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  Middle East & Africa
Qatar, A City-State with Great Ambitions
Special Contribution
By Prof. Abdelkader Zerougui
American University
Doha is the capital city of Qatar

City-states are not things of the past, but are actual players in the 21st century. However, unlike the democratic city states of Greece and Italy which were centers of knowledge and civilizations, modern city-states, like Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE are mainly centers of hydrocarbon powers that seek to establish themselves on the world map through alliances with dominant military and economic players in the world.

Despite the end of the Cold War, and the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the Gulf continues to the most volatile place in the world. Within this tumultuous and unfriendly terrain, Qatar is taking a lead in trying to project itself as a deal broker after the decline of the octogenarian house of Al Saud.

Qatar is a tiny city-state of 11,437 square km, and a population of 1.8 million people from which 225 thousandsare citizens. The country holds the third-largest proven gas reserves in the world with an estimated 896 trillion cubic feet.

It has expanded its yearly LNG output from 4.5 million tons annually in 2002 to 43 million tons in 2009, and is now the world’s largest exporter of LNG. The emir of Qatar, Shaykh Hamad bin KhalifaAl Thani, has managed a course of major economic growth without political liberalization since replacing his father in a bloodless palace coup in 1995.

With virtually no military power, the country is the richest in the world with per capita income of US$103,000. Qatar’s financial surplus allows it to play a major role in funding parties, militias and bribing different factions in the region.

The active role of Qatar during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 led to closer ties with the United States, which culminated in the Defense Cooperation Agreement, and the subsequent move of the U.S. Combat Air Operations Center for the Middle East from Saudi Arabia to Qatar’s Al Udeid airbase south of Doha, the Qatari capital, in April 2003.

Qatar is placing itself as a regional interlocutor in a variety of conflicts in the region. It placed itself as mediator between Shiite Iran and its Sunni neighbors.

Moreover, it reached to Hizbullah, Hamas and Taliban and made itself necessary to bring evil doers and angels to the same table. Its role is central in Syria, as it engineered the departure of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal following his split with the Assad regime.

Qatar played a significant role in convincing the Karzai government to allow the opening of an office for Taliban in Doha hoping to end the insurgency in Afghanistan.

The emir has maintained close strategic relations with the United States as a balance to the influence of powerful neighbors in Saudi Arabia and Iran. Qatar and Iran share the large North Field/South Pars natural gas deposit, providing a basis for economic coordination and shared security interests with Tehran.

Qatar was active in diplomatic efforts to create international pressure on the Gaddafi regime in the Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council, and deployed military aircraft in support of the U.N. Security Council and NATO operations in Libya under Operation Unified Protector.

Qatar also provided direct military assistance to rebel groups in the form of weapons shipments and on-the-ground advisory and communications support, both of which reportedly proved decisive in organizing the Libya-based fighters to seize Tripoli.

In Sudan, Qatar acted as a “mediator” in the Darfur crisis, and the conflict between Omar Al basher and South Sudan. Millions of dollars were presented as incentives for the parties to settle their disputes.

In Tunisia AlNahda party and in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood have received financial and political support.

In Libya, Salafists continue to have strong support from Qatar, who played a pivotal role in the formation of the transitional council, and the shipment of Libyan oil to the Western markets.

Moreover, Qatar played a strong role on bringing the Syrian issue to the Arab League and the UN Security Council. Qatar has a significant presence in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Mauritania, and Morocco.

Doha relies heavily on its virtual power -Al Jazeera . The television station was established in 1996, and serves Qatar’s foreign policy agenda. It played a significant role in toppling Zine elAbidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, and reached out for a global support against Muammar Gaddafi, and it is now active in its coverage for the destabilizing the Syrian regimeof Al Assad.

Al Jazeera remains a leader in constructing a narrative that led the transformation of the Syriancrisis and internationalize it to justify foreign intervention. The same scenario that led to the toppling of Tripoli’s regime.

Since the emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thnai, came to power in 1995 in a bloodless coup d’etat, Qatar worked relentlessly to change the typical status quo of the region, and end the Saudi hegemony in the Gulf.

Doha’s role in the new political environment is by no means innocent. Qatar refuses to remain a satellite, and is well aware of the regional tensions that might lead to its absorption by Saudi Arabia or Iran.

The new map that Qatar seeks to establish will bring the Islamist outcasts intomainstream policy-makers, and redirect the Arab world into a cohesive entity that will make Doha nor Riyadh the new center of gravity in the region.

The support for the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamist agendas in the region cannot be without repercussions.

First, the Islamists in the Arab world have their own agendas and political ambitions that might not been in tune with long-term Qatar’s vision.

Second, Qatar itself is an absolutist and repressive state that maintains strict control over its population, and dissidence.

Third, Qatar is certainly couched by the US, and reconciling the different actors’interests has its limits. We need sometimes to learn from the wisdom of the Greek story teller Aesope’s fable of thefrog who burst because he overstretched itself,and thought it can be as big as an ox. The moral of the story is “self-conceit leadsto self-destruction.” Is Doha aware of that?

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Prof. Abdelkader Zerougui is an adjunct professor of sociology at American University in Washington DC, where he received his MA and PhD in sociology. Prof. Zerougui’s writings have appeared on many respected media including the Washington Times and The Seoul Times.






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