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The Strange Power of Qatar

Bruno Barbey/Magnum Photos
Doha, Qatar, with the ‘dallah,’ or coffee pot, monument in the foreground, 2010


On August 23, Libyan rebels raised their flag over Bab al-Aziziya, the once-impregnable complex housing Muammar Qaddafi’s headquarters in Tripoli. Though the dictator himself still remained at large, the overrunning of one of the nerve centers of his regime had enormous symbolic power and seemed to offer definitive proof of the rebels’ strength. And yet on several newscasts, a different story about the uprising was emerging: along with the rebels’ tricolor with white crescent and star, the presidential compound at Bab al-Aziziya was briefly shown flying the maroon and white flag of Qatar, the tiny, gas-rich Arabian emirate more than two thousand miles away.

Though little noted in the West, Qatar’s enthusiasm for the Libyan revolt had been on display from the outset. The emirate was instrumental in securing the support of the Arab League for the NATO intervention back in March, contributing its own military aircraft to the mission. It also gave $400 million to the rebels, helped them market Libyan oil out of Benghazi, and set up a TV station for them in Doha, the Qatari capital. Following the conquest of Bab al-Aziziya, however, it became clear that the Qataris were deeply involved on the ground as well. Not only did Qatar arm the rebels and set up training camps for them in Benghazi and in the Nafusa Mountains west of Tripoli; its own special forces—a hitherto unknown contingent—helped lead the August offensive on the capital. (Although Qatar’s military is one of the smallest in the Middle East, with just over 11,000 men, its special forces were trained by the French and other Western countries and appear to possess considerable skill.) The day the rebels captured Bab al-Aziziya, Mahmoud Jibril, the leader of Libya’s interim government, singled out Qatar for its far-reaching support, despite “all the doubts and threats.”

In fact, the battle for Libya is only one of several Arab uprisings this year in which Qatar has played a provocative part. In Tunisia and Egypt, no Internet and broadcast medium did more to spread the cause of popular protest than Al Jazeera, Qatar’s government-backed satellite television news network. In early April, the Qatari prime minister publicly called for the resignation of embattled Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh—a statement that departed from the more conciliatory position of other Gulf nations and led Saleh to charge that Qatar “has conspired against Yemen.”

In May, the Qatari government hosted the Doha Forum, an annual, Davos-like conference about democracy and free trade that featured an opening session about the “revolutions” that have “rocked the Arab world.” And in July, despite Qatar’s good relations with the Assad regime before the Syrian uprising began, it became the first Gulf nation to close its embassy in Damascus.

Nor is 2011 the first time Qatar has been accused of stirring up trouble against entrenched regimes in the Middle East. As long ago as 2002, nearly every country in the Arab League had formally protested unfavorable coverage on Al Jazeera, and no fewer than six—Jordan, Saudia Arabia, Kuwait, Tunisia, Libya, and Morocco—had at some point withdrawn their ambassadors to Doha. “In the past, many Arab leaders didn’t even want to talk to me,” the Qatari emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, told the Financial Times in an interview last year.1

At the same time, Qatar has been something of a gadfly in Middle East diplomacy, styling itself (not always successfully) as a third-party broker everywhere from Israel and Lebanon to Darfur and Afghanistan. Since the autumn of 2010, Qatar has helped stage a series of meetings between Western officials and representatives of the Taliban—leading to speculation that the Taliban might open an office in Doha. In mid-June, WikiLeaks released a US State Department cable showing the extent to which Qatar’s tentacular involvement in regional politics had managed to irritate Mubarak’s Egypt, with a native population some three hundred times larger:

Egypt is determined to thwart every single initiative Qatar proposes during its current term as president of the Arab League, to include proposals that are in Egypt’s national interest…. The Egyptian DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] said Qatar’s involvement in Sudan, Palestine, and Al Jazeera’s vitriolic broadcasts against Egypt were the main causes of Egyptian leaders’ ire, to include that of President Mubarak. Challenged to list actions Qatar had taken in Sudan against Egypt’s interest, Naguib readily conceded there were none. Qatar’s offense, he said, stemmed from the mere act of its mediation in Egypt’s back yard.

There is little about Qatar to suggest it as a hotbed of political agitation. Occupying a thumb-shaped peninsula in the Persian Gulf, it is a country the size of Connecticut, wedged between two of the largest and most reactionary powers in the region: Saudi Arabia, which abuts it, and Iran, with which it shares its economic lifeline, the largest natural gas field in the world.

Like most of its near neighbors, Qatar is a hereditary monarchy; it has been ruled by the same family since the nineteenth century. (The inaugural speech of the democracy conference was given by Qatar’s heir apparent, His Highness Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.) There is no independent legislature and political parties are forbidden; civil society groups outside the state are virtually nonexistent. Qatar is also the only country other than Saudi Arabia to be dominated by the conservative Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam, and its legal system is based in part on Sharia law. Owing to the country’s acute demand for labor, moreover, more than 85 percent of the 1.7 million people who live in Qatar—and 90 percent of the labor force—are foreign workers with no political rights. (The native population is 225,000.)

In view of its extraordinary economic situation, it is difficult to see why the Qatari leadership would want to upset the political status quo. With the third-largest gas reserves of any country, it is now the leading exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Over the last decade, rapidly growing demand for LNG has turned Qatar into the richest country in the world as measured by GDP per capita, which the CIA estimates at $179,000—a figure that is only expected to increase in coming years. Allowing the emirate to develop at breakneck speed, this vast resource has also permitted it to offer its citizens an enviable standard of living without having to bother with the encumbrances of deliberative democracy. When I visited Doha this summer, there was much talk about the revelation that 29,000 Qataris—more than a tenth of the native population—are now millionaires.

Indeed, Qatar appears to have a decidedly different approach toward popular revolt in its own neighborhood. When Iranian security forces were condemned internationally for attacking protesters after the disputed 2009 election, the Qatari prime minister asserted that it was an “internal matter” and that “we must respect the right of each state to solve its own problems.” In March, as Bahrain began its violent repression of protesters in Manama’s Pearl Square, Qatar supported the controversial military intervention led by Saudi Arabia to prop up the regime.2

At the same time, although Qatar contains the principal overseas headquarters of the US military’s Central Command (CENTCOM) and was a key staging ground for the invasion of Iraq, it has also given support to Hamas and other militant groups. After a visit in 2009, Senator John Kerry complained, “Qatar can’t continue to be an American ally on Monday that sends money to Hamas on Tuesday.” But the ties continue: in late April, reports surfaced that Hamas’s political leadership was exploring a relocation from Damascus to Doha; and in August, the Israeli press revealed that Israel’s foreign ministry was taking steps to limit Qatar’s influence in Palestinian areas because of its support for Hamas and “anti-Israel” groups abroad.

For decades, Qatar has been the home in exile for the prominent Egyptian Sunni cleric Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has deep connections to the Muslim Brotherhood. Although his strident views on Israel have drawn controversy in the West, he is considered a moderate Islamist by many Arabs, and an Al Jazeera talk show on which he often appears, Sharia and Life, is watched widely across the Middle East. Sheikh Qaradawi’s support for the revolts in North Africa and the Levant has spread the message of popular uprising to his tens of millions of devout followers. Just a week after Saudi and other Gulf forces crossed into Bahrain, however, he declared that “there is no people’s revolution in Bahrain but a sectarian one,” referring to the Shia majority who took a leading part in the uprising, thus giving religious backing to the crackdown and Qatar’s apparent endorsement of it.

And yet Qatar has not shied away from embracing—at great expense—many of the trappings of liberal cosmopolitanism. Over the past decade, it has not only hired RAND, the American think tank, to revamp its K–12 education system along contemporary Western lines; it has also placed a strong emphasis on what the vice-president of Qatar University, Sheikha Bint Jabor al-Thani, described to me as “teaching our people how to think.” Through a government-funded entity called the Qatar Foundation, the country has built a 2,500-acre “Education City” for local outposts of the Weill Cornell Medical College, Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Texas A&M’s School of Engineering, and other Western institutions. The foundation has also supported a Doha branch of Bloomsbury, the British publishing house, a Center for Media Freedom, and a political discussion show broadcast by the BBC, Doha Debates, in which opposing panelists argue before a live audience about usually taboo topics like government accountability, political Islam, and the status of women in the Arab world.

All of this has led some observers to wonder just what exactly Qatar is up to. “It’s the emir,” David Roberts, a Qatari policy analyst at the Doha branch of the Royal United Services Institute, a British security think tank, told me. “But where does he get these ideas?”


To the first-time visitor, Doha, Qatar’s waterfront capital, can seem a baffling combination of feverish activity and provincial sleepiness. Much of the present cityscape—and even the land it is sitting on—is less than a decade old. A huge new airport, designed to receive 24 million passengers per year, will replace the present one by the end of 2012; and that, in turn, will double capacity again in a further expansion to be completed in 2015. Three years ago, the emirate inaugurated the Museum of Islamic Art, a travertine I.M. Pei complex that occupies its own island on the Doha waterfront and houses a collection that rivals any of its kind in the West; in another three years, it aims to finish a new National Museum designed by Jean Nouvel—an even more ambitious project that was described to me as “pharaonic.” Northwest of town, in addition to the high-tech classrooms of Education City, the Qatar Foundation is building a teaching and research hospital that will purportedly have the largest endowment—$7.9 billion—of any medical institution in the world.

  1. 1

    Financial Times, October 24, 2010. 

  2. 2

    The intervention was backed by the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, the organization of Gulf states in which Qatar is a founding member. Led by troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, it was widely regarded as a Saudi initiative, although the Qatar News Agency subsequently reported that a small number of Qatar officers were also taking part. See “Qatari Force Joins Peninsula Shield Forces in Bahrain,” QNA, March 17, 2011. 

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