Qatar, a glittering peninsula of skyscrapers and sand, reminds one of a well-dressed, ambitious little guy playing all the angles in a rough neighborhood. Its pushy rise to prominence is creating suspicion and hardening the Middle East split between moderate U.S. allies and more militant nations.
The Persian Gulf emirate is holding summits and orchestrating regional diplomacy, sometimes outflanking the traditional powers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and in calming Lebanese factions.
The oil-rich nation of 825,000 people, most of them foreign workers, juts into the sea like a swollen thumb. White mosques and spiraling, fluted buildings stand beside legions of cranes in the capital, Doha, where sails of dhows snap along a palm-lined corniche past branch campuses of American universities.
It is this international style mixed with a new architectural panache that Qatar wants to imprint upon its brand of media savvy foreign policy.
Qatar’s prestige emanates largely from the Al Jazeera channel based in Doha. The state-owned station broadcasts the most comprehensive coverage in the region but also plays to populist anti-Israeli and anti-U.S. views, giving Qatar legitimacy among Arabs even as it hosts one of the largest U.S. bases in the region.
These dual images are part of a careful sleight-of-hand by the country’s emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani.
“Qatar feels it has a duty to fulfill in the Arab world, especially after the retreat of the role played by certain Arab countries,” said Muhammad Musfir, of Qatar University, referring to Egypt’s failure to resolve regional problems.
To its critics, Doha, with one of the world’s highest per capita incomes, speaks in too many tongues. It has close ties to Iran, Syria and the radical group Hamas in the Gaza Strip. But except for a break in relations during the Gaza war in January, Qatar was the only Gulf country with economic and diplomatic links to Israel.
Qatar could be a help or a hindrance to the U.S. as it seeks to improve relations with Iran and prepare for political shifts when aging allies President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia are no longer in power.
U.S. misgivings over Qatar were summed up by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) after a recent trip to the region: “Qatar can’t continue to be an American ally on Monday that sends money to Hamas on Tuesday.”
In a recent interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Hamad would not side with the U.S. against Iran: “Iran never bothered us, it never created a problem for us.”
Qatar has a lot of “political laundry it has to clean,” said Abdel Moneim Said, of Egypt’s ruling party. “Qatar has a big U.S. base and they want to launder that fact by expressing extremist political views and riding radical ideas to show they are nationalists and anti-Israeli. . . . Their money plays a role, but in the end it’s the strategic interests that prevail.”
The emirate’s most vehement detractor is Egypt, a strategic power for decades, but one whose sway is slipping. Cairo has become sensitive about its stature, especially as Iran’s influence grows and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, allegedly has sent militants into Egypt’s Sinai region and its border with Gaza. The state-owned Al Ahram recently wrote that Hezbollah, Iran, Syria and Qatar were trying to “bring Egypt to the brink of chaos and facilitate a coup.”
Mubarak and Abdullah boycotted an emergency summit in Doha in January to discuss the Israeli offensive in Gaza. Mubarak accused Qatar of meddling in the conflict, in which Egypt has been a key voice, and of dividing the Arab world by inviting Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hamas’ Khaled Meshaal to attend.
Cairo was also angered by Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Gaza assault, which included reports that Egypt was unsympathetic to Palestinians because it did not allow in refugees. Mubarak boycotted a second Qatari-sponsored summit last month.
There have been moves in recent weeks to calm the tensions. But Cairo continues to view Doha with a mistrust that leads to mocking and insulting editorials. One Egyptian columnist recently referred to Hamad as “the chubby prince.”
Qatar is acting “as a mediator but it is pretending to be a major power, and it is using Al Jazeera for this purpose,” said Amr Choubaki, an Egyptian analyst. “Qatar created Al Jazeera, but now Al Jazeera is creating Qatar. It’s like when you build a robot and eventually lose control of it and it controls you.”
Qatar has failed in efforts to bring together hostile groups in Yemen and Sudan, and to unite Palestinian factions. But last year it succeeded in doing what the United Nations and Western powers could not: negotiate reconciliation among Lebanon’s factions. It was a significant victory, showing a versatile, alternative voice in Middle East affairs.
“There is a campaign against Qatar because it is playing the role Egypt refrains from playing,” said Musfir, the professor. Cairo is “only concerned with pleasing certain groups outside Egypt,” he said. “Egypt flirts with the desires of the U.S., in particular, as well as with Israel.”
El-Hennawy is a special correspondent.