The Strange Power of Qatar

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

1.

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…


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