Arab League summit showcases Qatar's swagger
Doha, Qatar • Qatar's emir looked over an assembly of Arab leaders Tuesday as both cordial host and impatient taskmaster. His welcoming remarks to kings, sheiks and presidents across the Arab world quickly shifted to Qatar's priorities: Rallying greater support for Syrian rebels and helping Palestinians with efforts such as a newly proposed $1 billion fund to protect Jerusalem's Arab heritage.
No one seemed surprised at the paternal tone or the latest big-money initiative. In a matter of just a few years, hyper-wealthy Qatar has increasingly staked out a leadership role once held by Egypt and helped redefine how Arab states measure influence and ambition.
Little more than a spot to sink oil and gas wells a generation ago, Qatar is now a key player in nearly every Middle Eastern shakeout since the Arab Spring, using checkbook diplomacy in settings as diverse as Syria's civil war, Italian artisan workshops struggling with the euro financial crisis, and the soccer pitches in France as owners of the Paris Saint-Germain team.
As hosts of an Arab League summit this week, Qatar gets another chance to showcase its swagger.
With power, however, come tensions. Qatar has been portrayed as an arrogant wunderkind in places such as Iraq and Lebanon where some factions object to its rising stature, and Qatar's growing independent streak in policy-making has raised concerns among its Gulf Arab partners. It also faces questions as do other Gulf nations and Western allies over support for some Arab Spring uprisings while remaining loyal to the embattled monarchy in neighboring Bahrain.
"The adage that money buys influence could very well be the motto of Qatar," said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of regional politics at Emirates University outside Abu Dhabi. "But it goes beyond that. Qatar also has learned the value of being flexible and, at the same time, thinking big."
It's hard these days to find a point on the Mideast map without some link back to Qatar.
In recent years, Qatar mediated disputes among Lebanese factions and prodded Sudan's government into peace talks with rebels in the Darfur region. Qatar's rulers even broke ranks with Gulf partners and allowed an Israeli trade office almost a de facto diplomatic post before it was closed in early 2009 in protest of Israeli attacks on Gaza. And Doha has been atop the Arab media pecking order as headquarters of the pan-Arab network Al-Jazeera, which was founded with Qatari government money in 1996 and is now expanding its English-speaking empire into the United States.
But it was the Arab Spring that opened the way for Qatar to stake out an even bigger role in regional affairs, filling the vacuum for regional powerhouse Egypt as that country was mired in turmoil after the revolution that ousted longtime leader Hosni Mubarak.
Qatar was among the few Arab states offering active military assistance to NATO-led attacks against Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Libya and, at the same time, was a key arms-and-money pipeline for Libyan rebels. In Egypt, Mubarak's fall offered Qatar's rapid-reaction outreach a head start over other Gulf states because of its longstanding ties with the now-governing Muslim Brotherhood.
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who attended the Doha summit, has turned to Qatar to help prop up the country's stumbling economy.
"We expect that financial pledges will be respected," Morsi said in a message to Qatar and other Arab countries that have promised money for Egypt.
Almost nothing happens in the Syrian opposition without a voice from Qatar, which has played matchmaker for a broader political coalition against Syrian President Bashar Assad and leads appeals to provide rebel fighters more heavy weapons in attempts to turn the tide in the 2-year-old civil war. On Tuesday, Qatar led the official transfer of Syria's Arab League seat from the Assad government to the opposition Syrian National Coalition.
The New York Times reported Monday that the CIA has helped Turkey and Arab governments, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to sharply increase military aid to Syria's opposition in recent months with secret airlifts or arms and equipment. The Associated Press also reported, citing American officials and others, that the U.S. is training secular Syrian fighters in Jordan in a bid to stem the influence of Islamist radicals in the splintered Syrian opposition.
To view Qatar's rise as purely a triumph of extreme wealth gives an incomplete picture, analysts say. True, Qatar's pockets are deep. The most recent budget surplus swelled to $26 billion and Qatar has one of the world's most well-heeled sovereign wealth funds whose acquisitions include stakes in luxury brands such as Tiffany and the Valentino fashion house as well as David Beckham's new club, Paris Saint-Germain.
But Qatar represents a shift in Arab clout toward a new style: A country squarely in the Western-leaning camp, but far more willing to embark on policies and plans that could ruffle the U.S.
"Qatar believes it doesn't have to wait for others to try to shape the direction and conversation in the region," said Theodore Karasik, a security and political affairs analyst at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. "That kind of confidence opens up all kinds of new political equations."
A clear example was a centerpiece of the Arab League summit welcoming address by Qatar's ruler, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who pledged $250 million toward a proposed $1 billion fund to defend the Arab identity and history of Jerusalem against an expanding Israeli presence in traditional Arab districts.
"The Palestinian, Arab and Muslim rights in Jerusalem are not negotiable, and Israel must realize this," the emir said after telling other Arab states that it is their responsibility to kick in another $750 million.
Such Qatar-led initiatives are likely to deepen its influence among Palestinians and, indirectly, appear to further challenge Washington as the main outside policy-shaper in Israel-Palestinian disputes. Last year, Qatar's emir traveled to the Gaza Strip with promises for funds and assistance that also sought to undercut Iran as the principal backer for Hamas.
Hamas on Tuesday welcomed the emir's invitation to meet in Cairo with the rival Palestinian Authority for another round of reconciliation talks, which began last year in Qatar.
"Qatar has money to spend and the political will to use it as an extension of its foreign policy," according to Karasik, the analyst. "That's a powerful combination."
The Qatar government guest book is a case in point.
Qatar has offered debt-battered Italy and Greece separate 1 billion euro ($1.29 billion) funds for small businesses and traditional workshops if the countries match the amount. In the past few months, the prime ministers of Italy and Greece have come calling in Doha with words of thanks.