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Oil and clever diplomacy win friends and influence

Nada Almutawa
27/04/2008 12:00 AM


Oil and clever diplomacy win friends and influence


Qatar Small country, big ideas

From The Economist print edition


IN 1952, the year that Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani was born, Qatar had fewer than 40,000 people, most of them barefoot nomads and fishermen, and not a single school. The emirate he rules now hosts Education City, a complex of branch campuses from some of the world`s most prestigious colleges. According to IMF figures, the country`s 950,000 residents this year surpassed those of Luxembourg to become the world`s richest. They enjoy an income per person of $80,870. Yet that plump figure belies the far greater private wealth of native Qatari citizens, who number fewer than 200,000 but who own nearly all the emirate`s assets, as opposed to the army of foreign guest workers who serve them.

Most of that wealth came easily, from oil. But Sheikh Hamad has succeeded in achieving something that other petro-despots have not. Qatar`s emir has stamped this Jamaica-sized patch of flat, scorched desert, which sticks out of Saudi Arabia into the Gulf like a sore thumb, firmly on the map of international diplomacy.

Last month he coaxed Lebanon`s viciously bickering politicians into ending a crippling 18-month power struggle, flying them to his capital, Doha, to thrash out an agreement. Qatar has also mediated between insurgent clansmen and the government of Yemen, and acted as an increasingly well-trampled bridge between the Middle East`s polarised camps: America and its pro-Western Arab allies on the one hand, and the “resistance” block that includes Iran, Syria and the Islamist parties Hamas in Palestine and Hizbullah in Lebanon on the other. The talk now is of Sheikh Hamad healing the rift between Hamas and Fatah, the secular party of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and fostering a rapprochement between Syria and its estranged Arab brothers.

Qatar`s oil money has certainly helped to make peace. A free week spent in one of Doha`s six-star hotels would dull the meanest fighting spirit, and there are wags in Lebanon, for instance, who contend that their politicians pocketed other, bigger sweeteners. But there has been plenty of fast Qatari footwork too.

Since Sheikh Hamad ousted his father in a bloodless coup in 1995, observers have questioned the apparently erratic course of Qatari foreign policy. But under the guidance of his distant cousin, Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim, the long-serving foreign minister, and more recently also prime minister, Qatar has cut the apron strings that traditionally tie smaller Gulf states to bigger, older regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and adopted a firmly independent line.

The emirate has assiduously wooed the United States, inviting its Central Command to set up its forward headquarters at al-Udeid, an airbase near Doha, in time for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The base has one of the biggest stocks of American military supplies anywhere in the world. Qatar has also pleased America by regularly hosting Israeli officials, and by sending a generous $100m in aid to help those hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Yet the country has reached out to America`s enemies, too. As host of the annual summit of Gulf Arab leaders this year, Sheikh Hamad broke with tradition to invite Iran`s controversial president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to attend. Following Hamas`s election victory in 2006, the sheikh publicly scolded America for working to undermine the results of the democratic process in Palestine. He has sent aid to help Gazans under Israeli siege, and millions more to help reconstruct the mostly Shia parts of Lebanon that Israel bombed in its war in the summer of 2006 with Hizbullah, whose leader, Hassan Nasrallah, he is said to admire. Qatari property investment has also helped to bolster Syria`s sagging economy.

Meanwhile, both Sheikh Hamads have generously sponsored the Qatar-based satellite channel, al-Jazeera, whose lively, critical coverage and reform-Islamist leanings continue to attract high audience ratings, while annoying both pro-Israeli Americans as well as religiously conservative Saudis.

But the apparent contradictions in Qatar`s policy are now paying off. Other mediators failed in Lebanon, for instance, because they were not seen as neutral. And even if it is just Qatar`s money that wins friends, there is plenty more of that coming. The emirate`s output of liquid natural gas, its biggest export, is set to double in the next five years. Jun 5th 2008 | CAIRO