Qatar's Game

By Elliot Jager
Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On the map of the Middle East, it is easy to overlook the peninsular state of Qatar, bordering Saudi Arabia and jutting into the Persian Gulf opposite Iran. Yet, as the dominant exporter of liquefied natural gas, it is one of the world's wealthiest countries. Nor is it easy to pigeonhole. Already home to a world-class museum of modern art, it will host the World Cup soccer games in 2022; its national airline has inspired some of the most creative commercials on television; and through its sponsorship of the broadcast dynamo Al-Jazeera, it punches considerably above its weight in global media.

In 1996, Qatar invited Israel to open a trade mission and welcomed a visit by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. In 2008, it allowed the Israeli tennis star Shahar Pe'er to play in a Women's Tennis Association tournament, and Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni to address its Doha "Democracy Forum." (Shimon Peres had made his second visit to Doha a year earlier.) Considered an American ally, Qatar also hosts, rent-free, the U.S. military's command overseeing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

All of this—both the spectacular economic development and the cultivated cosmopolitanism, in a country where native Qataris, practicing a "liberal" form of Wahhabi Islam,  comprise but one-seventh of the total population of 1.4 million—is attributable to Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and his family. The family includes his first lady, Sheikha Mosah Bint Nasser al-Missned, one of the most influential women in the world and a spearhead of local reform, and Prime Minister Hamed bin Jaber al-Thani, whose recent corporate flirtation with Israeli entrepreneurs has been interpreted in some quarters as a political overture to the Jewish state.  

There is, however, a darker side. During Israel's 2008–2009 military campaign to put a stop to Hamas rocket-fire from Gaza, Qatar broke off relations with Jerusalem and coordinated with extremist Arabs, plus Iran, to mobilize support for the Hamas regime. Subsequently the Qataris offered to resume relations on condition they would be allowed to funnel reconstruction money directly to Hamas authorities. In addition to thus helping bankroll one terrorist organization, the al-Thanis have played a key role in facilitating another, Hizballah, in its rise to suzerainty over Lebanon. To complete the circle, in December 2007 Qatar invited Mahmud Ahmadinejad to address the Gulf Cooperation Council in Doha, the first Iranian leader ever to do so.

And then there is Al-Jazeera, created by Sheikh Hamad in 1996, based in Doha, and a key tool of Qatar's foreign policy. In an Arab world where, until recently, dissent was forbidden, the channel's readiness to criticize Arab autocrats (excluding, naturally, the ruler of Qatar) has been undeniably exhilarating. Al-Jazeera has also played a critical role in setting, or codifying, the notion of contemporary pan-Arab unrest. At the same time, however, it has consistently disseminated the fulminations of al-Qaeda's Osama bin Laden, spread the radical views of the Muslim Brotherhood, provided a bully pulpit for the extremist preacher Yussuf al-Qaradawi, championed Hamas over Fatah (by, among other things, broadcasting the "Palestine Papers"), promoted the Hamas-Iran-Syria-Hizbullah agenda, and glorified as martyrs those killed "resisting" Israel.

To a Western observer, Qatar's foreign policy can seem merely incoherent. On the one hand, the ruling family professes to promote reform and democratization; on the other hand, it is a friend to medievalism, rejectionism, and violent pan-Islamism. At Al-Jazeera, when Qatar's rulers don't know what to make of a crisis, the network, too, can vacillate—for instance, by at first downplaying the current disturbances in Egypt, only to become the nexus of anti-Mubarak agitation. But on closer inspection, the incoherence begins to look deliberate. Through Al-Jazeera, and unlike the BBC's World Service shortwave broadcasts or the Radio Free Europe of yesteryear, Qatar not infrequently exercises its soft power in the service of tyranny.

No doubt, there is a self-protective impulse at work here. In return for not being targeted by terrorists, Qatar has come to an arrangement with Islamist groups. For years it has given safe haven to members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and since 2003 has reportedly been paying al-Qaeda to spare it from attack. Such "neutralist" playing-off of contending forces and values might even be excusable were the ultimate goal to bring the principles of modernity to the Arab world. Regrettably, there is slim evidence that Qatar's Swiss-like inscrutability has any purpose beyond self-preservation, consequences be damned. 

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