Eight London boroughs have populations larger than the 250,000 citizenry of Qatar. It is one of the most truly extraordinary developments in recent geopolitics that this tiny emirate in the Gulf has emerged as a highly active and, often, highly controversial players on the international stage.
Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who has just abdicated at the age of 61, handing over to his 33-year-old son Tamim, has been the driving force in this era of great change since he overthrew his own father in a coup in 1955. Fuelled by huge revenues from gas, a sovereign fund estimated at more than $100 billion has bought up real estate, businesses and football clubs. The state-subsidised Al-Jazeera is now one of the most watched satellite television channels in the world, shaping views especially in the Muslim world.
But it is Qatar’s voracious desire to become a political mover and shaker which has propelled it repeatedly into headlines. Just last weekend Doha, the capital, was where the Taliban opened their embassy for supposed talks with the Americans and the Afghan government while at the same time ministers and officials from western Europe, US and the Arab League were meeting to discuss stepping up support and providing arms to the rebels in Syria.
It is the Emirate’s role in supporting hardline Sunni groups which has made it an object of rage among opponents in the region with the onset of the Arab Spring. Sheikh Hamid bankrolled the uprising in Libya, as he is doing in Syria, as well as helping conservative groups in Tunisia and Egypt. It is not just authoritarian regimes like that of Assad and Gaddafi which sees Qatar as the proponent of theocratic states, but also moderate, semi-secular opposition groups.
It is unclear at this stage whether this investment will lead to Qatar achieving the role of power-broker in the Arab Autumn. The elections in Libya saw wholesale rejection of Islamist parties which were seen as creatures of the Emirate and other states in the Gulf. One example is that of Abdul Hakim Belhaj, a former militia commander, now suing the British government for its part in his rendition to Gaddafi, who was expected to do well at the polls. He did badly. “This is not a matter of surprise, even his party colours are that of Qatar Airways” a activist told me in Benghazi on the day. In fact there was a definite difference in shades, but the young men were convinced they had seen the true colours of the Islamists.
There is also dichotomy in the West’s dealings with Qatar, officially a staunch ally. One of the key reasons why the moderates did well in Libya is because Nato stepped in and ensured the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi. The Qataris and the Saudis were not the only and certainly not the most effective backers of the rebellion. In Syria, Europe and America have not helped the rebels militarily, allowing the Islamists, flush with funds and weapons supplied by Qataris and others in the Gulf, to become the most potent force.
It is no secret that the arms that Obama, Cameron and Hollande now wants to give - belatedly - to the more secular rebels are not just for use in the struggle against Assad. They will be used in the next phase of Syria’s civil war - against the Qatari backed Islamists.