Tiny Qatar Vies for Big Regional Role ; Israel's Shimon Peres Traveled to the Gulf State Last Week, Highlighting Its Unconventional Foreign Policy

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Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres touched down in Qatar last week - the highest-level visit by an Israeli to the Gulf in more than a decade. He debated local students, met the emir, toured the Iranian market, and then got his Israeli passport stamped at the airport and flew home.

While Mr. Peres's visit passed somewhat quietly, and peace didn't break out in its wake, the 40-hour voyage did, however, highlight a key aspect of Qatar's foreign policy - it is original.

Whether it's visionary - or merely iconoclastic - is another question altogether.

Until 1995, Qatar did not have a distinguishable foreign policy to speak of, and instead took cues from Saudi Arabia and stayed on the sidelines of world affairs. But ever since reformist Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father in 1995, Qatar has been charting an increasingly distinctive path.

"Qatar is a player now," says Chase Untermeyer, the US ambassador to Qatar. "You don't have to be a very big to be a player if you have talented team members - with the desire to play and ability to do so."

A desert of 4,500 flat square miles jutting into the Persian Gulf and controlling the third-largest gas reserve in the world, Qatar seems to be involved in everything lately. It has presided over OPEC (three times), is bidding for the Olympics, and bankrolls Al Jazeera, the controversial satellite TV channel.

Controversy seems to be the order of the day here. Qatar is the only Gulf country to maintain any sort of official relations with the Jewish state, allowing a "trade representation office" to remain open in Doha since 1996 and dismissing complaints by neighboring countries.

But this relative openness to Israel does not stop Qatar from funding the militant group Hamas, which controls the Palestinian government and calls for the destruction of Israel.

The emir recently transferred $22 million to Hamas as the first installment of a promised monthly assistance. And, in his meeting with Peres on Jan. 29, the emir asked Israel to be "pragmatic" and start talking with Hamas, according to Peres's office. Peres responded that negotiations would be impossible as long as Hamas continued to deny Israeli's right to exist.

Qatar's support of Hamas, meanwhile, does not mean that he isn't closely allied with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah Party, which is engaged in a bitter power struggle with Hamas. Mr. Abbas owns a home in Doha and is said to be personally close to the emir. Hamas political leader Khalad Mashaal also owns a home here and is a palace friend.

The Israeli-Palestinian story is not the only one in which Qatar is playing a multiple hand. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad are welcome guests here. Saddam Hussein's wife was offered political asylum. Still, this does not interfere with the extensive economic ties between Qatar and the US, or the close coordination between the two countries on regional diplomatic and security initiatives. Qatar has, since the spring of 2003, allowed the US to make use of bases here for its central command and control of the Iraq war. …