Tiny Qatar uses riches to forge key role in Middle East

AFP, DUBAI, United Arab Emirates

Mon, Mar 25, 2013 - Page 6

Qatar, the small Gulf state that tomorrow hosts an Arab summit, has become a key regional player thanks to its support for Arab uprisings and the marginalization of traditional heavyweights.

However, the “checkbook diplomacy” of the energy-rich state and its backing for Islamists who have seized power in some countries rocked by the Arab Spring have triggered criticism.

The emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, is “obsessed by an ambition to leave his heirs a country that counts on the world map after it was practically unknown only 20 years ago,” said Olivier Da Lage, author of the new French book Qatar: the new masters of the game.

“Qatar’s place, disproportionate to its size and population, is explained notably by its considerable financial capabilities ... and the extended absence of the historical actors in the Arab world,” he said in reference to Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia.

Qatar has a population of less than 2 million in a state that sits on the world’s third-largest natural gas reserves and 13th proven oil reserves.

Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, argued that Qatar is not a unique case in history of a small state becoming a regional power, citing Venice among others, in a study published in December last year.

“But this influence poses a question on the impact of the media and the power of money,” he said of Qatar’s al-Jazeera news channel.

In Tunisia, the ruling Islamist Ennahda party is accused of being funded by Doha with the aim of establishing an Islamic state.

“Doha sees in forming an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood by using checkbook diplomacy a way to create a regional base with economic and political influence in the Middle East and beyond,” wrote Egyptian French-language weekly al-Ahram Hebdo in an editorial on Wednesday.

Through al-Jazeera, Qatar has realized that “it could be a key player in the new region in transition, instead of being the protector of an old order in agony,” Salem said.