Qatar, the New Player in the Middle East

A surprising and ambitious newcomer on the international scene and in the politics of the Middle East is the Persian Gulf Emirate of Qatar, a country that became independent in 1971 when Britain ended its protectorate there.  This small country, with a population of 1.8 million, a large part consisting of foreign workers, is "punching above its weight," to use a phrase of which President Barack Obama is fond.

Qatar is fortunate because of its abundance of natural resources.  It is the world's largest exporter of liquefied natural gas due to development of the technology called the Main Cryogenic Heat Exchanger, which can cool the gas and make it usable.  The result Qatar, with very high GDP growth and a low unemployment rate, now about one percent, has become the country with the highest per-capita income in the world.

As a result of its wealth, Qatar under the autocratic rule of the emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani , who took power in 1995 after a bloodless coup against his own father, has been relentlessly active in acquiring valuable and prestigious assets around the world.  Some, if not all, of these acquisitions are known publicly and can be briefly listed.

In France, Qatar owns the popular soccer team Paris Saint-Germain and the accompanying PSG handball team.  In addition it has  holdings in Louis Vuitton as well as in French heavy industry, in the French oil company Total, in the media, and in real estate on the French Riviera.  Through its Al Jazeera Sports, it launched the French TV channel beIN Sport.  With its investment fund, Divine Investments SA, it is preparing to buy Printemps, the department store chain, a transaction worth $2 billion.  It outbid Galéries Lafayette, the other great French store, which was interested in buying its rival.

In Italy, Qatar controls the fashion house Valentino.  It has holdings in Tiffany's, in Crédit Suisse, in the Banco Santander Brasil, and in the Agricultural Bank of China.  In March 2013, the emir of Qatar, who already had investments in Greece, bought six Greek islands in the Echinades, in the Ionian Sea, for about $10 million; he intends to build palaces there for his three wives and 24 children.  In Germany, the Qatar holdings include high-end real estate property in Berlin, including the five-star Grand Hyatt hotel in Potsdamer Platz, as well as holdings in Porsche, Volkswagon, Siemens, and the construction group Hochtief.

The emir, as well as his son, was educated partly in Britain, where he has been purchasing significant pieces of property and shares, particularly in enterprises in London, where he is almost at home.  The most striking of these are the prestigious London store Harrods, previously owned by Mohamed Al Fayed; part of the United States Embassy building in London; the five-star Park Lane Intercontinental Hotel; the 72-story skyscraper Shard, the tallest building in the European Union; parts of Canary Wharf Group; the very expensive One Hyde Park, an apartment block estimated to be worth more than $1.5 billion; about 20 percent of the London Stock Exchange; and shares in various companies, including Sainsbury's, the third largest chain of supermarkets in Britain; Barclay's Bank; Royal Dutch Shell; the Anglo-Swiss Xstrata, a major producer of coal; and Heathrow Airport, among others.  Qatar has also tried to purchase the art auction house Christie's and the retailer outlets of the House of Fraser.

The United States became familiar with the activity of Qatar when its TV station Al Jazeera, the most important media outlet in the Middle East, bought Current TV, founded by Al Gore, who received $70 million for his 20-percent share of the station.  Among the other properties Qatar has acquired or is acquiring in the United States are liquid natural gas assets in the anticipation that they will be developed as liquefaction facilities like those in Qatar, thus becoming  companies that will export gas from the U.S.  Other holdings include the investment group Filmyard Holdings, which bought Miramax from Disney.

The country has bought a number of the advanced Boeing 787 Dreamliners, and a team of Boeing mechanics is expected to arrive shortly in Doha, the capital of Qatar, to modify the batteries of the planes, and thus rectify the electronic problems that have plagued the new aircraft.  Qatar already has a large fleet of planes that fly to over 125 cities in the world: in the U.S., they serve New York; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and Houston.  Qatar has now ordered more than 250 aircraft from Boeing as well as the European Airbus, including the latter's A380 and A330 jet airliners, Europe's challenge to the Dreamliner.

In this buying spree, Qatar has been acquiring strategic shares in major companies throughout the world, claiming that these are good investments.  It also claims that it has no mission to conquer the world.  Perhaps this is the case, yet it is reasonable to expect that its large investments will begin to influence economic and political decisions in the countries in which they are made.  The immediate question is the character of the political agenda that results from Qatar's great wealth.

In fact, Qatar is now playing an increasingly political international role.  It has become a member of important organizations: OPEC; the Gulf Cooperation Council, which it helped found; and the Arab League.  It has made a show of friendship to the U.S. by allowing the use its air bases to supply American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Yet Qatar also allowed the Taliban, which America sees as a terrorist organization, to open a bureau on its soil.  Thus, the direction of Qatar policy remains unclear.

Qatar has intervened in Middle Eastern affairs, especially since the downfall of Egyptian President Mubarak, playing a role in Libya, in Syria, and in Egypt.  Its activity in Libya in helping to bring down the Gaddafi regime was said to have been on behalf of the rebel group associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

In Syria, it is supporting and arming the Islamic Nusra Front, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda and is part of the opposition to the regime of President Assad.  In this Qatar appears to be competing with Saudi Arabia, which is supporting a different opposition group.  Again, it has good ties with Shiite Iran, but it also gave $5 billion in aid to Egypt after the overthrow of Mubarak and is giving it another $3 billion, thus aiding the survival of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood.

Qatar has become involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict, appearing willing to play a constructive role in that conflict's resolution.  In October 2012 the emir himself, accompanied by one of his wives, paid a visit to Gaza, where he was officially greeted by the Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya.  His visit led to a $254-million Qatar project to rebuild in the Gaza Strip.  With additional allocations, the gift totaled $400 million.

This action, however, seems incompatible with the views expressed by Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al-Thani, Qatar's prime minister and foreign minister in Washington, on April 29, 2013.  He then not only spoke of general support for the 2002 Saudi Arabian peace proposal and negotiations between the two parties, but also suggested compromises "comparable and mutually agreed minor exchanges" of land.  This was a position not espoused by the Palestinians.  Noticeably, Al-Thani specifically did not mention Jerusalem or the Palestinian refugee issue.

By taking this viewpoint, Qatar is implicitly assuming that the 1967 armistice lines, with minor changes, will be the borders of a new Palestinian state.  While the particular way in which the proposal has been framed may not be completely acceptable to the Israelis, it is contradictory to the position of the Palestinians who insist, as a minimum, on Israel's return to the 1948 lines.  In addition to the differences over Al-Thani's statement, Qatar's relationship with Hamas and its policy towards the feud between Fatah and Hamas is also not defined.

What is clear is that Qatar's influence is being taken seriously.  That Qatar is now regarded as an important player was noticeable when Afghan president Hamid Karzai visited the emir to discuss prospects of peace in Afghanistan, and to seek the emir's help in dealing with the Taliban.

The question for the United States and for Israel is how in their own policy-making to reconcile the various and seemingly incompatible policies of Qatar.  On the one hand, Qatar is a supporter of Islamist beliefs and parties, as a country with a seemingly cordial relationship with Hamas in Gaza and a more ambiguous but generally friendly one with Saudi Arabia.  On the other hand, it has established ties with the U.S. and European countries through involvement in the economies of the West.  It also appears willing to encourage the Arabs to strive for peace with Israel.  As a small but wealthy emirate in the turbulent Middle East, perhaps Qatar is seeking to secure a safe position by assuming a role in the economy and politics of the world.  

The Western countries are confronted with the question of whether they are capable of dealing with the uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts about Arab policies.  Whatever the answer, Qatar is now to be taken seriously by the United States and Israel.