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Tiny Qatar played outsized role as Arab League president. Will it last?

This week, Iraq takes over the Arab League presidency from Qatar, which has ruffled feathers with its surge in leadership. A Russian official famously told Qatar, 'Go back to your size.'

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The Qataris saw a new order taking shape in the Middle East, says Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center. They decided, "We want to be part of that change and we want to drive that change," he says.

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  • Qatar

    Graphic Qatar
    (Rich Clabaugh/Staff)

"Qatar can do an awful lot," says Professor Coates-Ulrichsen. "It can fund and equip an opposition movement in a month, in a way that the West cannot do."

In addition, the entire society organized around the country's ambitions, says Wanda Krause, head of the Gulf Studies program at Qatar University.

Islamic leaders, under the umbrella of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, organized rallies in Doha in support of Libyan and Syrian revolutionaries. Volunteers put in extra hours at the Red Crescent. And Al Jazeera broadcast the uprisings to the world in real time. "You have so many facets working toward a political end," Dr. Krause says.

The strategy seemed to work.

After Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned, Qatar won applause for Al Jazeera's indefatigable broadcasts from Tahrir Square and for Qatari promises to invest $10 billion in Egypt's struggling economy. During the revolution in Libya, Qatari flags flew prominently in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. Rached Ghannouchi, head of the Islamist party Al Nahda, which dominated the first postrevolutionary elections in Tunisia, made his first postelectoral trip to Qatar.

Big powers resent upstart Qatar

But it didn't take long for some in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia to begin questioning whether there was more to Qatar's support than just solidarity. In November, outgoing Libyan Prime Minister Mohammed Jibril accused Doha of selectively funding certain rebel factions.

In Egypt, Coates-Ulrichsen says, Qatar has also played favorites, funding and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha has also postponed its promised investments in the Egyptian economy.

Tunisians have balked at the friendship between Doha and Al Nahda. During minor protests that followed fall elections, liberals demonstrating in Tunis questioned where the Islamist party had gotten the resources to fund its resounding victory. "It's the Gulf," concluded Kais Habibi, a young activist. "It's money from Qatar."

There were also criticisms of doing too little. When protests broke out in Bahrain, just a half-hour away from Doha by air, critics accused Al Jazeera of barely covering them. They said the station was bending to Qatar's rulers, who weren't interested in stirring up trouble in their backyard.

Any meddling – or perceived meddling – by Qatar could easily discredit Qatari efforts, argues Mr. Shaikh. "They could start to get it wrong if, as in the case of Libya, they start to play local politics rather than focus on a broader multilateral effort."

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