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
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. …