Why Qatar is emerging as Middle East peacemaker

It was uniquely positioned to broker a deal this week between warring factions in Lebanon.

GATHER AROUND: The emire of Qatar presided over the May 21 meeting that resolved an 18-month political crisis between rival Lebanese groups.

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 and violence.

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. Turkey, for example, has emerged as a key player in quietly brokering initial peace moves between Israel and Syria.

"The actions of Turkey and Qatar suggest we are moving away from the black-and-white dichotomies of the higher Bush years," says Mr. Salem. "Now mediators, like Qatar and Turkey, are trying to find accommodation between players previously considered as either good or evil."

But it is not all about hard politics and diplomacy. Qatar pioneered a new era in Arab television news coverage with Al Jazeera, the influential Arabic television channel. Since its launch in 1996, it has broken taboos with its critical coverage of Middle East affairs, often earning outraged accusations of bias from the US and the anger of Arab regimes. Al Jazeera's broadcasts soured relations between Qatar and neighboring Saudi Arabia. And although fences between the two states have been mended, many Qataris are unapologetic for incurring the displeasure of their powerful neighbor.

"We are not a close-minded society like Saudi Arabia," says a prominent Qatari property developer, who requested anonymity. "We are a more wealthy society than Saudi Arabia, with better distribution of wealth and a better education system and better opportunities for employment."

In 2004, the Qatar Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization, hosted the first Doha Debates, a televised political debate program that has since become the top-rated show on BBC World, the BBC's nondomestic channel. The format of the debates relies on four speakers – two on each side – who argue for and against a motion before an audience of 350 people. Hosted by Tim Sebastian, a former BBC journalist, the debates have tackled some controversial issues, including whether the time has come to talk to Al Qaeda and whether the Palestinians should give up the right of return to their former homes in Israel.

"The appetite for what we are doing is amazing. It's been taken up with such gusto and passion," says Ali Willis, the producer of the series.

Last month, the Doha Debates asked if the Sunni-Shiite conflict is damaging Islam's reputation as a religion of peace. The subject generated lively arguments from the four panelists and especially from the mainly youthful audience. The final vote went against the motion.

"Basically, I love to debate," says Mohammed Sheikh al-Souk, 21, a mechanical engineer who said he has attended up to 15 of the debates. "Something like this is very rare in the Arab world. We don't usually get a chance to say what we want."

The success of the series has led to a spin-off national debating league, inaugurated this year with 20 teams from schools and colleges participating.

"We reached the finals but lost," says Talal Burshaid, a student at the Qatari Leadership Academy.

His friend, Majid al-Badi, added that the debates were helping young Qataris appreciate the importance of tolerance for other views.

"Three years ago I would have been very aggressive against anyone who spoke out against Islam," he says. "But now I will argue and debate with them instead."

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