THE TIMES http://www.timesonline.co.uk/printFriendly/0,,1-7-551596,00.html <http://search.thetimes.co.uk/cgi-bin/ezk2srch?-aSTART> January 23, 2003 Where's Qatar? We'll soon know BY DAMIAN WHITWORTH A tiny gulf state that forged close links with America to protect itself from predatory Arab neighbours will be the command centre for US forces during any war on Iraq THERE ARE NO SIGNS marking the junction where a dusty turning leads to the patch of desert that could mean the end of the road for Saddam Hussein. On the outskirts of Doha, the capital of Qatar, past a litter-blown district of industrial buildings and just before the main road leaves civilisation to run for 40-odd miles (70km) across arid Bedouin country to the border with Saudi Arabia, a cluster of prefabricated warehouses stands low against the hazy horizon. They are hard to spot even if you are looking for them and you would not have the faintest idea what they were unless you took the left hand turning. This road runs alongside a wire fence, which is further protected by a waist-high wall of rocks. After a mile there is a gate, watched over by plain-clothed American guards who check the occasional Jeep and heavy lorry that passes through. Here, in a barren corner of one of the tiniest and least known countries of the Middle East, the world?s mightiest power is plotting the downfall of the Iraqi leader. This is Camp As Sayliyah, and if the US goes to war with Iraq it will become a household name. The camp will be the command and control centre during a war and over the past ten days around 1,000 US military planners from Central Command in Tampa, Florida, have taken up their positions in front of computer consoles in the temperature controlled warehouses. A nearby media centre will accommodate 300 journalists and will be the arena for General Tommy Franks, the head of Centcom and the Norman Schwarzkopf of our day, to inform the world of progress in the conflict. It cost more than $100 million (£62m) to build one million sq ft of facilities on the 262- acre site, which is crammed with tanks and equipment ready for deployment. The first indication of the vital role that Qatar would play in a new Gulf War came when the US staged a major war game, Internal Look, at Camp As Sayliyah last month. It was a trial run for the command hub and around 400 British war planners took part. A British official says he expects a similar number will return for the real hostilities. Internal Look was commanded by Franks. When it was over, the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, flew in and signed a deal with Qatar to formalise the presence of 4,000 US soldiers at al-Udeid, the air base a few miles up the road from the camp. Al-Udeid has a 15,000ft (4.5km) runway, the longest in the Gulf, built in 1996 at a cost of $1 billion. But there are no Qatari planes here and they did not build it for themselves. Only American cargo and refuelling planes can be seen hulking against the sky. Qatar, a former British protectorate, is a country few could place on a map let alone pronounce (it?s somewhere between ?cutter? and ?gutter? but not ?catarrh?). The story of how it has come to find the eyes of the world turning to its palm-fringed beaches and interior wastelands contains many themes common throughout the modern Arab world; the discovery of abundant natural resources that bring sudden massive wealth, brutal political power struggles and uneasy relations with the neighbours resulting in a history of border disputes. But Qatar is unlike any other Arab country. First, its Emir has archaic powers but a progressive outlook that has convinced many people that he might genuinely be seeking to create a model, modern Arab state. Secondly, it has developed an extraordinarily close relationship with the United States, which is of paramount importance both to the Qataris and to President Bush. Qatar is about the size of Connecticut (11,500 sqkm) and sticks out into the Gulf like a thumb. Like a sore thumb, its critics in the region would say. For most of its history this little peninsula was poverty-stricken and of little consequence. In 1867 the Emir signed a deal for protection with Britain and Qatar became an official protectorate in 1916, remaining so until 1971 when the British pulled out and Qatar became independent. The only real source of revenue was pearls and when the international pearl market collapsed in 1930 even this evaporated. Then came the discovery of oil and the country went through its first boom in the 1950s. In the 1970s, when oil prices took off, Qatar became even more wealthy. But more important was the discovery in the early 1970s of the North Field, the largest offshore natural gas field in the world. Development of the 6,000 sq km field, which is shared with Iran, began in the 1990s. There are estimated reserves of 900 trillion standard cubic feet and Qatar will be able to produce huge quantities of liquefied natural gas for more than 200 years. Such wealth brings its own problems, but in Qatar?s case they come from outside the country. Long-running territorial disputes with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain were settled in 2001 but resources-rich Qatar still cannot feel secure. ?The Gulf is a very dangerous region,? says Dr Hassan al-Ansari, head of Gulf Studies at Qatar University. ?We saw in 1990 that the Saudis could not provide security. We looked around us to see where we could find it.? So the Qataris built their giant runway, and just waited. A former British ambassador says: ?When the Americans came looking around the Qataris were delighted to take them on board and they can thumb their noses at their neighbours with impunity. They now have a bigger big brother than anyone else has.? Last year the powerful Qatari Foreign Minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, astonished the Arab world and left British diplomats ?slightly surprised? by saying that his country?s relationship with America was its ?first consideration?. Qataris joke that the $1 billion cost of the air strip was simply a ?good business deal?, effectively buying them an air force that would otherwise have cost billions. The willingness to accommodate the Americans has led to fierce criticism in the Arab world. The Qataris say this is hypocritical because the Saudis, Kuwaitis and Bahrainis have also provided help, although they play down their cooperation to appease their own people, among whom anti-Americanism is rife. This week another American was shot dead in Kuwait and Bahrain has had riots over America?s presence in the area. In Qatar there is none of the simmering discontent that fundamentalists have exploited in other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, the home of 15 of the September 11 hijackers. It is easy to see why the Qataris are so content. In the centre of Doha the car park of the biggest shopping mall in the Middle East is packed with gleaming SUVs. Inside, women in chadors and veils are taking advantage of a sale at Debenhams to peruse racks of clothes from Topshop and Next. In one of the two Starbucks coffee shops, four young Qatari men, all graduates of Texas A&M University and now working for Qatar Petroleum, sip their tall skinny lattes and chat happily. Although critical of America?s role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, they are supportive of their own close relationship with the US. ?It?s good for our security. So far I haven?t seen anything bad about it,? one says. The bond between Qatar and America is deeper than just a military deal and a shared passion for gas-guzzling cars and Seattle-style coffee shops. The second and most-favoured of the Emir?s four wives, the American-educated Sheikha Mouza, is a Unesco special envoy for education and a progressive force who recently agreeed to be photographed without a veil. Under her direction Qatar is buying wholesale into the American university system. At ?Education City?, satellite campuses of American institutions, built and paid for by the Qatar Foundation and staffed by Americans, are reclaiming the desert. Virginia Commonwealth has already opened a college of design and Cornell University a medical school. Texas A&M and Georgetown are in talks about following suit. The Americans are delighted. ?After 9/11 there was a lot of talk about educating the region, and even without our input they have followed that. This is something in both our national interests,? a US government official says. Meanwhile dazzling new office blocks and swanky Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons hotels are sprouting out of the sand to cope with all those who want to do business here. In the suburbs of Doha you can drive for miles past the shells of mansions being hastily ? and lavishly ? thrown up to meet demand for homes that would dwarf those in even the most affluent pockets of America. The 150,000 Qataris enjoy their prosperity. The per capita GDP is more than $20,000, comparable to much of Europe. But Qatari citizens receive many extra benefits from the Government, including a plot of land and a $180,000 interest-free loan towards a house, which the Government builds to the owner?s designs. Water, gas and electricity are free and each homeowner gets a $15,000 gift towards furnishing his home. Qatar has a remarkable welfare state; citizens do not pay income tax but still receive free education and healthcare, even if it means being flown to Britain or the US for an operation. With petrol so cheap that a luxury car can be filled for a few pounds there is really little to worry about, except the blistering hot summers when the temperature can reach 50 degrees. Many Qataris have solved that problem by buying summer homes in Europe and America. The Emir who presides over all this is Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. Sandhurst-educated, he came to power in 1995 by means of a time-honoured manoeuvre; he ousted his father in a bloodless coup while the old man was out of the country. The Emir, 52, is a great bear of a man who likes to spend summers at his house near Windsor in Berkshire. He is ?very jolly if you get him on a good day?, according to a British diplomat. ?But he?s got a ruthless streak, which has got him where he is today.? British and American officials are encouraged by his reforming nature and optimistic that he could achieve something greater; a peaceful Arab state that looks both East and West and could show its bigger, more powerful, brothers the way. Although this is a Wahhabi country, like Saudi Arabia, it is far less closed and austere than its vast neighbour. The regime has a good human rights record and life for women is much freer. While many continue to cover their faces in public, it is not obligatory and many wear Western clothes. Unlike their sisters in Saudi Arabia, they can drive cars. But not all conservative traditions have been stripped away. The copies of The Times that arrive at my hotel have been censored by the police, who have carefully scribbled over all exposed flesh with black marker pens. One day even a photograph of the statue of David in T2 is doctored. On the other hand, one of the Emir?s first acts was to abolish the ministry of information, showing his willingness to allow a free press. And he has pledged to move his country towards democracy. In 1999 municipal elections were held (in which women could both vote and stand as candidates) but those elected have only an advisory role. He is now reviewing a draft of a new democratic constitution. Although Western diplomats think it will be a ?slow process?, one former envoy says: ?One of his own very strong personal beliefs is that what gives rise to the Osama bin Ladens of the world is the despotic and corrupt nature of the regimes around him.? Dr Essa al-Tamimi, of the foreign information agency, says: ?The Emir has a vision for the people of Qatar. The world is a small village and he doesn?t want to be left behind.? The most conspicuous symbol of Qatar?s modernist ways is al-Jazeera, the satellite news channel that claims an audience of 35 million a day in the Arab world. The station is most famous for being chosen by Osama bin Laden to air his pronouncements after September 11. The Emir gave it a home in 1996 and continues to support it financially, enraging many Arab regimes appalled by the idea of a free media. Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador because of critical al-Jazeera coverage and the station is barred from Kuwait and Jordan. There will be no escaping it if war breaks out. Ibrahim Helal, the editor, claims he will have more reporters inside Iraq than any other news organisation and has signed a deal to work with the BBC. He has also met Alastair Campbell to discuss ?how the British people will be able to get their message to the Arab world?. But can Qatar really be a model Arab state? Dr Hassan al-Ansari is sceptical. ?We are too small to be a model,? he says. What the region needs is leadership from one of the big states, such as Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Or Iraq. And so perhaps that will be Qatar?s legacy: by providing its new friend with a launchpad to attack Iraq it will help to bring about regime change that will create a big country, a little like itself, that really will change the Arab world.