How Qatar Rose to Become a Leading Player in Middle East Politics

Qatar's evolution from a tiny desert nation to a mighty regional power didn't come easily, but the Emir of Qatar Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani had a longterm plan and the foresight and patience to see such a transformation take shape.

Relying on oil, a geographic safe haven, and a progressive vision, Qatar has risen to become the star of the Gulf and a regional force to be reckoned with.

Twenty years ago, Qatar set out to dramatically alter the media landscape in the Middle East. Following the incredible success of Al Jazeera, the tiny Gulf Kingdom set its sites on becoming a powerful business and financial hub for the Near East. With the rights to the 2022 World Cup having put to rest any lingering doubts as to its international approbation, Qatar has set its sights on becoming a force in regional diplomacy.

The plan hinged on Al Jazeera. In 1995, at the behest of the Emir Qatar launched the 24-hour Arabic news network not only to “report the news as they see it" as the Emir once said, but also to protect and promote Qatar's image.

The 150 million dollar original grant, at the time one of the largest single gifts granted to a media corporation, ensured that while the Al Jazeera staff was free to broadcast the corruption, political scandals, and inherent repression of political freedoms in other Arab countries, Qatar would receive favorable treatment promoting the oil-rich Kingdom (and the Gulf in general) as a stable, business-friendly environment.

The flattering coverage helped Qatar rise above the sea of regional turmoil and along with progressive thinking and deep natural gas and oil reserves, established Qatar's reputation as the leading business destination between London and Hong Kong with financial projects underway totaling more than 130 billion dollars in the coming decade.

More recently, Qatar has set its sights on diplomacy in order to cement its status as a complete world power. In 2007, Emir Khalifa took a bold step in becoming the first Persian Gulf ruler to meet with a high-ranking Israeli official to pursue peace negations in an attempt to further Qatar's image as a neutral and peaceful regional power. In January of 2010, Qatar helped broker Lebanese government reconciliation talks and this past spring, Qatar won widespread support in Libya and across the region after it was the first Arab country to support intervention against the Gaddafi regime. 

Now, Qatar is at it again as the Emir was the first Arab leader to call for foreign intervention against the al Assad government in the 10-month old Syrian uprising. 

Qatar's recent show of diplomatic muscle is the result of its careful longterm planning, a unique set of circumstances, and a careful balancing act between its Arab roots and its Western ties. A close ally of America, Israel feels less threatened by Qatar both because of its relationship with the West and the country's unobtrusive regional past.

Meanwhile, Arab countries must respect Qatar not only for being one of their own, but for the Kingdom's considerable investments in their countries. The majority state-owned Qatar Investment Authority has postponed much of the six billion dollars of investments tied up in Syria. Instead, Jordan has become the beneficiary of those investments. Similarly, countries such as Palestine, Lebanon, and Morocco have taken advantage of hundreds of millions of dollars from Qatari financial subsidiaries and are thus dependent and beholden to Qatar's support. 

Should the Arab League follow Emir Khalifa's calls for military intervention in Syria, there will be little doubt as to Qatar's ascendency in the international and diplomatic arena. With a widespread network of economic investments, friendly ties to Iran (which could be crucial in staving off a future crisis) and a modern, progressive mentality, Qatar's rise is an advantageous development for the United States, the Middle East as a whole, and for the possibility of Middle East peace.

Photo Credit: David Dietz