- - Monday, September 16, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A young leader inherits a compact peninsula of progress

With tensions increasing in the already-volatile Middle East as Western capitals vow military intervention in Syria, a calm and promising transfer of power in one of the region’s key states is particularly noteworthy.

Earlier this summer, Qatar’s Sheikh Hamad al-Thani’s abdication of the throne in favor of his 33 year-old son, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, received scant attention in the global media. Given Qatar’s critical role as a mediator and moderating influence in global affairs, now is the right time for policymakers to ask: “Who is Sheikh Tamim, and will he carry his father’s legacy forward?”

Under Sheikh Hamad’s rule of nearly two decades at the helm of this energy-rich nation of 1 million, the tiny peninsula of Qatar catapulted from a sleepy Gulf state to a dynamic country with the highest per capita income in the world. Today, Qatar is the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, fueling electricity generation across three continents. Visitors to its capital city, Doha, are stunned by its development, which one observer likened to the set of 1970s U.S. cartoon “The Jetsons.” Soaring towers and state-of-the-art infrastructure house one of the region’s foremost financial centers. This growth has blossomed since Sheikh Hamad led a bloodless coup against his own father in 1995, and is seen not only in economic might but political influence as well.

Qatar is host to America’s largest prepositioning based in the world. Our military campaigns around the broader Middle East — Iraq and Afghanistan — would not have been possible had it not been for the cooperation of Qatar. In addition to its military cooperation with Washington, Doha plays a leading role in conflict resolution, taking the lead on settling the conflicts in Sudan, Lebanon and Afghanistan. The Al Jazeera media network, with deep influence on opinion in the Arab Street and an ever-broadening global footprint, is based in Doha.

While Washington may question Al Jazeera’s editorial positions at times, it is difficult to question the strides Qatar has made in becoming the education hub of the Middle East. Thanks to the outreach of Sheikh Hamad’s wife, Sheikha Mozah, leading American universities like Georgetown and Carnegie Mellon offer their rigorous programs to students in the region. Tamim’s forward-thinking mother has championed an extraordinary reform of the education system. Over the past 18 years, this once-quiet oasis has attracted leading technology companies like Microsoft as anchors in Qatar Foundation’s goal of becoming a leading incubator of research for scientists in the region.

As the youngest leader in the Arab world, Sheikh Tamim inherits this legacy of dynamism, reform, educational excellence, military cooperation with the West and diplomatic initiative. It is important to note however that this reform-minded ruler of the one of the world’s richest countries has quietly been making decisions on his own before assuming the mantle of his father. For example, he has been the quiet player behind the scene of Qatar’s growing diplomatic clout around the world. He played a key role in Qatar’s support for Libyan rebels that led to the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi. A graduate of Britain’s prestigious Sandhurst military academy, Sheikh Tamim is a strategic thinker who understands the need to confront dangerous actors. A few days ago, he threw his country’s weight behind a more robust policy of punishing Bashar Assad — siding with the United States.

He is also an avid sports fan and owner of the legendary French soccer club Paris St. Germain. Sheikh Tamim was also behind Qatar hosting the 15th Asian Games. By far his most important accomplishment, though, was to secure the FIFA World Cup for Qatar in 2022. This has catapulted Qatar into international consciousness. It has also paved the way for American companies like CH2M Hill to play a key role in the $300 billion build-up to host the event.

The young amir is also an astute investor. As head of Qatar Investment Authority, Sheikh Tamim has made key investment decisions placing his country’s enormous wealth into sound investments like Barclay’s Bank, Porche and real estate development around the world, including in Washington, D.C.

As the United States looks at the increasingly dangerous landscape of the Middle East and beyond — with ayatollahs in Iran continuing their pursuit of nuclear weapons, Syria spiraling out of control, instability in Egypt and a Russia that is determined to undermine U.S. interests — a close friend and ally like Sheikh Tamim is important. He is a pragmatic decision-maker who can work closely with Washington on jointly addressing many of these challenges with the same common-sense approach and global vision that his parents epitomized.

President Obama should invite this friendly, open and modern leader to the White House, at which time they can announce a global initiative with American universities that are involved in cutting-edge research to solve pressing challenges like multiple sclerosis, lupus, cancer and genetic engineering. Democratizing medical discoveries can become a new vertical in U.S.-Qatar ties, and the beginning of a new relationship between leaders who share many common values.

Sheikh Tamim is the visionary leader of Qatar whose alliance with the United States can lay the foundation of a long-term strategic partnership to address the global challenges of the 21st century.

S. Rob Sobhani is CEO of Caspian Group Holdings.

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