Parallels
11:22 am
Mon December 23, 2013

How Tiny Qatar 'Punches Above Its Weight'

Originally published on Tue December 24, 2013 6:31 am

Qatar is a tiny place that insists on being heard.

The Arab nation just off the coast of Saudi Arabia has made itself a major diplomatic player, a generous donor of foreign aid, and a leader in modernizing education in the region. The ultra-modern capital Doha is full of skyscrapers, museums and history, much of it dating as far back as ... the 1990s.

Qatar is also a commercial capital that aims to become a cultural, sports and tourist center for the Gulf region despite having just 260,000 citizens.

Those citizens are outnumbered by foreign workers more than 5 to 1. The citizens and foreigners alike are governed by an absolute monarchy that was passed down earlier this year from the emir — the man responsible for Qatar's ascendancy — to his 33-year-old son.

All of these head-spinning changes prompted Professor Mehran Kamrava, an American who teaches at Georgetown University's campus in Doha, to write Qatar: Small State, Big Politics.

"What motivated me to write this book was the question of whether or not Qatar is for real," Kamrava said. "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."

So what makes Qatar tick? As one American expat put it to me, Qataris could take their money — they have the highest per capita GDP in the world at more than $86,000 a head — and retire en masse to the South of France. So why do they play what Kamrava calls a hyperactive role in regional and world affairs?

Qatar is involved in Libya, Egypt and Syria. It owns the Al Jazeera satellite channel. It hosts satellite campuses of American universities. And the 2022 World Cup will be held there.

A Branding Exercise

Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Institution's Doha Center, views this as a kind of branding exercise.

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

Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani — often refererred to as HBK — became the emir in 1995 when he ousted his father, who was on an extended summer vacation in Europe. Sheik Hamad then survived a failed countercoup backed by Saudi Arabia.

Together with his wife and the prime minister, Sheik Hamad set out to drag Qatar into modernity.

Something else happened a few years before Sheik Hamad took over. Back in 1990, Iraq invaded the small, oil-rich nation of Kuwait and occupied it for seven months before a U.S.-led coalition drove the Iraqis out.

Allen Fromherz, who used to teach in Qatar and has written a book on the emirate, Qatar: A Modern History, said the Qataris have not forgotten Kuwait.

"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," said Fromherz.

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

Launching Al Jazeera

Its first big achievement was launching the Al Jazeera satellite television network, first in Arabic and then in English. This was a revolutionary step in a region that had been dominated by staid, state-run broadcasters.

Al Jazeera is backed by so much Qatari money that 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 Amazon chief Jeff Bezos paid for the venerable Washington Post.

Qatar's hyperactivism goes far beyond Al Jazeera. It has mediated Arab disputes among the the main Palestinian factions — Hamas and Fatah — and also among factions in Lebanon and Sudan.

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 so messy that when Sheik Hamad stepped down voluntarily as emir this year, and handed the reins to his son, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, analysts like Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution saw a re-calibration of Qatari priorities.

"There's going to be more of a domestic focus," said Hamid. "I think there's a realization that maybe they went too far with their support of certain Islamist groups in the region. That provoked a backlash. Qatar's stock has taken a hit."

The Qataris insist that they only backed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt because the group dominated the government until the military seized power last July. They point out that they've aided Egyptian governments before and since the Brotherhood ruled — although Qatar has hosted a prominent exiled Egyptian preacher, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has been linked to the Brotherhood for decades.

As for Syria, the Qataris 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 aiding groups allied to al-Qaida.

Relations With The U.S.

There are serious differences between the U.S. and Qatar. But the connections between the two countries are strong.

At al-Udeid, about 20 miles from Doha, the U.S. Air Force has a base in a flat, lifeless desert where the wind is incessant. The base services the U.S. 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 known to American airmen, The Deed, is a massive construction zone that is becoming more permanent.

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.

But Qatar is a land of strange bedfellows. While it welcomes the U.S. Air Force, the country also has permitted the Afghan Taliban to establish a political office. Qatar maintains good ties with Iran, and the two countries share a huge natural gas field.

"What Qatar did was to hedge its bets," said Mehran Kamrava of Georgetown. "It placed one big bet one way, with American military protection and American diplomacy. But at the same time, it also made sure it maintained relationships with actors such as Hamas or countries such as Iran."

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

"They simply extended that to the international affairs arena," said Fromherz.

Policy Of Inclusion

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, Chatham House.

"Our country considers that political solutions require the representation and participation of all parties to the conflict, no matter how difficult and controversial," he said. "It is our belief that only such preconditions can allow for viable, legitimate and ultimately long-term resolution to conflicts."

If Qatar has spent the past two decades putting itself on the map, it has even bigger ambitions ahead.

The Qataris won a bid for soccer's 2022 World Cup despite summer humidity that pushes 100 percent 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, including new highways and a subway. This is a big cause of the traffic jams, and it has prompted criticism of the country's labor practices.

The chairman of the national 2022 Committee is Hassan al-Thawadi, whose aides assure me he speaks French and Spanish like a native. He spoke to me in English at his office in a Doha skyscraper. He was in full national dress and expressed the pride Qataris have in the cup coming to this region.

"It's not just Qataris. It's people throughout this region that are proud of Qatar actually hosting the World Cup," he said.

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?

In Qatar, it's different. The construction jobs, like most jobs in the country, are for foreign workers, not Qataris.

As for the stadiums, after the World Cup, Qatar's plan is unique.

"Once we're done with the World Cup, what we're going to do is take down these modular seats, reconfigure them into smaller seatings," al-Thawadi said.

A stadium that seats 50,000 in Qatar can then be turned into a 5,000-seat stadium, which Qatar will then "pass on to developing nations," al-Thawadi added.

As he 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.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

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 is 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 here. Also, as you can see, tourist shops where...

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

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: ...Qatari outfit 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: And also your black coffee.

SIEGEL: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Welcome.

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 that 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.

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.

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 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: 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: 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.

SHADI 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.