This past week a change in the regime of Qatar has initiated a number of stories about the Arab “magic kingdom.” This is a tribal state, a family fiefdom in which only one out of five people who live there are citizens. It is a country of less than 2 million and 95% of the work force are foreigners. In other words most Qataris do not work. Why the interest in this piece of desert with one resource?… huge reserves of natural gas. It has a bloated economy and money to burn. It has used this money to inflate in a grandiose style the importance of Qatar on the Middle East and world scene.
First of all, it created a ground breaking satellite TV network, al Jazeera, known to many Shi’a as the Wahhabi network, it represents the views of Al Thani royal family and the Wahhabi origins of the Qatari tribes. It has won many plaudits from westerners who apparently thought the Arabs were too primitive to create a network like al Jazzera. But in fact the network outbids everyone for talent. A frequent loser in the talent competition is the American outreach to the Arab world, al Hurra. This US government funded network cannot approach the salaries Al Jazeera pays and thus has lost some of its talent to Al-Jazeera. The reputation of Al Jazeera is largely undeserved, but the massive funding put into it has a created a sort of “al Jazeera effect” myth. One can see many news articles being recycled in US media from Al Jazeera. It takes credit for helping launch the rather disastrous “Arab Spring.” Its decidedly anti-Israeli orientation often slips into anti-semitic propaganda.
The Qatari money has found its way big time into the US with four US colleges and universities having centers in Qatar, funded by Sheika Moesha Bint Nasser the celebrity wife and fashion queen of the outgoing emir. Lots of Qatari money flows to the US including a Qatari-US business organization run by a retired Foreign service officer, an old friend of mine from Jordan days. Some have reservations concerning the amount of money from the Gulf Arabs being dispensed among US educational institutions. I am one of those folks with reservations. Certainly it has influenced the the views one finds among the Middle East scholarly community. Islamist radicals can count on more academic support than say Christian evangelicals.
A second and more dangerous impact of Qatar on the Middle East scene is its support of radical Islamic movements. It has decided that the radical Islamic movement is the wave of the future. It has provided a great deal of money to the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt and to the Salafist elements in Syria and Libya and Hamas in the Gaza strip.
Though the more virulent strain of radical Islam is absent in Qatar itself, it apparently has decided that it must get at the tip of the spear to survive. Actually the Wahhabi strain in Qatar had been moderated by the tribal elements still influenced by the al Khalifa dynasty of Bahrain, who rejected Wahhabism. Bahrain and Qatar have been in conflict for years over land and boundary issues. Until settled recently, the al Khalifas of Bahrain claimed a piece of Qatar.
Thirdly, prominent member of the royal family have friends of dubious reputation. The Islamist televangelist and notorious Shi’a- phobe Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi is close to the new prime minister who was previously the security chief. The head of Hamas political bureau Khaled Mishaal is also a frequent guest of the royal family.
On the other hand, Qatar is all things to all people. Or tries to be. It hosts CENTCOM forward, and a huge airbase Al-Udeid, which is used exclusively by the US air force.has strong commercial ties with the US, and has very cordial relations with Washington. No doubt Qatar is of critical importance to the US influence in the Persian Gulf…or what’s left of it.
Qatar’s foreign policy is erratic , but understandable if one realizes that the primary objective of the Qatari regime is to avoid offending those who might harm them, as well as supporting Islamist causes. It also reflects the whims of the ruling regime, which has no checks and balances. They have angered some of their Arab gulf neighbors by being much too understanding of their Iranian neighbor with whom they share a huge Persian Gulf gas field.
They have seen themselves as mediators of intractable conflicts, in Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan. Unfortunately they have generally been of mediocre results. The latest is the “debacle”( so stated by the Obama hugging Washington Post) of the desperate attempts of the Obama regime to savage something from Afghanistan by negotiating with the Taliban. The Taliban built a nice diplomatic compound and raised the Taliban flag. Karzai was outraged that the Obama regime was negotiating with Taliban as if they were the legitimate government of Afghanistan …so things are at a stand still. Another blunder by the Obama incompetents managing our foreign policy. There seems to be no end to the embarrassments our nation must endure
When the succession of the 33 year old Tamim, many reports were gushing over the “example” set by the Emir peacefully handing over power to his son. It would be an example to the rest of the octogenarian rulers of the Arab rulers. But it is not hard to guess that the fulminations that transpired within the ruling family to ease out the Emir Hamad ( who, in a bloodless palace coup 18 years before, had displaced his father.) The new Emir, Tamim , is not the eldest son. In fact the outgoing Emir, Hamad has three wives ( and 24 children) and by his first wife, he had two sons much earlier than Tamim, who is the second son of the fashion queen and obviously strong willed Mozah, his second wife. You don’t have to be an expert in Arab ruling family affairs to know that Mozah, made sure her son sat on the throne.