Qatar is about the size of Connecticut, but has a lot more going for it than insurance companies and casinos on Indian Reservations. Once an impoverished sandlot that lived from the pearl fisheries, Qatar now earns an immense amount of money from the sale of natural gas.
The ruling sheikh, Hamad bin Khalifah Al Thani (1952- ,r. 1995-2013) set out to make Qatar “important” to other people. On the one hand, he wants Qatar to be important to Americans in case the neighbors–either Saudi Arabia or Iran—took it into their minds to do his country some nastiness. What Iraq had tried to do to Kuwait in 1990, some other power might do to Qatar. He got the Americans to build a local command center for Central Command (which runs American military operations in the Middle East and Southwest Asia) at Doha. He enhanced the importance of Qatar for the world energy market by building a huge natural gas condensing plant to facilitate exports and earnings.
On the other hand, the sheikh wanted to be a player in the Middle East. In 1996 he created the “Al Jazeera” news network to promote an Islamist message. Beginning in 2011, Qatar has been financing upheaval in the Middle East. It has funded both the “Arab Spring” uprisings (which Westerners like to think of as “liberal” and “modernizing”) and Islamist groups (which Westerners think of as “illiberal” and “anti-modern”). Money flowed to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, to Hamas, and to the Al Nusra Front fighting the Assad government in Syria.
Blaming Qatar for pursuing a two-faced policy by seeking close ties to America while funding Islamists groups misses the point. The Middle East is torn in its attitudes toward “modernization” and “Westernization.” Islamism is one face of that controversy. The rise of Islamism threatens the established order in the Middle East. People with an interest in history will note the radical difference between American policy in Europe after the Second World War and contemporary American policy. Then, the Americans had a better solution than its opponents and they were in favor of dramatic change to solve problems. Now, the United States doesn’t appear to have any positive alternative to offer and isn’t comfortable with change.
Qatar falls into a larger pattern. Qatar’s ruler may believe that you can’t get anywhere by pandering to the Americans. You’ll just end up living in Los Angeles and selling rugs at craft fairs. The military government in Egypt and the moderate Islamist government in Turkey also have both bridled at American policy of late. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates combined to bomb rebels in Libya without bothering to inform the United States first. Turkey refuses to have its army fight ISIS until the Americans agree to overthrow the Assad government in Syria.
Qatar also seeks to influence American opinion through “Al Jazeera America” and donations to the Brookings Institution. For American conservatives, this is an illegitimate international influence on American policy. For them, it falls into the same category as Islamist illegals entering the US through our porous border with Mexico. There is another way of looking at it, however. American journalism no longer invests many resources in foreign reporting. American journalists rarely have the language skills or the cultural competence to get outside of a restricted safe zone, either physically or intellectually. (It’s hard to understand the exaggerated importance assigned to the demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square otherwise.) Qatar seeks to enrich the information and perspectives offered to American to help them better understand events in the Middle East. Maybe people should spend more time watching an alternative news source? You don’t have to believe what you see and hear. It’s a free country.
“The tiny nation that roared,” The Week, 27 September 2013, p. 9.