Tiny Qatar vies for big regional role

Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres touched down in Qatar last week – the highest-level visit by an Israeli to the Gulf in more than a decade. He debated local students, met the emir, toured the Iranian market, and then got his Israeli passport stamped at the airport and flew home.

While Mr. Peres's visit passed somewhat quietly, and peace didn't break out in its wake, the 40-hour voyage did, however, highlight a key aspect of Qatar's foreign policy – it is original.

Whether it's visionary – or merely iconoclastic – is another question altogether.

Until 1995, Qatar did not have a distinguishable foreign policy to speak of, and instead took cues from Saudi Arabia and stayed on the sidelines of world affairs. But ever since reformist Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father in 1995, Qatar has been charting an increasingly distinctive path.

"Qatar is a player now," says Chase Untermeyer, the US ambassador to Qatar. "You don't have to be a very big to be a player if you have talented team members – with the desire to play and ability to do so."

A desert of 4,500 flat square miles jutting into the Persian Gulf and controlling the third-largest gas reserve in the world, Qatar seems to be involved in everything lately. It has presided over OPEC (three times), is bidding for the Olympics, and bankrolls Al Jazeera, the controversial satellite TV channel.

Controversy seems to be the order of the day here. Qatar is the only Gulf country to maintain any sort of official relations with the Jewish state, allowing a "trade representation office" to remain open in Doha since 1996 and dismissing complaints by neighboring countries.

But this relative openness to Israel does not stop Qatar from funding the militant group Hamas, which controls the Palestinian government and calls for the destruction of Israel.

The emir recently transferred $22 million to Hamas as the first installment of a promised monthly assistance. And, in his meeting with Peres on Jan. 29, the emir asked Israel to be "pragmatic" and start talking with Hamas, according to Peres's office. Peres responded that negotiations would be impossible as long as Hamas continued to deny Israeli's right to exist.

Qatar's support of Hamas, meanwhile, does not mean that he isn't closely allied with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah Party, which is engaged in a bitter power struggle with Hamas. Mr. Abbas owns a home in Doha and is said to be personally close to the emir. Hamas political leader Khalad Mashaal also owns a home here and is a palace friend.

The Israeli-Palestinian story is not the only one in which Qatar is playing a multiple hand. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad are welcome guests here. Saddam Hussein's wife was offered political asylum. Still, this does not interfere with the extensive economic ties between Qatar and the US, or the close coordination between the two countries on regional diplomatic and security initiatives. Qatar has, since the spring of 2003, allowed the US to make use of bases here for its central command and control of the Iraq war.

But some foreign diplomats here make light of Qatar's arguably undiscerning diplomacy – saying that having money to throw around does not translate into influence and being daring and different is a far cry from being mature. No officials, however, will say this on the record.

"Qatar is like a pendulum when it comes to foreign policy. It swings drastically and you never know what you are going to get. They seem to enjoy poking in the eyes of everyone," says one Western diplomat, asking not to be identified.

"Provoking everyone is a method of survival," adds another, speaking with the same condition of anonymity. "Basically, they are holding the stick on both sides. They would hold it on more sides if there were any."

Egypt's ambassador to Qatar is skeptical that Doha can mediate the Palestinian-Israeli crisis. "These are problems that have been going on for 60 years and are not going to be resolved in a moment," says Abdel Aziz Dawoud.

Egypt, he says, has a "long involvement" in the Israeli-Palestinian story. "Qatar's leadership is smart and active and believes it has a legitimate role to play. Well, that is legitimate. We know our role. Maybe they can be a complimentary force."

Sadiq al-Rikai, Iraq's ambassador to Qatar, suggests looking at the matter in a more positive way. "When nothing seems to be working, why not try something new?" he asks.

In the case of Iraq, Qatar has been supportive of both Sunnis and Shiites and is close to many other players in the Iraq field. All of which has potential, argues Mr. Rikai, to help broker positive change. "The Qataris can be a bridge for all of us. We all respect them. So, why not? "

In January, Qatar, in cooperation with Georgetown's School of Diplomacy, hosted a regional model UN. There was discussion of Iran's nuclear ambitions and an emergency session on the Lebanon crisis. And here, unlike many other model UN programs in the region, Israeli students were invited and Israel was represented amongst the nations in the debates.

Furthermore, moving from make-believe to real life, Roi Rosenblit, head of the Israeli trade mission in Doha, was welcome to observe the student exercises along with the rest of the diplomatic corps. He took the opportunity to talk with Arab youngsters who had never before seen, let alone spoken to, an Israeli.

"You did a great job portraying Venezuela," Mr. Rosenblit complimented a young Kuwaiti named Faris during a model UN buffet dinner.

"Wow! Are you really an Israeli?" responded the teenager. "You don't look like an Israeli."

"It sounds cheesy to say that you can change the world one conversation at a time, but it's sort of true," observed Kendell Brothers, a teacher at Faris's Kuwaiti school and a model UN chaperon.

"Qatar has a special place in being the only country to host an Israeli delegation in the region," Rosenblit explained later. "I would like to see Qatar use this leverage and special position to further the peace process and bring sides together."

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