they opposed any engagement with Hamas, the Palestinian group that controls the strip. When Qatar's emir visited Gaza last month, pledging hundreds of millions in reconstruction aid, the State Department was understanding.

"The Qataris have described this as a humanitarian mission," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. "We share Qatar's deep concern for the welfare of the Palestinian people, including those residing in Gaza."

Qatar has long sought to cultivate a reputation as a country interested in serving the public good. As part of that effort, the country's foreign minister, Sheik Hamad Bin Jasim al-Thani, has combined deep pockets, extensive business investments and a vast conference center in Doha into a high-charged mediation juggernaut.

The Qataris invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the peace effort in Darfur, Sudan, hosting armed rebels, refugees and tribal leaders in luxury hotels in Doha for talks. In Lebanon, Qatar gained international plaudits for its skillful mediation, which fostered a national government involving pro-Iranian Hezbollah and a pro-Western faction.

Qatar has an ambiguous relationship with Iran, signing a military defense agreement with Tehran in 2010 and maintaining close ties with its traditional proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah. More recently, Qatar has served as a check on Iranian influence, backing the military overthrow of its closest ally, Syria, and seeking to replace Tehran as Hamas's benefactor.

"They want to be seen as a big player, an important player that is respected and willing to bring peace to distant lands," said Ibrahim Gambari, a former Nigerian diplomat who traveled to Doha more than two dozen times during peace negotiations on Darfur. "But they are very sensitive to this charge that they only use checkbook diplomacy to get their way."

Analysts, however, say the country has lost some of its claim as an honest broker through its support for specific players in the Arab Spring.

In Libya, for example, Qatar was among the first countries to provide warplanes to a NATO air campaign against Moammar Gadhafi. But it also overplayed its hand after Gadgafi's fall by supporting favored Islamist factions over the country's transitional government.

"They were supporting certain groups in Libya, but, well, these groups did not gain any popular support on the ground. . . . The main faction which was supported by them did not get any seats on the national assembly," said Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya's ambassador to the United Nations. "I think they that Libyans are very sensitive to foreign interventions in their affairs. I think [the Qataris] understand that now."

Qatar's cultivation of African Islamists, principally Somalia's al-Shabab insurgents, has similarly troubled the United States, which has accused the movement of providing a haven for al-Qaida militants involved in attacks against Americans. In 2009, Somalia's then-president, Sharif Ahmed, told a top U.S. diplomat that Qatar was channeling financial assistance to al-Shabab via Eritrea, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable disclosed by WikiLeaks.

Several weeks later, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, urged Turkey to press Qatar to end its support for Somali insurgents. Qatar denied the accusation.

"They understand they're walking a tight rope and they have been able to get away with it because they have tended to the relationship and have tried to be useful when interests converge," said Michael Hanna, an expert on the Middle East at the Century Foundation.

Among Qatar's top foreign policy objectives has been to support the opposition in Syria, including through the provision of military aid. Some of that aid has reportedly been delivered to Islamist factions.

Although the Qataris are committed to backing secular academic institutions, there is "clearly an Islamist bent to their foreign policy," said Gregory Gause, an expert on the Persian Gulf region at the University of Vermont who served as a non-resident senior fellow at Brookings Doha Center.

"They have made a decision: 'If we are going to play, we are going to be with the people on the rise and that is the Islamists," he said. At the same time, the Qataris know they remain key to U.S. military efforts in the region.

"That is their ultimate security guarantee and their entryway into the highest levels of American policymaking, which is why they can be so aggressive," Gause said. "Everything else is loose change."

In an era of fiscal austerity, Qatar's spending seems almost limitless.

It has purchased one of France's premier soccer teams, Paris-Saint Germain; mounted a costly, and successful, campaign to secure the World Cup for 2022; and acquired scores of properties from London to New York, including the Shard, Europe's tallest skyscraper.

But some of Qatar's most significant investments have been in establishing outposts of Western universities and think tanks. Among others, the country has partnered with the Brookings Institution, Georgetown University and the Royal United Services Institute to open programs specializing in science, journalism, education, agriculture and foreign policy.

"An important question is: Why are they doing it and what, if anything, does Qatar get out it?" said Hanna, the Century Foundation expert, who suggested that "vanity and a real search for prestige" might be part of the answer.

As academic institutions, Brookings and the other affiliated organizations retain their intellectual independence, but their positions often echo those of the Qatari government. Scholars at Brookings Doha Center, for example, have emerged as key backers of U.S. military support for the armed opposition in Syria and as influential voices explaining and defending the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, a chief beneficiary of Qatar's largesse.

Salman Shaikh, the director of Brookings Doha Center and a former adviser to Qatar's first lady, said that the center has no institutional positions and that its analysts and fellows have a "healthy variety of views" on the fate of the region, including critics of military intervention in Syria.

"Just because some of our views happen to coincide with Qatar's approach or Qatari interest shouldn't be taken to mean something it doesn't," he said.

"I've not had one conversation where the Qataris have tried to sway me in one particular direction over the last two years," he said. "That's not to say they always agree with me. They clearly don't. But I think, credit to the Qataris that they seem to be sticking with this when others have become more nervous. I think they see this in the long run as a public good."

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