Monday, February 07, 2011

What is Qatar's Game?

On the Middle East map, the peninsula state bordering Saudi Arabia, jutting into the Persian Gulf opposite Iran, is easy to overlook. Yet Qatar is one of the world's wealthiest countries, the dominant exporter of liquefied natural gas, and through its sponsorship of Al Jazeera, punches considerably above its weight.

On the face of it Qatar is not easy to pigeonhole. In 2022, it will host the World Cup football (soccer) games; it's already home to perhaps the first world class museum of modern art in the Arab world; and its national airline (besides inspiring some of the most creative commercials on television) has 180 planes on order including five superjumbo A380s.

Its attitude toward Jews in comparatively enlightened. In 1996, Qatar hosted the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and invited Israel to open a trade mission. In 2008, the sheikhdom allowed Israeli tennis star Shahar Pe'er to play in a WTA Tour tournament, and Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni to address its Doha “Democracy Forum." This barely raised eyebrows as Shimon Peres had made his second visit to Doha in 2007. Qatar is also considered an American ally and hosts (rent free) the US military's Central Command which oversees operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

All this development and cosmopolitanism – in a country where native Qataris, practicing "liberal" Wahhabi Islam and comprise 200,000 out of a total 1.4 million population – is attributable to Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and family. First lady Sheikha Mosah Bint Nasser al-Missned spearheads reform and is one of the most influential women in the world. Prime Minister (and businessman) Hamed bin Jaber al-Thani's recent corporate flirtation with Israeli entrepreneurs has been interpreted in some quarters as a political overture to the Jewish state.

There is, alas, also a darker side to the equation. During Israel's 2008-2009 military campaign to stop Hamas from firing rockets into its territory from Gaza, Qatar broke relations with Israel and moreover hosted extremist Arabs, plus Iran, to mobilize support for Hamas. (The Qataris subsequently offered to resume relations in return for being allowed to funnel reconstruction money directly to the Hamas authorities.) In addition to helping bankroll Hamas, the al-Thani's have played a key role in facilitating Hezbollah's suzerainty over Lebanon. And in December 2007, Qatar invited Mahmud Ahmadinejad to address the Gulf Cooperation Council in Doha, the first Iranian leader ever to do so.

Al Jazeera, based in Doha and created by Sheikh Hamad in 1996, is a 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 exhilarating. Al Jazeera has also played a critical role in setting or codifying the pan-Arab agenda. But by notoriously, over and over again, disseminating the fulminations of al-Qaida's Osama bin Laden, the station concurrently promoted violent pan-Islam. Unlike the BBC's World Service shortwave broadcasts or even of Radio Free Europe of yesteryear, Qatar's soft power exercised through Al Jazeera has too often been in the service of tyranny.

While Al-Jazeera's English-language website and television mirror the BBC's professionalism (and frostiness toward the Zionist enterprise), the Arabic service often serves as a demagogic platform for spreading the radical views of the Moslem Brotherhood. Al Jazeera has provided a bully pulpit for extremist preacher Yussuf al-Qaradawi, promoted the Hamas-Iran-Syria-Hizbullah agenda, and glorified as shahids those killed "resisting" Israel. (To be fair, Al Jazeera allows the occasional Israeli spokesperson to appear in this sea of enmity.) Al-Jazeera's championing of Hamas over Fatah led it to broadcast The Palestine Papers, purporting to expose Mahmoud Abbas's peace negotiators as Zionist collaborators. When Qatar's rulers don't know what to make of a crisis, the network can vacillate. For instance, at their outset, Al Jazeera downplayed the disturbances in Egypt, only to become the nexus of anti-Mubarak agitation.

To a Western observer, Qatar's foreign policy can seem incoherent, even duplicitous. On the one hand the ruling family professes to promote reform and democratization, yet it is also a friend of medievalism and rejectionism. It is as if Qatar wants to be an unscrupulous Switzerland of the Middle East. In return for not being targeted, Qatar has come to an arrangement with terrorist groups and has for years provided safe haven to Muslim Brothers. Since 2003, Qatar has reportedly been paying al-Qaeda to spare it from terrorist attack; members of the royal family are said to have provided safe haven for 9/11 terrorists.

The al-Thani clan's continual playing off the forces of enlightenment and darkness against each other might be, somehow, excusable were its ultimate goal bringing the values of modernity to the Arab world. Regrettably, there is slim evidence they have any purpose beyond self-preservation and the consequences be damned.

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Feb. 7, 2011

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