A Finger in Every Pie: How Qatar Became an International Power

As Hamas’s main sponsor, Qatar has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to Gaza in recent years.

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
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Doha skyline view, Qatar.
Doha skyline view, Qatar.Credit: Dreamstime
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

Two weeks ago the U.S. signed its largest arms deal this year: an $11 billion sale to Qatar. In the deal, signed by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and his Qatari counterpart, Hamad bin Ali al-Attiyah, the U.S. will sell dozens of Apache helicopters, hundreds of Patriot missiles and hundreds of anti-tank rockets to the emirate.

This news would cause far less discomfort if Israel had not been attacked by dozens of rockets every day, some of them funded by Qatari money. Three days after the signing ceremony at the Pentagon, Israeli troops went into Gaza and began exposing dozens of attack tunnels that were also funded in part by Qatar.

As Hamas’s main sponsor, Qatar has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to Gaza in recent years. The country allows high-ranking Hamas operatives such as Khaled Meshal to reside within its territory, travel in private aircraft, stay in luxury hotels and live like kings. And it has been exposed — not for the first time — as one of the biggest financial supporters of radical Islamic movements throughout the Middle East.

Qatar’s openly declared support of Hamas did not stop it from playing a starring role in the conference on Gaza that was held in Paris. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with the foreign ministers of Qatar and Turkey, Khalid bin Mohammad al Attiyah and Ahmet Davutoglu, to try to bring about a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. The meeting caused discomfort both in Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Egypt, the regional power that was unable to arrange a cease-fire, was not invited to Paris, nor were PA representatives there. But Qatar left the conference with its status upgraded to that of a regional power without whose mediation no significant move is made.

The events of the past few weeks, which prompted criticism of Qatar from Israeli ministers and other high-ranking officials, served to emphasize Qatar’s special status: a tiny but frighteningly wealthy country that donates millions of dollars to terrorist groups on the one hand while hosting the U.S.’s largest military base in the Middle East on the other; and seeks to promote democracy in the Arab world through the Al Jazeera network even as it nurtures a slave state and conservative regime that are light years away from democracy.

Qatar, the richest country in terms of gross domestic product per capita, sits on enormous natural resources. Over the past 17 years, Qatar has used its financial power to transform itself from a negligible emirate to a regional and global power that can do as it wishes with impunity and even annoy the whole world. That includes its neighbors — Saudi Arabia among them — which recalled their ambassadors from Doha this year.

Coming to the Fore

“The Israeli public is discovering Qatar only now, but Qatar’s foreign policy has been interesting since 1995,” says Yoel Guzansky, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies. “The richest country on earth, it sits on top of the world’s largest natural-gas field, and it is willing to use that money to support all kinds of radical elements, not just Hamas, so that it will be able to protect the natural resources it possesses. Qatar has been involved in every regional conflict in the Middle East since 1995.”

One example of Qatar’s increasing power could be seen this month when United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon flew to the Middle East in a Qatari-funded private jet. Once reports of the source of the funding spread worldwide, UN spokeswoman Stéphane Dujarric confirmed them, saying that the Qatari government “very generously chartered a plane for the secretary-general to enable him to go about his visit.”

Guzansky puts it this way: “Ban comes to Qatar. They send him a plane, pay for hotels, which costs millions. And there he expresses gratitude for the Qataris’ gracious assistance and criticizes Israel’s criminal blow against the Palestinians. That’s what’s going on.”

Qatar is far from a radical state in the classic sense of the term. In recent years, it has made itself into a global brand. Its security and political cooperation with the U.S. is especially close. Georgetown University, Cornell University, the Brookings Institution think tank and many other academic entities have established local branches there. The Museum of Modern Art in New York has established a branch in Qatar. The FIFA World Cup will be held there in 2022, and the country wishes to host the 2024 Olympics as well. Qatar owns the Paris Saint-Germain Football Club and the luxury department store Harrods in London.

“This stems from prestige and a desire for prominence and importance,” Guzansky says. “But within that, there’s a realization that this kind of prominence is also an insurance policy.”

Qatar’s attitude toward Israel also differs from that of its friends in the Arab world. For many years, until Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and 2009, Qatar had open relations with Israel, including official missions. Although these relations were officially severed in January 2009, when the operation ended, Israelis still fly to Qatar. The CEO of El Al, David Maimon, attended a conference of the International Air Transport Association in Doha. Qatar has succeeded in avoiding an image as a radical country so well that even Israeli companies invested in it. Even the Arab-Israeli soccer team Bnei Sakhnin received a $500,000 donation from Qatar this week. About a decade ago, Qatar also helped build the team’s stadium, which was named Doha Stadium after its capital.

Qatar racked up all these accomplishments despite its arid climate, small size (at 11,586 square kilometers, or 4,473 square miles, it is ranked 166th in the world by size) and location in the most tumultuous region on earth, where it is surrounded by powerful countries. Its army has 11,800 troops. The country has 270,000 citizens; also resident are roughly 1.5 million foreign workers, many of them held as slaves and unable to leave.

Over the past 17 years Qatar has become a major player in the Middle East without anyone working against it. In less than two decades, Doha has become a global capital of commerce. Its investment fund, the Qatar Investment Authority, manages close to $200 billion and has made acquisitions worldwide, from shares in banks to soccer teams and clothing chains.

Insurance Against the Radicals

The answer to the question of how a tiny country like Qatar managed to transform itself into an influential power seems fairly simple: natural gas and oil. Blessed with 25 billion barrels of crude-oil reserves and the third-largest natural-gas reserves on earth, Qatar is the world’s biggest exporter of liquid natural gas. These two natural resources comprise about 70 percent of its national product and 85 percent of its export.

Until crude oil was discovered in its territory in the 1940s, Qatar had been part of the Ottoman Empire and then of the British Empire. Its economy depended mainly on fishing and pearl diving. The growth of its local oil industry led to rapid economic development, which was accelerated still further when Qatar became independent in 1971. Throughout that time, Qatar was led by the House of Thani, which has been in power for 150 years.

For many years, Qatar was a modest country that tried to avoid attracting too much attention lest it be annexed by its much larger neighbors, including Saudi Arabia. Although rich in natural resources, it was poor in terms of its labor force and soldiers to protect its borders. Kuwait found out what it meant to be in that kind of risky geopolitical situation when Saddam Hussein invaded it in 1990.

Over the years, Qatar has seen several bloodless palace coups. In 1995 Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani seized power from his father, who was outside the country at the time. Hamad, who ruled peacefully in Qatar until he abdicated in 2013 in favor of his son, had a much keener political sense than his father did. After seeing what happened to Kuwait in the Gulf War, he set out to ensure that no matter the price, his own country would never suffer a similar fate.

Under Hamad’s leadership, Qatar made the transition from a country of tents and camels to one of skyscrapers and luxury hotels. It became a paradise for its citizens: There are no taxes, and electricity, health care and education are free. The unemployment rate is less than 1 percent and the country has the largest percentage of millionaires on earth. It is true that democracy does not exist there, despite Al Jazeera’s preaching for the establishment of democracy in the Middle East. But who needs democracy when you have a million dollars in the bank and everything is free?

That is the major reason why Qatar managed to extricate itself from the throes of the Arab Spring, which overthrew regimes around it but left it untouched. Life in Qatar is so good (once again, only for the citizens) that there is no reason to complain, particularly since those who do are punished severely. In 2011, the Qatari poet Mohammed al-Ajamy, also known as Mohammed ibn al-Dheeb, was arrested after he posted a video of himself reading a protest poem on Facebook. He was sentenced to life in prison; the punishment was then reduced to 15 years.

Lesson in Opportunism

Qatar’s foreign policy has become a lesson in opportunism and political shrewdness with a single goal: to protect the paradise it has created for its rulers and citizens. To ensure his country’s survival, Hamad worked in various ways to increase Qatar’s international involvement. A major tool in increasing its influence was Al Jazeera, which has been playing a central role in Qatar’s foreign policy since it launched in 1996.

Qatar’s fingerprints have been found on just about everything over the past decade. During the Arab Spring, Al Jazeera’s coverage played a major role in spreading the popular uprisings from one country to the next. During the civil war in Syria, Qatar abandoned its old friend, Bashar Assad, and began assisting the rebels. In Libya it was among the major elements responsible for the overthrow of Muammar Gadhafi’s regime. Despite its strong alliance with the Western countries, which is illustrated by the presence of the U.S.’s largest military base in the region on its soil, Qatar has always taken care to nurture ties with its neighbors, including the radicals among them. It developed strong ties with Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban (which has offices in Doha) and Hezbollah. It supported the Islamic State, which is laying waste to Iraq, when that group was in its infancy.

Qatar talks to everybody to make sure that nobody will attack it. “It believes that this will gain it some kind of insurance policy against the radical elements, as in: ‘I pay you and support you, so you can’t attack me,’” Guzansky says. “There is also an ideological link: The Qataris are Wahhabists — in other words, conservative Muslims, and the royal house has ideological ties to political Islam, meaning Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.”

“They dance with everybody. That’s the main thing,” he adds. “They want to be all right with everybody. Qatar is a tiny country in the midst of a tumultuous region, and that’s how it survives — it dances at every wedding. That is why Qatar invited the Americans, who had been sitting in Saudi Arabia before, to build their major Middle East base there. The emir said, ‘Come, I’ll build you a base worth billions of dollars,’ and did exactly that. Qatar believes that this is its insurance policy.”

The Dark Side of Paradise

As Qatar’s extensive ties with terrorist groups have come to light in recent years, the world has also been finding out about the horrific situation of the hundreds of thousands of foreign workers being held there in conditions of slavery. It all started in 2010, when Qatar won the tender to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup championships despite its blazing heat, which reaches more than 40 degrees C. (104 degrees F.) in the shade.

Four years after Qatar won the tender, its hosting privileges appear likely to be revoked since the British newspaper the Daily Telegraph reported that former FIFA Vice President Jack Warner had accepted $2 million bribe from the Qatari government to make sure that it would win. The expose ran after a series of accusations that high-ranking FIFA officials had been bribed to vote for Qatar. And it ran three months before an expose in another British newspaper, the Sunday Times, claimed that former FIFA Vice President Mohammed bin Hammam, of Qatari nationality, had taken advantage of his status to bribe other members of the organization with more than $5 million. FIFA had to announce that it was beginning an investigation to clarify the charges, and it looks as though the scandal will cost Qatar the opportunity to host the World Cup in 2022.

In addition, in the past two years reports say that the Qatari authorities are guilty of human-rights violations against the foreign workers who were brought in to build the infrastructure and the stadiums for the FIFA games. According to the International Labour Organization, the foreign workers in Qatar are forced to work in horrible conditions, are paid terribly low salaries and, at times, are held in actual slavery. According to estimates, at least 1,000 workers who were employed to construct buildings for the World Cup have died in work accidents and of heart attacks, exhaustion and other health problems. In May, Qatar promised to improve the workers’ conditions, but this month the Guardian reported that workers from Nepal, Sri Lanka and other countries had not been paid their salaries for 13 months, and some were being paid less than 85 cents a day.

The foreign workers in Qatar make up most of its population and 94 percent of its work force, but in practice, they are a vassal class without rights. Many of them cannot leave the country without permission from their employers, nor can they apply for a driver’s license, change jobs, rent a home or open a bank account without permission. They must work long hours in the blazing sun, without food or water, and live in sub-standard and dangerous conditions. In February, the International Trade Union Confederation defined Qatar as a “slave state.”

The recent discoveries of Qatar’s support for terrorist groups, alongside the rising criticism by its neighbors and the Western world, led it to conclude that its activist foreign policy may not be as worthwhile as it was in the past. In March, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors from Doha, claiming that Qatar had violated its agreements with them by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.

According to Guzansky, Qatar may have reached the point where it has annoyed too many people. “Over the past few years, it has been playing with the big boys, and it may have gone too far,” he says. “They’re already starting to draw fire, and I don’t know whether they’ll be able to keep on doing what they’ve been doing for long. They’re not just annoying Israel at this point — with all due respect, we’re a small player — but they’re also annoying the Saudis.”

Still, he says, the options for working with Qatar are limited precisely because of the “insurance policy” it obtained for itself. “It’s not a country like Iran that you can ostracize,” he says. “It’s not simple. A country that is going to be hosting the World Cup, that hosts so many campuses of prominent American institutions, is an international center that cannot be ignored or isolated. It has fingers in every pie. At this stage, the Americans are the only ones who can put pressure on Qatar. They have done so in the past, when Al Jazeera gave a platform to Al Qaida and the Americans didn’t like that, and they could do that now.”

The newsroom at the headquarters of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera channel in Doha.Credit: REUTERS
Women pass a Nike Inc. retail store in the Villaggio Mall, part of the Aspire Zone, in Doha, Qatar.Credit: Bloomberg
Cyclists compete in the sixth and final stage of the Tour of Qatar, from Sealine Beach Resort to Doha Corniche, February 14, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel shakes hands with Qatari Defense Minister Hamad bin Ali al-Attiyah, at the Pentagon, Monday, July 14, 2014, during a signing ceremony. Credit: AP
Qatar's foreign minister Khaled al-Attiya (R) shakes hands with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon after a joint news conference in Doha July 20, 2014. Credit: Reuters



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