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Qatar builds a brand as mediator

Flush with cash and fancy hotels, Qatar has hosted representatives from the West Bank, Gaza, Darfur, and Libya in the past year alone.

By Elizabeth DickinsonCorrespondent / March 28, 2012

Spectator sport: Palestinians watched a television broadcast from Qatar of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Doha, at an appliance store in Gaza City, Gaza.

Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

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Doha, Qatar

Doha's five-star hotels are not only filled with regal gold divans and marble walls, they're also filled with rebels.

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  • Qatar

    Graphic Qatar
    (Rich Clabaugh/Staff)

In the past year alone, representatives from Darfur, Nigeria, Djibouti, and Libya have come here for peace negotiations.

Most recently, the Qataris brokered a power-sharing deal between warring Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah in February. Within weeks, Hamas's political chief abruptly abandoned Syria, his longtime patron, and decamped to Doha.

Even the Taliban had planned to open an office here to pave the way for talks with the US and Afghan governments. But the group abruptly suspended those plans on March 15 and it remains unclear whether the talks can be salvaged.

What's the draw of this tiny emirate?

Qatar offers a powerful combination of money, hotel space, and connections – and is largely devoid of historical baggage.

The government, which aims to increase its international stature, spends millions footing hotel bills for rebels. After agreements are signed, Qatar sweetens the deal with reconstruction and development aid. The Qatari emir and the foreign minister personally invest in building relationships with the various parties.

The talks have had mixed results. But for Qatar, playing host has raised its international profile, helped forge allies in the West, and won praise almost universally. Mediation is proving to be a powerful – and fail-safe – way to boost its brand.

"There is no risk associated with it," says Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center. "You are rewarded if you succeed, but you're not blamed if you don't succeed."

The Taliban's planned arrival had raised the stakes for Qatar, however. If the Taliban could be persuaded to return to talks, it would be by far the highest-profile group to set up shop here and could present significant challenges for Qatar, which – for all its hospitality – has shown itself to be a green mediator.

The Taliban lacks solid political demands, and the United States has already put strict conditions on the talks; for example, the Taliban guarantee that women's rights will be protected.

Should the door for Taliban talks reopen, Doha's role in any potential mediation is not yet defined, and it's unlikely they would be content to merely provide the venue.

"Qataris are fiercely independent, a bit unpredictable, and completely uncontrollable," says Robert Danin, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington who has closely followed the Palestinian talks in Doha.

But Qatar is still, for now, by far the best option for negotiations, says Obaid Younossi, director of the RAND-Qatar Policy Institute in Doha and an expert on the conflict in Afghanistan – not least because it has taken a job no one else seems eager to do.

Free hotels, medical care

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