DOHA, Qatar » Qatar is smaller than Connecticut, and its native population, at 225,000, wouldn’t fill Cairo’s bigger neighborhoods. But for a country that inspires equal parts irritation and admiration, here is its resume, so far, in the Arab revolts: It has proved decisive in isolating Syria’s leader, helped topple Libya’s, offered itself as a mediator in Yemen and counts Tunisia’s most powerful figure as a friend.
This thumb-shaped spit of sand on the Persian Gulf has emerged as the most dynamic Arab country in the tumult realigning the region. Its intentions remain murky to its neighbors and even allies — some say Qatar has a Napoleon complex, others say it has an Islamist agenda. But its clout is a lesson in what can be gained with some of the world’s largest gas reserves, the region’s most influential news channel in Al-Jazeera, an array of contacts (many with an Islamist bent), and policymaking in an absolute monarchy, vested in the hands of one man, its emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.
Qatar has become a vital counterpoint in an Arab world where traditional powers are roiled by revolution, ossified by aging leaderships, or still reeling from civil war, and where the United States is increasingly viewed as a power in decline.
“Do they fill a void? Yes,” said Bassma Koudmani, a Syrian opposition leader who credited the Qataris with a key role in the Arab League’s startling decision Saturday to suspend Syria and isolate a government at the pivot of the region’s relations. “They are filling a space and a role that is not being taken up by other countries.”
Flanked by the region’s biggest rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran, Qatar has always played an outsize role in the Gulf, but never to this degree. It hosts a sprawling U.S. air base, but some U.S. officials are suspicious of its recent backing of Islamist leaders, particularly in the war in Libya.
Angry at its role in driving the Arab League vote, Syrian officials have called it a lackey of U.S. and Israeli interests. On Monday, Syria declared that it would boycott next month’s Arab Games in Doha.
But for all the contradictions in its policies — and there are many — Qatar is advancing a decisive shift in Arab politics that many in the West have yet to embrace: a Middle East dominated by mainstream Islamist parties brought to power in a region that is more democratic, more conservative and more tumultuous.
“Qatar is a country without ideology,” said Talal Atrissi, a Lebanese political analyst and commentator. “They know that the Islamists are the new power in the Arab world. This alliance will lay the foundation for a base of influence across the region.”
Not everyone is pleased.
“Who is Qatar?” Abdel-Rahman Shalgham, Libya’s ambassador to the U.N., asked sharply this month on the Arabic channel of a German satellite station.
Syrian officials have asked that question as the crisis deepens between two once-friendly countries. Personal sentiments seem to figure heavily in Qatar’s policy, as with Libya, where the emir’s wife, Sheikha Mozah, spent time as a child. The country long served as an intermediary with Syria, and it invested heavily in an economy that President Bashar Assad sought to modernize. But diplomats and analysts say Hamad felt rebuffed by Assad in April, soon after the uprising in Syria began. Some view Qatar’s policy in Syria through a sectarian lens, supporting as it does a predominantly Sunni Muslim revolt. (It also backed Saudi Arabia’s intervention in neighboring Bahrain to help quell Shiite Muslim protests.) Others see it more opportunistically, offering Qatar a way to realign a Middle East in which Syria has often played off competing powers — Turkey, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and actors in Lebanon.
“Syria is such a crucial pivot point in the Middle East,” said Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. “Syria would just be too tempting a target not to be involved in from the outside, and I’m sure the Qataris will be.”
Ambition dominates Doha, whose frenzied skyline suggests medieval Baghdad crossed with “Blade Runner.” Qatar’s economy offers indicators in superlatives: the world’s highest growth rate and highest per capita income. Its emir, a towering man whose girth was ridiculed by Moammar Gadhafi of Libya before his demise, has sought to reconcile what could be considered irreconcilable.
Yusuf Qaradawi, an influential Egyptian Islamist figure, calls it home. So did Ali Sallabi, a prominent Libyan Islamist. Khaled Meshal, Hamas’ leader, has a residence here, and speculation is rife that the Taliban in Afghanistan may open an office. U.S. schools and companies, situated in the most modern of complexes, are also based here.
“Bring them here, give them money and it will work out,” Hamid al-Ansari, a newspaper editor, said of Qatar’s style, only half in jest.
Money proved instrumental in Qatar’s role in Libya this year. Diplomats say hundreds of millions were funneled to the opposition, often through channels Qatar had cultivated with expatriates here, in particular Sallabi and Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, the head of the Tripoli Military Council who once led an Islamist insurgency in Libya. A Libyan opposition channel was set up in Doha. Qatar dispatched Western-trained advisers, who helped finance, train and arm Libyan rebels.
But Qatar’s seeming favoritism of Islamists there provoked the ire of more secular-minded figures. Qatari officials are dismissive of the charges, but others suggest Hamad, who overthrew his father in 1995, has an affinity for Islamist figures who echo the conservative Gulf states far more than ostensibly secular figures like Syria’s president, Assad.
“Historically speaking, dealing with those people is better than dealing with Gadhafi or Assad,” al-Ansari said. “We believe religion is important, they believe it.”
Maintaining channels with an array of forces has proven a cornerstone of Qatar’s policy. It hosts two U.S. bases, with more than 13,000 personnel; in Lebanon, the emir was welcomed as a hero by Hezbollah’s supporters last year for helping rebuild towns Israel destroyed in 2006.
Unlike Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Qatar enjoys close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, in its various incarnations in Libya, Syria and Egypt, as well as with figures like Rachid al-Ghannouchi, the Tunisian Islamist, all of whom are almost certain to play a crucial role in the next generation of Arab politics.
But it also has what might be described as the Qatari equivalent of soft power: the influence of Al-Jazeera, which the emir founded and finances, and which more and more reflects Qatari foreign policy; ties with Qaradawi, who has his own network of prominent Islamists in the region; and the emir’s own knack for involving Qatar in conflicts as far-flung as Afghanistan and the Darfur region of Sudan.
Most recently, Al-Jazeera’s director general, Wadah Khanfar, departed in what some journalists there saw as part of Qatar’s determination to appease countries like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, both long irritated by Al-Jazeera’s reporting.
U.S. diplomatic cables in 2009, released by WikiLeaks, claim that Qatar has occasionally offered Al-Jazeera’s coverage as a bargaining tool. A senior journalist there said while no order was given, the network’s reporting on Syria changed sharply in April.
“We could feel the change in atmosphere,” the journalist said.