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February 19, 2012, Sunday

Qatar: Impossible to understand

It is a very small country in the Persian Gulf. Only about 300,000 of its total population -- around 1.5 million people -- are originally from Qatar. With a $179,000 gross national product per capita in 2010, Qatar is the richest country in the world. Almost all of its income comes from its abundant oil and natural gas reserves.

Qatar, a young emirate that gained its sovereignty in 1971, has been governed by the Al Thani family since the mid-19th century. Its security is majorly dependent on the Fifth Fleet of the United States Navy. Being such a small country, Qatar’s name is mentioned rather frequently due to its disproportionately active foreign policy.

After a bloodless coup in 1995, led by Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani against his father, Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani, Qatar began to undergo big changes both inside and outside of the country. As a result it started to gain more attention in the international arena. It began conducting shuttle diplomacy, covering almost all Muslim countries from the Western Sahara to Somalia, from Ethiopia and Eritrea to Darfur to Lebanon and also to Palestine.

By assisting the Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah in reaching an agreement, Qatar achieved what the United Nations, the Arab League and France could not. They did this by enabling Lebanon, which was on the brink of civil war, to overcome its political crisis. In 2010, Qatar also convinced rebel groups in Darfur to sign a treaty with Sudan.

Last year Qatar was among the countries that had a primary role in bringing down the Gaddafi regime in Libya. Now it stands among the primary countries that strive to topple the Assad regime. Amir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the leader of Qatar himself, funds the Al Jazeera television station -- the nightmare of dictators from Tunisia to Egypt and from Yemen to Libya.

In order to make its biggest diplomatic move after active involvement in the Libyan and Syrian crises, Qatar is trying to help the Taliban settle with Afghanistan and Pakistan and open an office for the Taliban in its capital, Doha, which hosts the biggest American military base in the Middle East.

Besides diplomacy, it also made its mark in football by winning the bid to host the World Cup in 2022. It is currently engaged in a diplomatic struggle to host the 2020 Summer Olympic Games.

There are a variety of speculations on Qatar’s true motives. Why does a very small country with limited human resources pursue such active diplomacy? Why does a country, which itself isn’t democratic, struggle so much to bring democracy to the region?

Moreover, Qatar does so in such a way that it stands up to Egypt and asserts its position as the big brother of the Arab world, despite its relative economic weakness. Most notably, Qatar also competes with Saudi Arabia, the biggest oil producer in the world, to appear on the forefront of regional diplomacy.

According to some, the Al Thani family wants reconciliation and peace in the region in order to enjoy its wealth. In other words, the family is trying to change the identity of the Middle East, which is remembered as the site of wars and chaos.

Another understanding is that Qatar endeavors to increase its diplomatic allies by pursuing a “zero problem policy” with its neighbors and countries in western Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, just like Turkey.

Maybe the most reasonable answer is that Qatar is a country that, for the first time, is working for true peace in the most problematic region in the world.

Western countries arbitrated for a solution to the Palestine problem for decades and they are still doing so. However, due to biased policies, they have always produced deadlock rather than a solution. Similarly, in the cases of Lebanon, Sudan, Syria and Iran, Western countries don’t really support a solution.

The fact is that any country -- even a small one, if it is sincere in its policies -- can achieve substantial diplomatic gains.

However, some see Qatar in a different light. They see Qatar as the hand of the US in the Middle East. In other words, they argue that the US is trying to reshape the region by using Qatar.

These skeptics question how a tiny country that surrenders its security to the US can pursue such an active foreign policy. Although Qatar seems to contrast with the US in terms of their views of Hamas and the Taliban, the general policy that it pursues isn’t at odds with Washington’s strategy in the region.

That means that the US is trying to redesign the region from Libya to Egypt and from Afghanistan to Syria by using Qatar and its money.

Although the US does try to use Qatar to design the region, it doesn’t seem very probable that the result will be as Washington wishes.

As anti-Americanism has already peaked in Egypt, the army and the people responded to American pressure to acquiesce to civilian government as soon as possible by stating that the American government can cut its $1.5 million in aid if it wants.

The more democracy is established in the region, the more difficult it will become for the US and other big powers to control it.

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