- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2003

The nerve center of America's military campaign against dictatorships in the Middle East has moved from Tampa to Doha, Qatar, the new home of Central Command. This Persian Gulf nation of 200,000 may also be the nerve center of America's war of ideas; namely the war between freedom and tyranny.

Today, the citizens of Qatar will go to the polls to vote on a referendum that calls for a draft constitution to introduce a mostly elected parliament. This initiative by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the visionary amir of Qatar, is the first step in what may very well be called a "Wahhabi Revolution."

Like Saudi Arabia, Qatar's religious traditions are Wahhabi in origin, but unlike its insular and puritanical neighbor, Sheikh Hamad believes that in Islam one can find the source for democratic change. While radical Wahhabi clerics and followers of Osama bin Laden abuse Islam's holy book, the Koran, to justify hatred, death and destruction, the 52-year-old amir of Qatar chooses passages from the Koran that call believers to "rule by consensus." In his heart, Sheikh Hamad knows that the role of Islam in society is to provide moral guidance to the faithful. Unlike his Saudi counterparts, he understands that if Muslims embrace pluralism, then the ensuing political transparency will ultimately expose the bankrupt ideology of the radical fringes of a beautiful religion that has been hijacked by the likes of Osama bin Laden and the hate-filled ayatollahs in Iran.

Not only has Sheikh Hamad turned Qatar into a military and ideological ally of America, he has also become a partner in the rebuilding of war-torn Afghanistan. While rich donor countries who pledged support in the beginning of the reconstruction effort have shied away from providing assistance to Afghanistan for reasons of instability, Qatar has more than fulfilled it pledges. Sheikh Hamad knows very well the dilemma facing the Afghan people: If assistance and reconstruction do not happen soon, instability will become a permanent feature of this Muslim country of 26 million. For example, at a highly publicized public relations event, Saudi Arabia promised to rebuild Afghanistan's major highway system linking Kabul in the east, Kandahar in the south, Heraat in the west and Mazar-e-sharif in the north. Unfortunately, this U.S.-led project, co-sponsored by Japan and Saudi Arabia, has moved at a snail's pace because of delays in funding its share by Saudi Arabia, exasperating the United States' plans to link these major city centers.

Qatar on the other hand, has taken a proactive and cost-efficient approach. When Sheikh Hamad was presented with an option to build prefab homes, schools, clinics, recreation centers and refugee shelters, he did not turn to the top-heavy United Nations or wasteful non-governmental organizations. Instead, he turned to a U.S.-based company called MIC-Industries and signed a $20 million contract that involves construction of 10,000 housing units in the Kabul city area and suburbs. And since Sheikh Hamad is aware of Afghanistan's complex and diverse ethnic makeup, he has asked that a group of young Qataris and technicians take charge of supervision of this humanitarian effort throughout Afghanistan. In short, while its bigger and ostensibly richer neighbor Saudi Arabia has pledged $230 million, (but to date has only grudgingly provided a fraction of this amount), Qatar has provided a total of $62 million.

Sheikh Hamad's vision for his country goes far beyond that of playing a positive role in the Muslim world. The amir firmly believes in turning his country into an incubator for new advances in science and technology with worldwide applications. Through the Qatar Foundation under the leadership of his dynamic wife, Sheikha Mouza, Qatar has the capability to fully fund new and promising medical technologies developed by scientists worldwide. And, since Sheikha Mouza's partner in this visionary goal is the Cornell Medical School, American scientists also have an opportunity to share in this exciting new partnership.

Oddly enough, this small country at the epicenter of the oil-rich Persian Gulf may hold one of the keys to America's energy independence. Qatar contains the world's third largest known reserves of natural gas, fast becoming the fuel of choice for American consumers. While America's reserves stand at 167 trillion cubic feet (tcf), Qatar's reserves are in the neighborhood of 500 trillion cubic feet. U.S. imports of liquid natural gas (LNG) are projected to increase from 0.2 tcf in 2002 to 1.5 tcf in 2020. Qatar is well placed to provide this clean burning fuel to American industrial, commercial and residential customers for the next 100 years.

Further, if automobile manufacturers successfully design an engine powered by natural gas consuming fuel cells, then Qatar can be an important supplier of our transportation energy needs as well. In short, America's energy independence may be linked to Qatar's abundance of natural gas.

Qatar is proving to be an ally with significance to the United States far beyond that of a military partnership. As a groundbreaker in the application of democratic principles in the Arab world, a patron of scientific and technological breakthroughs of the 21st century, owner of huge natural gas reserves and ruled by a visionary and compassionate leader, the country of Qatar may be physically small, but its importance to the world could be huge.

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

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