Where's Qatar? We'll soon know

  • From: "Taj Rummani" <islamic_revival@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <news@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Fri, 24 Jan 2003 09:28:55 -0000





January 23, 2003 

Where's Qatar? We'll soon know
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

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

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.






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