Needless to say, the drive from the airport to the city center gives the impression that one has arrived at a casino resort in North America. Skyscrapers of all sorts, buildings with fluorescent lights and varying architecture al tastes taken their place over the last decade in Doha. There seems to be an obsession with size here.
Qatar gained its independence in 1971 from the British but before that my ancestors had a stint there as well from 1871 to 1893 which nominally continued until 1910. Why Qatar matters has more to do with its wealth. This small peninsula of 1.6 million people has less than 300,000 Qatari citizens. Like many “gulfies” it has a large expat population that makes up the country’s labor force. With that said, it has the highest per capita income in the world which grew by 19 per cent in 2010. Also, the increasing impact of the Doha-based Al-Jazeera television network has turned the world’s attention to Doha. Al-Jazeera has been quite effective in offering an alternative story to the occupation of Iraq. The network’s impact has been very visible during the Arab Awakening. Without the constant live broadcasting of Al-Jazeera from Tahrir Square it would be hard to imagine how the pressure could be sustained that led to the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak. Yet, the rise of Al-Jazeera has not been without its problems. Many regional leaders are suspicious of the channel’s motives. Still, Al-Jazeera is expanding aggressively including in the Balkans, Turkey and the U.S., which clearly demonstrates its desire to become a player in global news media.
Qatari foreign policy is also increasingly under scrutiny, especially after the events in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt led to revolutions that are still continuing. Qatar recently led the charge for the Arab League’s expulsion of Syria, and on Friday, called for the creation of an Arab military force to open humanitarian corridors to protect civilians in Syria. In January this year, it allowed Afghanistan’s Taliban to open an office in Doha to facilitate peace talks with the U.S. it was the first Arab country to recognize the rebel government in Libya. The emirate sent six Mirage fighter jets to Crete to help NATO enforce a no-fly zone over Libya. It also supplied rebels with the fuel, weapons, cash and the training they needed to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. Qatari special forces played a crucial role on the ground in Libya. Qatar’s position on Syria also has drawn wide attention. Distancing itself from the negative images of the Assad regime in Syria and Iran, Hamas recently announced moving its headquarters in Damascus to Doha. A closer look at Qatari foreign policy reveals an incredible act of balancing. It maintains good relations with Iran but has strategic relations with the United States. Emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani has succeeded in portraying an image of an honest broker and has spent considerable efforts to mediate in a number of conflicts. Despite its size Qatar has quickly emerged as an important player in the region. It has shown its willingness to take risks and engage in conflicts throughout the region. A Qatari proverb says “A man with one plan goes out to execute it, a man with two plans gets perplexed.” The Qataris seem to have a plan and they are not shy to execute it. It remains to be seen how the Qatari role will play out in an increasingly divided and tense region.