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Qatar's Prosperity As High As Its Geopolitical Ambitions
The Washington Diplomat / October 2012

By Larry Luxner

Qataris are among the richest people on Earth, but just how rich is a matter of debate. The CIA World Factbook says this Connecticut-sized emirate jutting out into the Persian Gulf has an annual per-capita GDP of $104,300.

Qatar National Bank is even more optimistic, projecting per-capita income at $113,000 by year’s end and $114,300 in 2013 — up from a paltry $88,600 in 2010.

And if you count only the 250,000 or so native Qatari citizens who constitute a distinct minority in their own country — leaving out the one and a half million Indians, Nepalese, Filipinos and others who do most of the actual labor in Qatar — then annual per-capita income zooms to well over $400,000.

Mohamed Abdulla Al-Rumaihi, the country’s ambassador in Washington, doesn’t know the exact number, nor does he seem to care much.

“We have been blessed by God, and through our wealth we seek to create a model for the entire Middle East,” said Al-Rumaihi, smiling benevolently as he spoke to The Washington Diplomat in his first exclusive media interview since arriving from Doha — nonstop to Dulles via Qatar Airways — in February.

That wealth is obvious throughout this conservative Muslim state that’s home to the world’s third-largest natural gas reserves, from Doha’s gleaming international airport to its glittering skyline, ultramodern shopping malls and world-class, $1 billion Museum of Islamic Art, which opened in December 2008 and sits on an artificial island just off a waterfront promenade along Doha Bay. Earlier this year, Qatar’s royal family acquired Paul Cézanne’s post-impressionist painting “The Card Players,” for a staggering $250 million — the highest price ever paid for a single work of art.

Yes, except for having to cope with unbearable heat that can easily drive summer temperatures to 122 degrees, the Qataris are a pretty lucky bunch. Citizens enjoy free water, free electricity, free phone service and free health care — and pay no taxes.

They can thank geology for that. Until the 1950s, Qatar derived most of its income from pearl diving. But following independence in 1971 and the dramatic surge in world oil prices only two years later, Qatar quickly became an energy powerhouse.

According to the Oil & Gas Journal, Qatar today sits on 25.4 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and ranks as the world’s 16th-largest crude oil exporter. Qatar’s real economic might, however, comes from gas; the tiny country controls 14 percent of the world’s proven natural gas reserves (ranking only behind Russia and Iran). Qatar is now the world’s leading liquefied natural gas exporter, shipping LNG mainly to Japan, South Korea, India and Western Europe.

“The discovery of gas in the 1990s and the decision by His Highness the Emir to invest massively in those gas fields was a very wise decision,” said Al-Rumaihi. “That’s given us the capacity today to diversify our energy industry and expand the petrochemical sector to produce refined products like gasoline, jet fuel, diesel and polyethylene.”

His Highness the Emir would be Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, whose family has ruled this city-state for nearly 200 years. In 1995 — with the support of his family — Al-Thani deposed his father while the latter was vacationing in Switzerland and was crowned emir on June 20, 2000. Despite his undisputed status as an absolute monarch, Qatar’s ruler is considered to be among the most progressive in the Gulf.

“The emir is a very serious man. He is blessed with knowledge and very good international contacts. He tries to bring peace and stability to other countries, especially the Middle East. This is not an easy task,” said the ambassador in the perhaps the understatement of the year. “Meanwhile, our top priority is to ensure stability for the people of Qatar in matters of health, education and social security. It is very important that all Qataris are educated for the future.”

Al-Rumaihi’s office occupies much of the fifth floor of the Qatari mission along M Street, just before the bridge to Georgetown. From his desk, huge plate-glass windows offer a commanding view of Rock Creek Park. Everything about this place suggests modesty, from the Brazilian hardwood floors to dark leather couches and selected knick-knacks from Qatar.

Of the sampling of books spread out on Al-Rumaihi’s coffee table, two stand out: “The Islamic Art Collection of Sheikh Faisal bin Qassim Al-Thani” and “Arab and Muslim Civil Rights and Identity: A Selection of Scholarly Writings from the Decade After 9/11.”

The father of four sons and three daughters, Al-Rumaihi, 55, graduated from France’s Saint Cyr Military Academy in 1980 and went on to become an officer in the Qatari Armed Forces, rising in rank from lieutenant to major general. From 2002 to 2003, he was Qatar’s ambassador to France and nonresident ambassador to Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg and the European Union. In 2003, Al-Rumaihi became assistant foreign minister, a position he held up until the emir appointed him to his current position earlier this year.

Whereas the ambassador’s predecessor in Washington, Ali Bin Fahad Al-Hajri, almost never spoke to the media and repeatedly declined our requests to interview him, Al-Rumaihi seemed rather at ease with our questions. These ranged from easy ones, like how Qatar is preparing for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, to difficult topics, such as the ongoing upheaval convulsing the Middle East — and the fact that cries for democracy have now been heard in just about every Arab country except his own.

(The only protests raging in Doha lately have been those along the capital’s main thoroughfare by Qataris who angrily rallied in mid-September against a 14-minute video made in California that trashes the prophet Mohammad. That crude video, posted on YouTube, sparked demonstrations in more than a dozen countries from Bangladesh to the Philippines and led to the killing of four American diplomats at the U.S. consulate in Libya.)

“Qatar does not like to see any people suppressed inside or outside their own countries, not getting their rights and not developing themselves,” the ambassador told us. “We say go ahead, create reforms. Empower your people and we will help you. But some leaders don’t like these ideas. We’ve ended up being hated by some of these governments. You can’t just have prosperity and progress without having reforms too.”

Patrick Theros, who served as U.S. ambassador to Qatar from 1995 to 1998, told The Diplomat that Al-Thani has shown “a very sophisticated understanding” on this topic and regards democracy as inevitable.

“Qatar’s leadership has realized that as you develop a population, you educate them and open their eyes to the outside world,” said Theros, president of the Washington-based U.S.-Qatar Business Council (see sidebar). “You can buy the people off with money for a time, but at a certain point, they’re not going to be bought off anymore. They have to participate in government and feel that they’re actually part of the political process.”

To that end, he said, political liberalization in Qatar has happened a lot faster than the population expected. In 1996, Qatar lifted press censorship — the first country in the Arab world to do so — and in 1999, the emir formed a municipal council and allowed women to vote as well as run for office; four years later a constitution was approved. And next year, Qatar will hold its first parliamentary elections; its 90-member parliament will consist of 60 elected representatives and 30 members appointed by the emir.

Theros said that as Qatar opens up politically, its quality of life is improving in ways unimaginable half a century ago.

“When I first went to the Gulf in 1964, the infant mortality of Gulf Arabs was 90 percent. Literacy among men was below 10 percent, and almost nonexistent among women,” he said. “Now, all those numbers have been stood on their heads. In Qatar, nobody under the age of 50 is illiterate, and 80 percent of college graduates are women.”

Yet those impressive statistics apply only to Qatari citizens, who comprise barely 15 percent of Qatar’s 1.8 million inhabitants. By comparison, Indians make up 24 percent of Qatar’s population, followed by the Nepalese; non-Qatari Arabs; Filipinos; Sri Lankans; Bangladeshis; Pakistanis and others.

Discrimination and abuse against those of South Asian origin — many of them earning less than $200 a month — is a fact of life in Qatar, as is the case elsewhere throughout the Gulf. According to the State Department’s annual 2012 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, “The Government of Qatar does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, but is making significant efforts to do so.”

Joseph LeBaron, former U.S. ambassador to Qatar, echoed that sentiment, telling Doha’s Gulf Times that the government’s National TIP Action Plan for 2010-15 “will make Qatar a more humane place to live and work for all foreign workers. It will improve Qatar’s international reputation. In fact, Qatar will have an opportunity … to distinguish itself as a regional anti-TIP leader.”

Yet Qatar has already been establishing itself as a political and economic leader in the region for years, most recently inserting itself into the Arab Spring turmoil in an attempt to shape the region’s future. It’s a delicate balancing act for a tiny nation wedged between powerful and conflicting forces such as Saudi Arabia and Iran — which has led to widespread suspicions about what the government is really up to.

“Its intentions remain murky to its neighbors and even allies — some say Qatar has a Napoleon complex, others say it has an Islamist agenda. But its clout is a lesson in what can be gained with some of the world’s largest gas reserves, the region’s most influential news network in Al Jazeera, an array of contacts (many with an Islamist bent), and policy-making in an absolute monarchy vested in the hands of one man,” wrote Anthony Shadid in the New York Times article “Qatar Wields an Outsize Influence in Arab Politics.”

“But for all the contradictions in its policies — and there are many — Qatar is advancing a decisive shift in Arab politics that many in the West have yet to embrace: a Middle East dominated by mainstream Islamist parties brought to power in a region that is more democratic, more conservative and more tumultuous,” Shadid wrote.

Qataris have in part advanced that agenda by capitalizing on the tumult in Libya and Syria — two countries where the emirate has used its vast oil and gas wealth to help rebels in their efforts to overthrow tyrannical regimes. In his Nov. 14, 2011, dispatch from Doha, Shadid, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter who died last February of an asthma attack while covering the bloodshed in Syria, described how Qatari money proved instrumental in the eventual downfall of Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi.

“Diplomats say hundreds of millions were funneled to the opposition, often through channels Qatar had cultivated with expatriates here,” Shadid wrote. “A Libyan opposition channel was set up in Doha. Qatar dispatched Western-trained advisers, who helped finance, train and arm Libyan rebels.”

Foreign Policy correspondent Blake Hounshell, who lived in Qatar for a year, even noted that in August last year, “when Libyan rebel fighters stormed Qaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya complex, they raised a Qatari flag in appreciation.”

On that subject, Al-Rumaihi’s only remark was that “we helped protect the Libyan people as part of the international coalition with France, the United States and other NATO allies. Qatar was not the only Arab country.” Exactly which other Arab countries he wouldn’t say, remarking dryly that “as you can see, we are out of the picture now.”

But Qatar is not out of the picture in Syria, where along with Saudi Arabia it’s been openly supplying rebels with weaponry, including possibly surface-to-air missiles. New reports indicate that the Free Syrian Army has already acquired nearly two dozen such missiles — delivered to them via neighboring Turkey — which could bring down the Russian-made helicopters being used by President Bashar al-Assad against his own people.

Michael Stephens, writing in The Guardian, says that while no one knows for sure what Qatar’s intentions are, he believes “the emir wants to secure a legacy for himself as the man who took the Arab world into a more activist phase of multilateral action — as the man who pushed a lethargic, divided region to stand up and solve Arab problems with Arab action, backed by the use of force for those who don’t seem to get the message.”

Stephens warns, however, that things could backfire on the emirate.

“There are some who think Qatar has bitten off more than it can chew. A tiny state whose entire civil service numbers less than the staff of Saudi Arabia’s interior ministry cannot surely be expected to make the correct strategic calculations in such a complex and violent conflict,” he wrote in August. “It is a dangerous task and as I have previously warned, the winds of the Syrian conflict may yet blow back upon Qatar.”

Al-Rumaihi seems to agree, though he didn’t put it quite that way. As is the case with Libya, the ambassador wouldn’t tell us what Qatar is giving the anti-Assad rebels.

“Syria is a very difficult case. It will be solved only if the international community arrives at a real solution,” he said. “Otherwise, the situation will continue as we see it. This is a people who decided to get rid of their government because they don’t respect it. Assad should leave power and let his people live. We don’t know how he will leave, but in the end, he will have to leave.”

Perhaps the most influential external factor behind last year’s Arab Spring — which ousted not only Qaddafi from Libya but also forced out longtime leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen — has been the Qatari government-owned TV network Al Jazeera. During the Egyptian revolution in February 2011, thousands of protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square cheered as they watched the news unfold on Al Jazeera that President Hosni Mubarak had stepped down.

Asked if Al Jazeera succeeded in putting Qatar on the map at a time when few people outside of stamp collectors had ever heard of the country, the ambassador said it’s actually the other way around.

“Qatar put Al Jazeera on the map,” he said of the network, which in a recent online poll was ranked as the fifth-most influential global brand — right behind Apple, Google, IKEA and Starbucks. “Al Jazeera is a very important channel. It’s a success story in itself and has taken its rightful place in the world as a representative of the free media.”

If anything, said Theros of the U.S.-Qatar Business Council, some Qataris think Al Jazeera is too free. “The reason it’s credible is because it’s the only international TV network in the Arab world that is completely uncensored. They did a fairly sympathetic piece on Israeli settlers being removed from Gaza and got beaten up for that.”

Curiously, Al-Rumaihi doesn’t mind advocating violence to get rid of despots like Qaddafi and Assad. But last year — while it was helping to free Libya from Qaddafi’s grasp — his emir also sent troops to Bahrain to help the nearby kingdom put down an uprising by that country’s disenfranchised Shiite majority. Since anti-government protests began in early 2011, nearly 100 Bahrainis have died, more than 2,900 have been thrown in jail, and at least five people are believed to have been tortured and killed while in police custody.

Al-Rumaihi also insists the use of force is unjustified, at least in Israel’s case, when it comes to stopping Iran from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

“We believe the Iranians have a right to civilian nuclear power. Nobody can deny that,” he said. “We never supported the Israeli [threat] to go and destroy Iran. The international community should decide this. It is not unilateral. We don’t think it’s right that one country executes decisions unilaterally.”

Iran is understandably a very touchy subject for the government in Doha. The two countries share a maritime border as well as the North Gas Field, and Qatar frequently touts its “brotherly relations” with Tehran — though it also hosts 8,000 American troops at the largest U.S. military air base in the Persian Gulf.

In July, U.S. defense officials announced that the Pentagon is building a missile-defense radar station at a secret site in the Qatari desert. That site will complete the backbone of a system designed to defend U.S. interests and allies such as Israel against incoming Iranian rockets, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“The U.S. moves are intended to address the two Iranian offensive capabilities Pentagon planners most worry about: Tehran’s arsenal of ballistic missiles and its threat to shut down the oil-shipping lanes of the Strait of Hormuz by mining them,” said the newspaper.

Asked if Qatar feels threatened by its much larger neighbor across the strait, Al-Rumaihi admitted that it’s a “very difficult issue” to discuss.

“That depends on how much Iran will respect the rules, and how much the international community will accept them becoming a nuclear power,” he replied. “For the time being, we don’t have any proof that Iran has nukes.”

Reflecting its chameleon-like foreign policy, Qatar’s relations with Israel aren’t nearly as poor as some of its neighbors. Back in the mid-1990s, it became one of the very few Gulf Arab states, along with Oman, to recognize Israel diplomatically. Following the signing of the Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians, Israel was allowed to establish a low-profile trade office in Doha.

“We did this because we wanted to encourage the Israelis and our brothers in the Arab world to negotiate,” said Al-Rumaihi, whose government pledged to open a similar office in Tel Aviv but never followed through. “The Israeli government rejected the Arab peace initiative in 2003 without thinking about it or giving a reply. Then other issues came up, making it very difficult to continue having relations with Israel.”

Theros was serving in Qatar when Israel inaugurated its Doha mission, which was so low-profile it had no Israeli flag flying out front and wasn’t even listed in the local phone directory. He said the handful of Jewish officials stationed there had a rough time from the get-go.

“The average Qatari was reluctant to buy anything Israeli, and getting Qataris to rent homes to Israelis was very hard,” he recalled. “The government had to intervene.”

Things got especially difficult after the Israeli invasion of Gaza in December 2008, a three-week military action sparked by Hamas rocket fire into southern Israel that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1,200 Palestinians, many of them civilians. That prompted Qatari officials to close the Israeli trade office and expel its diplomats.

“There are no plans on reopening the office,” said Al-Rumaihi, adding that “we are waiting for somebody [in Israel] to take a step. We believe that [Arab-Israeli] peace is possible. In Qatar, we believe in resolving problems by peaceful means and dialogue.”

But peace in Qatar’s part of the world remains elusive, for the time being, and it’s clear that the ambassador would rather talk about Qatar’s hosting of the upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup — the most important sporting event on the planet after the Olympics. Qatar already envisions spending between $120 billion and $150 billion on infrastructure alone over the next 10 years. That’s a mind-blowing $48,000 to $60,000 for every man, woman and child expected to be living in the emirate by then.

That staggering sum includes the construction of at least a dozen giant sports stadiums, though some question how successful the event can be given the emirate’s scorching July heat, its conservative dress code and its complete ban on alcohol. (Qatar’s idea of air-conditioning the stadiums, which was one reason it won the bid in the first place, has since been abandoned as unpractical and unsustainable.)

Qatar also plans to double the size of its international airport, an $8 billion endeavor. The tiny country’s flagship carrier, Qatar Airways, already offers daily nonstop service from Doha to Washington’s Dulles International Airport, New York’s JFK and Houston; daily nonstop flights to Chicago will begin next April by the airline, which in 15 years has seen its fleet grow to 110 aircraft flying to 118 destinations worldwide.

As if that’s not enough, the government will also construct a 40-kilometer-long causeway to Bahrain — which will be one of the world’s longest bridges when completed in 2015 — and has announced a $25 billion deal with German rail company Deutsche Bahn to build a subway system with four lines, 98 stations and more than 300 kilometers of track. There are also plans for another 50 hotels in the country; some $20 billion is being invested in tourism alone.

Yet the last thing Qatar wants, says Al-Rumaihi, is to play catch-up to nearby Dubai, home to the tallest skyscraper on Earth — not to mention the world’s largest indoor skiing facility, the world’s glitziest shopping mall and $20 billion Dubailand, the world’s largest amusement park.

“I don’t think we need to copy anybody,” said the ambassador. “Dubai is Dubai, and Qatar is Qatar. We don’t have the same goals. We want to focus on education, sports and culture. We have a different objective and a different way of doing things.”

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