Why Qatar Is Emerging as Middle East Peacemaker

Article excerpt

This tiny Gulf state emerged this week at the forefront of regional diplomacy, successfully shepherding the negotiations between feuding Lebanese factions to end months of political turmoil and violence.

With regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, aligned behind rival players in Lebanon, Qatar is uniquely suited to help mediate Lebanon's crisis. It's seen as charting an unashamedly independent path in the maze of Arab politics,

"Just a year ago, Saudi Arabia was trying to do this [mediation], but Saudi Arabia is considered an interested party. But Qatar is somewhat in between," says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut. "Qatar, on the Lebanon issue, is the only country with good relations on both sides and has the money to back it up."

Qatar's intense mediation bore fruit Wednesday in a last-minute deal on the composition of the next Lebanese government, an electoral law, the election of a new president, and a future dialogue on the fate of the militant Shiite Hezbollah's weapons.

In a highly factionalized Middle East, where the US and Iran and their respective regional allies are struggling for dominance, Qatar is in the unusual position of having a foot in both camps. It remains a key ally of Washington, hosting the Al-Udeid Air Base, the largest US military facility in the region. It enjoys economic ties to Israel, and Israeli officials often participate in meetings and conferences in Doha.

Yet Qatar also is Syria's closest Arab friend, investing millions of dollars in major property development projects and providing diplomatic support. The Damascus regime is viewed with hostility by other key Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt, for its close ties to Iran and influence in Lebanon. According to Qataris, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife, Asma, are often seen wandering through Doha's gleaming shopping malls as guests of Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani.

A thumb-shaped peninsula jutting into the Persian Gulf, Qatar possesses the third-largest gas deposits in the world and last year became the world's largest liquefied natural gas exporter. Oil and gas amount to more than 60 percent of gross domestic product, making it one of the higher per-capita income states in the world.

While many Arab Gulf countries fret about Iran's regional ambitions, Qatar enjoys genial relations with the Islamic Republic. In December, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the first Iranian head of state to attend the annual summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Doha.

"Qatar is a tiny fish stuck between giants - Iran and Saudi Arabia," says Hady Amr, director of the Brookings Doha Center. "It simply tries to balance all those interests with those of the US. So it does have the US military base, but it actively balances this with deeper relations with Iran."

Despite its limited size, Qatar is "rising in regional and even international prominence as a convener of vital conferences," Mr. Amr adds, citing the World Trade Organization's Doha Round and the Asian Games among others.

Qatar's nonaligned role in regional politics may be a survival mechanism in an unforgiving corner of the world, given its small size and enormous oil and gas riches. But it may also signal a shift from the polarization of the region during the tenure of President Bush toward a greater emphasis on negotiation and compromise. …