Qatar's the star and Washington is worried
Despite the leaked US diplomatic reports on Qatar and their claim that it is a major source of "terrorist" funding, Washington would do well not to mess with the Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.
He is the only world leader to march out of an American vice-president's office in fury after just seven seconds. And his Al-Jazeera television station – for truly it does belong to him – has revolutionised reporting in the Middle East. Qatar may be tiny but in the region, it is very, very big indeed.
The Emir is a sharp man with an equally sharp sense of humour. He is known to have told a visitor that if he threw the Americans off their vast airbase at Doha – the largest US installation of its kind in the Middle East – "my Arab brothers would invade Qatar." Asked what he would do if this was ever reported, he burst into laughter and said he would deny ever having said it. I imagine that's what he'll say about the latest trove of US diplomat-speak from WikiLeaks, which suggest that his television station has "proved itself a useful tool for [its] political masters", providing "a substantial source of leverage for Qatar, one which it is unlikely to relinquish". I doubt if the Emir could care less.
Al-Jazeera, of course, has been enjoying Washington's embarrassment, sharing the disclosures with viewers on both its news channels, Arabic and English, while squeezing American government spokesmen and women dry. When the Iraq cables came out, proving that the US had turned a blind eye to torture by the Maliki government, Al-Jazeera put the former US commander in Iraq on screen; his attempts to wriggle out of the questions were deeply embarrassing.
And the Emir knows how to embarrass people who get in his way. Apart from being fabulously rich and owning large bits of London – as well as the greatest liquid gas exporter in the Middle East – he doesn't take kindly to insults. When he visited Washington during the Bush administration and was invited to see Dick Cheney, he was astounded to see the then vice-president with a large file on his desk, marked "Al-Jazeera". What's that for, the Emir asked? Cheney told him he intended to complain about the channel's coverage of the Iraq war. "Then you'll have to speak to the editors in Qatar," the Emir replied – and walked out of the room.
But is Al-Jazeera the bargaining chip which US diplomatic cables suggest? A November 2009 dispatch from the American embassy in Doha suggests that the station is "one of Qatar's most valuable political and diplomatic tools". Qatar-Saudi relations had improved when Al-Jazeera toned down its coverage of the Saudi royal family, the embassy said. But the station's management have not been above inventing "decoy" stories which they had no intention of running and then suggesting to their Arab neighbours that they have been cancelled out of respect for their feelings. In other words, the cancelled "stories" were never intended to be broadcast.
Certainly Qatar knows how to annoy its Arab "brothers". President Moubarak was very angry at the way in which the Emir hijacked Palestinian Authority-Hamas discussions – Egypt's prior monopoly over these talks was one of its few claims to importance with the United States – and if the Emir praised the Lebanese Hizballah for its 2006 combat with Israel, he was perfectly happy to have Israeli President Shimon Peres debate with Arab students in Doha. Trade relations exist between Qatar and Israel. The Emir even involved himself in Lebanese affairs – previously a Saudi monopoly in the Gulf – and the so-called Doha agreement was formulated with the aim of avoiding future violence between Hizballah and the elected Lebanese government (in which Hizballah has seats). Unfortunately for the Lebanese, it also gave Hizballah veto rights over Lebanese cabinet decisions. The Saudis were not happy.
The Egyptians remain uneasy – the Emir can dismiss Egypt's "democracy" when Moubarak's National Democratic Party wins a fraudulent vote of more than 80 per cent in last week's elections – and the Americans would be unwise to believe that the prime minister of Qatar really offered Moubarak a cessation of critical attacks on Al-Jazeera in return for a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians. When Moubarak visited Doha and asked to see the headquarters of Al-Jazeera, he was taken aback at its modest size. "You mean that little matchbox is what has been giving me all this trouble?" he asked. Indeed it was.
It's difficult to know what to make of Qatar as a nation. Liquid gas makes billions, but it is very expensive to ship around the world in tankers because it has to be frozen. Perhaps Qatar is a state of the imagination, for most of its population are foreigners and its future plans are Croesus-like in their ambition. A new metro system is to be built with 60 railway stations; how Qatar will fit all the stations onto its land is very definitely for the imagination. There is no parliament, no democracy – the Emir staged a bloodless coup while his father was off checking his bank accounts in Switzerland – but also, incredibly, no vast network of secret policemen.
True, the Emir is worried about Iran. The WikiLeaks revelations that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, speaking of Iran, told the Americans that it was necessary to "cut off the head of the snake", prompted a sudden Gulf summit in Abu Dhabi this week. Needless to say, the Qataris are just as worried – though less archaic in their fears – and only two years ago quietly asked the Americans to move their epic airbase further from the capital of Doha. The Emir doesn't want Iranian missiles exploding in his sparkling capital if they open fire on the US military installation which he hosts.
No doubt the Iranians will spare Al-Jazeera. Or will they? They threw the station's reporter and crew out of Tehran in anger at their coverage of last year's Iranian elections. But of course, it was George Bush who famously threatened to bomb the station's headquarters, an idea Tony Blair wisely advised him against. When Blair himself visited the channel's offices, he was asked by a reporter if the Bush story was true. "I think we should move on," Blair apparently replied. So it was true.
The channel – the real voice of the nation – also has a sports station which will be able to reap its rewards now that the 2022 World Cup is to be held in Qatar with almost a quarter of a million fans arriving in Doha, some of the visitors to be housed on a liner in the Gulf. If the Emir is still alive and well, he will be further elevated – to the immense jealousy of all those Arab "brothers". Al-Jazeera maintains it is independent. Its news channels do not – and cannot – make money, so the Emir's generosity floats over the heads of all its staff. But they have criticised the prime minister and officials, carrying interviews with dissidents who complained about police torture.
It's an odd relationship. As for all that money supposedly going to Al Qaeda, what do the Americans expect? The Gulf created Bin Laden to fight the Russians and they funded the Taliban for years via Pakistan. There's no reason to think it will end now. The Gulf Arabs know that they must maintain a two-way relationship with the outside world, part of it with America and part of it "within" the region. The US should thank its lucky stars that Arab nationalism is no longer a calling card. Wahabism (of the bin Laden kind) may pull at Muslim hearts – but commerce very definitely does, too.
Qatar: A brief history
History: During the 1940s, Qatar transformed itself from one of the Gulf's poorest states into one of its richest by exploiting the nation's oil and gas reserves. A former British protectorate, the country declared its independence in 1971.
Leadership: Ruled by the Thani family for almost 150 years, the current emir is Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who seized power from his father in a bloodless coup in 1995. He is known for his liberal reforms, including advocating press freedom and allowing women to have roles in government. Critics suggest that his rhetoric has not always been matched in reality.
Population: 1.7 million people live in Qatar, though only 200,000 are natives. The majority are expats and foreign labourers taking advantage of the economic boom.
Industry: Once the centre of pearl fishing, Qatar now boasts 15 per cent of the world's gas reserves.