- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2003

Yesterday marked the anniversary of the independence of Qatar, one of America’s strongest allies in the combustible Middle East. Qatar does not take its independence for granted.

After the British relinquished their rule of Qatar in 1970, this tiny nation of 200,000 lived in the shadow of its more powerful and religiously orthodox neighbor, Saudi Arabia. For years, Saudi Arabia provided military protection to Qatar in exchange for Qatar’s allegiance to the Saudi royal family. This political dynamic changed radically during operation Desert Storm in 1991. Qatar’s military, fighting as part of the international coalition against Saddam Hussein, distinguished itself by single handedly halting the Iraqi advance during the Battle of Khafji (the neutral zone between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia). This achievement was the catalyst needed by the Qatari leadership to reconsider Qatar’s lack of political autonomy. Realizing that they could be far more independent than previously believed, Qatar started the process of building a new national identity separate and distinct from its Arab neighbors, particularly the more traditional rulers of the House of Saud.

Since succeeding his father in a bloodless coup seven years ago, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani — the visionary leader of this Sunni Arab state — has started the gradual reformation of all aspects of Qatar’s socio-economic and political institutions, thereby markedly distinguishing it from Saudi Arabia. Under Sheikh Hamad’s leadership, Qatar’s gross domestic product (GDP) has risen by 70 percent in six years to $17 billion. Surging economic activity during those six years required a doubling in electricity production. Per capita income, now one of the highest in the world, increased by nearly 50 percent over the same time period to $30,000.

But numbers alone do not begin to describe Sheikh Hamad’s vision for Qatar, the region and the world. The first thing one notices upon visiting Doha, the capital of Qatar, is a dynamism and openness reflecting the personality of Sheikh Hamad himself. He leads his country in the preservation of its core religious, historic and cultural values while simultaneously stimulating economic progress and political reform. In this context, Sheikh Hamad does not see any contradictions between Islam and democracy. If Arab countries like Qatar embrace pluralism rather than authoritarianism, he reasons, then citizens with differing ideologies — secular vs. religious, traditionalist vs. modernist — can participate in the political life of their nations without resorting to terror and mayhem. He contends that Arab leaders must open the political dialogue by creating legitimate and transparent outlets for political expression. Qatar is living proof of Sheikh Hamad’s belief that reform is possible in the Muslim world.

When asked about the current situation in Iraq, Sheikh Hamad responded firmly that the United States must stand by Iraq in order to ensure a smooth transition from Saddam Hussein’s 30-year reign of terror to a new Iraq founded on the principles of democratic pluralism. He believes that ensuring the establishment of democratic principles in Iraq would be the best investment the United States could make in the Middle East. And he is right. One of the major complaints heard throughout the region is America’s lack of support for democratic principles when it comes to the Middle East.

His vision for global energy security is linked to the world’s demand for clean-burning natural gas. Qatar just replaced Iran as the country with the world’s second-largest reserves of natural gas (900 trillion cubic feet compared to the United States‘167 trillion cubic feet.) Qatar is fast becoming a powerful liquid natural gas (LNG) exporter. In coming years, American consumers might well think of Qatar as one of their important sources of natural gas to heat their homes and, possibly, to fuel their cars. Demand for natural gas in the United States has far surpassed our ability to supply it from domestic sources alone. Increased supplies of LNG imports and advances in LNG delivery technology will help protect American consumers from wild price swings for natural gas during winter heating seasons. Sheikh Hamad would like Qatar to dedicate much of its future LNG delivery capacity to the United States and become one of its major suppliers.

An enthusiast of science and technology, Sheikh Hamad believes that human progress can only be achieved if we invest in new technologies and share them with the rest of the world. To this end, he has made a personal commitment to open his country to those dedicated to medical, scientific,and technological innovation and research in order to make a lasting contribution to the world. The establishment of an extension of Cornell University’s Medical School in Doha is among the first of a long list of international cooperative efforts Sheikh Hamad intends to sponsor for the advancement of knowledge and science.

President Bush sent a cable on behalf of the United States congratulating Qatar on its historic day. We should take a moment and notice that we share and support Sheikh Hamad’s vision, because it is a vision common with ours based on the core principles of human and intellectual freedom and progress.

S. Rob Sobhani is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and president of Caspian Energy Consulting.

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