Published: July 9, 2008
DOHA, QatarIn the past month, after Qatari diplomats brokered a landmark peace deal for Lebanon in talks here, this tiny emirate on the Persian Gulf has enjoyed a brief moment of giddy celebrity.

Clockwise from top left: Reuters, Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Clockwise from top left, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Qatar’s emir, with Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, President Bush and Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

The New York Times

Small and harmless, Qatar is a natural intermediary.  (????)

Hasan Jamali/Associated Press

Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani of Qatar congratulating Lebanon’s leaders in May on a deal ending an 18-month political crisis.

Editorialists praised the Qatari emir as a modern-day Metternich. Huge billboards went up on the road to the Beirut airport, proclaiming, “We all say: Thank you Qatar.” An ice cream shop in downtown Beirut put out a sign offering a Doha Agreement Cone.

But the Qataris did not linger over their diplomatic triumph. They were too busy trying to solve every other conflict in the Middle East.

In the past year alone, the Qatari foreign minister, Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani (widely known as H.B.J.), has flown his jet — repeatedly — everywhere from Morocco to Libya to Yemen, using charm, guile and large amounts of money to mediate disputes, with varying success.

This work has not always earned him gratitude. In an increasingly divided Arab world, the Qataris have fashioned a reputation for themselves as independent-minded arbitrators who will cozy up to anyone — Iran, Israel, Chechen separatists — in pursuit of leverage at the bargaining table.

“We don’t have an agenda, and we don’t keep all our eggs in one basket,” said Hassan al-Ansari, the director of gulf studies at Qatar University.

That is putting it mildly. Qatar has close ties with Iran, yet it also is host to one of the world’s biggest American air bases. It is home both to Israeli officials and to hard-line Islamists who advocate Israel’s destruction; to Al Jazeera, the controversial satellite TV station; and (at least until recently) to Saddam Hussein’s widow. Saudi Arabia is a trusted ally, but so is Saudi Arabia’s nemesis Syria, whose president, Bashar al-Assad, received an Airbus as a personal gift from the Qatari emir this year.

“They really put all the contradictions of the Middle East in one box,” said Mustafa Alani, a security analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai.

The Qataris also back their diplomacy with some eclectic investments. Many Americans know about the emir’s gift of $100 million to help Hurricane Katrina victims, but Qatar is also building a $1.5 billion oil refinery in Zimbabwe, a huge residential complex in Sudan and a $350 million tourist project in Syria.

Some call Qatar’s policy deranged. The Qataris prefer to think of it as useful. Blessed with enormous oil and natural gas reserves, Qatar is surrounded by large and ambitious neighbors: Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Diplomacy has become a way for Qatar to protect itself and its riches, by forming alliances and by trying to stabilize the region.

“The idea is to try to keep everybody happy — or if we can’t, to keep everybody reasonably unhappy,” said one former Qatari official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss foreign policy. “If that makes the Americans or the Russians a little cross, well, tough luck.”

It does make them cross. American officials have been quietly furious about Qatar’s assistance to Iran and Syria, which includes substantial financial investments as well as votes against sanctions on Iran during Qatar’s tenure on the United Nations Security Council. The Americans are also angry about Qatar’s hefty financial aid to the militant Palestinian group Hamas after it won elections in 2006.

“Their relationship with us has been complex, bordering on one of animosity,” said a high-level State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to give offense, adding that Qatar’s support for Hamas had been a “very vexatious problem.”

The Russians have complaints too. Qatar provided sanctuary to the Chechen rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev until two Russian secret agents killed him in 2004, detonating a bomb in his car as he left a mosque in Doha. The agents were captured by Qatari authorities and convicted of murder, but later extradited at Russia’s request.

Various Arab governments have also at times lost patience with Qatar, mainly because Al Jazeera, founded by the Qatari emir, broadcast criticisms of them. Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic relations with Qatar over this issue in 2002, and they were not restored until 2007, after Qatar promised to rein in coverage of the kingdom.

Some of Qatar’s recent diplomatic adventures — which include negotiations with rebels in Yemen and Morocco and help in freeing Bulgarian nurses accused of spreading AIDS in Libya — have backfired. In April, Ethiopia broke off relations, saying Qatar’s support for Eritrea had made it “a major source of instability in the Horn of Africa.”

There is also some anger among Arabs about the warm welcomes received by Israeli officials in Doha, where Israel also maintains a trade mission — located, as it happens, not far from a villa owned by Khaled Meshal, the leader of Hamas.

At times, Qatar’s multifaceted approach to the world has bordered on comedy. In March 2003, Qatar hosted a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference aimed at forestalling the American invasion of Iraq, even as preparations for that invasion were taking place nearby at the American military base. As the final communiqués were being read, military cargo planes could be heard soaring overhead.

Mr. bin Jaber, the foreign minister, who is also prime minister, has been coy about the details of Qatar’s unusual diplomacy. He has given some interviews in which he says Qatar wants “good relations with everyone” and defends his country’s relationship with Israel. He declined to be interviewed for this article.

Qatar’s policy was born in 1995, when the current emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, carried out a bloodless coup against his father, who was on vacation in Switzerland. The new emir instantly began transforming Qatar from a sleepy, inward-turned backwater into a dynamic new state. At home, he began an ambitious remodeling of the emirate’s education policies with the help of his wife, Sheikha Mozah bin Nasser al-Missned. Abroad, the emir and his cousin, Mr. Jaber, began building a bold new way to engage with the world while maintaining their country’s independence.

In some ways it makes perfect sense. A thumb-shaped peninsula just east of Saudi Arabia, Qatar is a natural intermediary precisely because it is so small and harmless, with just 200,000 citizens. (There are about three times as many foreigners in the country.)

“They are not a threat to anyone, and there is no strategic interest behind their diplomacy aside from the moral gain,” said Mr. Alani, the Dubai analyst.

Qatar also has an absolute monarchy and virtually no domestic dissent. It is therefore free, unlike almost every other country in the world, to pursue iconoclastic policies abroad without worrying about how they play at home. The fact that Qatar also has the world’s highest per capita gross domestic product, at more than $80,000, probably helps to keep things quiet.

Unlike some other countries in the region, Qatar has had only one terrorist attack, a suicide bombing in March 2005 in a Doha theater popular with Westerners. One British citizen was killed and a dozen other people were wounded.

Despite occasional diplomatic problems and frequent complaints, Qatar’s policy seems to have worked, catapulting the country to new levels of recognition around the globe.

The Qataris’ greatest success by far was the Lebanon agreement in May. Every major power with an interest in Lebanon had tried to resolve the country’s 18-month political crisis. All of them failed, in part because all were seen as favoring a particular group within Lebanon’s political mosaic. Qatar, with its policy of favoring everyone and no one, was the obvious choice for a mediator when violence worsened in May.

But Qatar did not succeed by default. Several Lebanese politicians who took part in the negotiations praised both the Qatari foreign minister and the emir for their skill.

“They made an interesting and subtle diplomacy,” said Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druse leader.

According to Mr. Jumblatt and others involved in the negotiations, the Qataris started out by letting the various Lebanese parties vent their grievances. Days later, when negotiations seemed at an impasse, the Qatari emir — who had sought and been given permission to speak on behalf of all the major regional powers with an interest in Lebanon — abruptly changed his tone.

He gathered the Lebanese leaders and issued a stark warning: This was the last chance. Everything else had been tried, and if the deal fell through, they might as well begin a civil war at once, because there was no other option.

That warning appears to have worked. It has also had a fringe benefit for the Qataris themselves, whose reputation has grown just a bit brighter.

“In the old days, nobody had really heard of Qatar,” said Abdel Aziz al-Mahmoud, the editor of Al Arab, a newspaper in Doha. “Now, once you say ‘I’m from Qatar,’ it’s, ‘Step right this way.’ ”


One Response to Qatar, Playing All Sides, Is a Nonstop Mediator-New York Times

Looking for something?

Use the form below to search the site:

Still not finding what you're looking for? Drop a comment on a post or contact us so we can take care of it!