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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.

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When negotiating teams arrive, a car service shuttles participants around Doha at the government's expense, and delegations are given a small per diem, according to members of past delegations. They're also given access to medical care – a big draw for players from conflict zones. And then there are the free hotel rooms.

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  • Qatar

    Graphic Qatar
    (Rich Clabaugh/Staff)

"We had over 120 Darfurians in Qatar for more than a year staying in hotels on the Qatari dime," remembers Matthew T. Simpson, who worked as the accredited legal adviser to the Darfur delegation and is now a lawyer at Torys LLP in New York. The Sheraton and Four Seasons hosted the Darfur rebel leadership. Dignitaries alternated between the Sheraton and the Ritz. Lower-level negotiators were put up in middle-range hotels. "The extravagance and production value of it – which does have a value in negotiations – was remarkable, and [the Qataris] spared no expense," he said.

If the lure of a comfortable venue helps, so does Qatar's history. Until the mid-1990s, Qatar was relatively poor. It was only when its natural-gas production began in force a decade ago – and revenues grew exponentially – that it became a regional player. The result: Doha has a relatively clean slate when you compare it with other regional mediators such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia.

After parties leave the negotiating table, Qatar invests heavily to help ensure the deals are successful. It rebuilt southern Lebanon after the country's 2006 war with Israel and later pumped in another $1 billion to christen the 2008 Doha Accords. Sudan has also won contracts since it signed a deal with several Darfur rebel groups last year. Last month, Qatar injected $2 billion into the country's economy to stabilize its currency.

A personal touch

The Qataris also draw on another key asset: their networks. "They know everybody very personally – from officials in Western countries to officials here in the region and in the East, but also the so-called nonstate actors," says Salman Shaikh, head of the Brookings Doha Center.

Despite such investment, however, results have widely varied – at least in part because of Qatar's relative inexperience as host.

Two members of the Darfur negotiation team, neither of whom was authorized by their clients to speak on the record, separately described the mediation as disorganized. "Basic standards are not being met here, and the Qataris showed no understanding of why these [missing pieces] were major issues," one recalled. There was no official note-taker, for example, which has made implementing the accords almost impossible, as conversations and agreements are remembered differently.

In several negotiations, analysts worry that Qatar has been more concerned with getting a deal than ensuring it was a deal that could work on the ground. Conflict continued well after Yemen signed a Qatari-brokered deal with Houthi separatists there in 2010. Darfur talks have resulted in little change in Sudan's western region.

And the recent Palestinian power-sharing deal looks frozen; the two leaders have delayed meeting to form a government since the agreement was signed in early February. "We haven't seen follow-on by the Qataris," says Dr. Danin. "I'm skeptical that they have the interests or the willpower."

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