- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 24, 2009

DOHA, Qatar

As an oil-rich nation in the Persian Gulf, Qatar continues leveraging its vast natural resources and media empire to gain regional clout that far outweighs its tiny size.

With an economy just a fraction of its wealthy neighbors, Qatar’s strategic geography and forward-looking emir have enabled the nation of just over 830,000 people to insert itself into several regional conflicts, with mixed results.

From Lebanon to Iran and the Darfur region of Sudan, Qatar’s diverse diplomatic portfolio allows it to straddle both Western and Arab interests. Qatar has been criticized for being too friendly with its resident Jewish population and with Israel, but has also mediated in the dispute between Hamas and Fatah in the Palestinian territories.

“I think of it as Qatar occupying a space in the middle of the ideological spectrum in the Islamic world, with the goal of having doors open to it across that ideological spectrum,” said Joseph LeBaron, U.S. ambassador to Qatar. “They have the resources to accomplish that vision, and that’s rare.”

Mr. LeBaron denied that Qatar’s divergent alliances are befuddling, though onlookers say policies such as allowing Al Udeid, one of the largest U.S. Air Force bases in the world, on Qatari soil, and maintaining friendly ties with Iran (Qatar was one of the first countries to congratulate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his pending re-election) helps the country maintain its independence and multifaceted national security.

“Qatar is a tiny country in a tough neighborhood, with 1 percent the number of citizens as its neighbors Iran and Saudi Arabia,” said Hady Amr, director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center. “Qatari foreign policy is effectively a balancing act between these two countries and also between the United States, which has a huge and vital military base in Qatar, and Iran, which views this base as a threat.”

Besides the fact that Qatar is the global leader in natural-gas exports, another element of Qatar’s rising profile comes from its groundbreaking television news station Al Jazeera. Founded in 1996, the network has been a phenomenal success, catalyzing similar stations like the United Arab Emirates’ Al Arabiya.

An English version of Al Jazeera launched in 2006 and boasts an audience of 40 million people.

“Our impact is still sending shock waves throughout the region,” said Ahmed Sheikh, editor-in-chief of Al Jazeera Arabic, from his headquarters in Doha. “Just in a very short time we revolutionized, or if you feel that this word is a bit of an exaggeration, we had a very powerful impact on the media landscape in this part of the world, even the world as a whole.”

Al Jazeera was heavily criticized after the 2003 invasion of Iraq for broadcasting videotaped messages from Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader who claimed responsibility for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Donald H. Rumsfeld, then defense secretary, accused the station of “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable” reporting.

Critics say Al Jazeera’s financial dependence on the Qatari government renders it an official mouthpiece for the ruler, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani. Al Jazeera’s Mr. Sheikh brushed aside this assessment, saying he has never been told by a Qatari official to avoid certain stories.

“Qatar is a stable country, peaceful. Nothing really big is happening in this country to keep on it every day,” Mr. Sheikh said. “It would be much better for me if I have the high ceiling of freedom to be financed publicly, rather than to be financed through commercial operations, because that would relieve you from the burden of commercialism.”

Mehran Kamrava, a professor at Georgetown University’s Qatar campus, said Al Jazeera has been used as a proxy for the Qatari government to criticize Egypt.

Mr. Kamrava said the diplomatic center of gravity in the Middle East is shifting away from Cairo toward the Gulf states, in part because of Egypt’s flagging economy and rising wealth of Gulf Cooperation Council members.

“Al Jazeera, increased oil wealth, the vision of the emir of Qatar, have all prompted Qatar to act in ways that make inroads into what is usually considered Egyptian turf,” Mr. Kamrava said.

Abdel Aziz Dawoud, Egyptian ambassador to Qatar, said Al Jazeera is influential, but that true regional influence comes from a combination of population, economic, historical, military and geopolitical factors.

“Qatar is playing an important rule, even though it’s a small country, small population,” Mr. Dawoud said. “We always say that any Arab country which feels that they can help solve problems in the region, they can try. Egypt has no monopoly on the Arab causes.”

Another point of tension occurred in 1996, when the Qatari government accused Egypt of backing a failed coup of the Qatari emir in 1996. Additionally, Mr. Dawoud said the Gaza-Israeli conflict this year has been a particularly sore point.

“It was a big, big issue. It has created tension among the whole Arab world, including Qatar and Egypt,” Mr. Dawoud said. “Both countries, Egypt and Qatar, they are working hard to try and close that page as quickly as possible. We hope that this issue can leave it behind our backs, … [God willing].”

Correction: Mehran Kamrava did not discuss allegations of Egypt’s possible role in the 1996 coup attempt. A previous version suggested this.

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