On Friday last week, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al Thani, who holds the roles of Qatari prime minister and foreign minister, stood with the Duke of York and London Mayor Boris Johnson to watch the inauguration of the Shard. As blue and green lasers, accompanied by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, lit up a London skyline now dominated by the 310m skyscraper, the performance was streamed live around the world.
If the opening of western Europe’s tallest building — presided over by Hamad, whose country’s sovereign wealth fund owns 95 percent of the development — was a demonstration of Qatar’s rapidly growing global visibility and influence, a few days before, in an equally vast, but older building, that influence was being exercised far more discreetly. The building was the UN’s Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, where on June 30, Hamid met US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other foreign ministers to press his country’s case for firmer international action over Syria.
Both scenes underline a phenomenon: the emergence onto the world stage as a considerable diplomatic, cultural and even military player of a tiny state whose huge ambitions to spread influence around the globe are fueled by enormous wealth and devotion to a strict interpretation of the Koran. That ambition is being realized, from the sports stadiums and skyscraper penthouses of Western capitals, to the industrial centers of China and the battlefields of Syria and Libya.
A generation ago, Qatar — whose people are the world’s wealthiest by virtue of its oil and natural gas reserves — barely registered on the global radar. It is a former British protectorate ruled by the Al Thani family since the 19th century; its present emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, seized power in 1995 from his father in a bloodless palace coup. Today, it is difficult to avoid its money and influence.
In London, the Al Thanis’ investment arm, Qatar Holdings and the Qatar Investment Authority, have been on a long shopping spree, spending more than US$20 billion in recent years on purchasing Chelsea Barracks, Harrods and the Olympic Village. Qatar is the largest shareholder in Barclays Bank. Its global investment strategy most recently has seen the statelet aggressively pursue new openings in China.
The Qatar Foundation sponsors the Barcelona soccer club, a reminder that in 10 years’ time it will play host to the World Cup. Then there is the Doha-based al-Jazeera TV, considered the most important Arab news television channel, owned by Qatar through the Qatar Media Corporation — which earlier this month claimed that it had evidence that the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was poisoned with polonium.
The emirate also hosts both the Taliban’s and Hamas’ regional offices, as well as a number of international organizations — Georgetown University and the British Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies — creating a space where the West rubs shoulders with the Islamic world. Indeed, until 2009, Qatar even hosted an Israeli trade center, which closed its doors after the Israeli assault on Gaza.
Since the coming of the Arab spring, Qatar has attempted to position itself at the forefront of the transformation of the region, giving military support to the opposition of late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, as well as backing key players in the country’s fractured post-revolutionary politics through tactics — some diplomats have alleged — that have included weapons shipments.