As a Qatar Airways airplane descended on Beirut this week, an Al-Jazeera news bulletin was put up on screen. The main news story was of an American air strike against the Iraqi town of Falluja, and the footage showed dead Iraqis lying in the rubble of their homes. The atmosphere in the cabin turned electric. One man began pointing at the screen; others mumbled their opprobrium. Where one expected the lethargy of landing, there was, instead, pervasive agitation.
The broadcast was typical of Al-Jazeera: daring, aggressive and timely; but also selective, demagogical and gruesome. And while the satellite station's management was recently changed, allegedly to make the outlet less antagonistic, the song remains much the same. The reason is that Qatar's Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani has no interest in turning Al-Jazeera into a docile medium.
In many respects the recent history of Qatar is that of a mostly superfluous (if wealthy) desert outpost that has transformed itself into a necessary one. The emir has, it seems, learned the lesson of Venice: Deal with all to protect yourself, but also thrive amid contradiction.
Last Monday Emir Hamad was master of ceremonies over one such contradictory strand: an international conference in Doha on democracy and free markets. In an opening speech the emir sounded all the right notes, speaking of the necessity of reform and of advancing democratic principles in the Arab world. Guests duly (and to an extent legitimately) praised the Qatari experiment, but few were impolitic enough to comment on what made it so interesting.
For one thing, it is that the emir has shrewdly covered all the bases. On his left, he has propped up Al-Jazeera and turned it into one of the most potent instruments of influence in the Arab world. In so doing, he has pleased both old-line Arab nationalists and Islamists, who see their (often dissimilar) narratives reflected in the station's political line. That is why Emir Hamad has mostly ignored Saudi and American protests against Al-Jazeera, and has allowed the station to maintain the same attitude it always had.
Meanwhile, the emir has buttressed himself on his right by hosting the large American military base of Al-Udeid (that he astutely placed on disputed territory along the Saudi border), to which US military personnel moved from Saudi Arabia. This not only buys him American protection, which is key to Qatar's economic security, in particular its export of natural gas; it also allows Emir Hamad to pursue his balancing game on his left, giving him room to maneuver vis-à-vis the Arab world.
As part of this paradoxical package, Qatar has also maintained discreet relations with Israel, even during the Palestinian intifada. It has justified this by arguing it can play a helpful role as middleman. Last year, for example, the foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem, met with his Israeli counterpart, Silvan Shalom, and remarked: "There are daily massacres of Palestinian brothers, and there is no Arab action. That's why we've started to talk with the Israelis to find a solution."
However, being middleman, by definition, cuts both ways. Qatar also sought to mediate in Iraq before the war there, following the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) summit in Doha in March 2003. This deeply irritated the Bush administration, which had no desire to see its Iraq scheme derailed by an Arab initiative. Though the OIC came up empty handed, Emir Hamad scored valuable points by placing Qatar at the center of regional diplomacy
A murkier aspect of Qatar's dealings has been its relation to militant Islamists. Though Qatari mosques follow Wahhabi teachings, the country is, publicly at least, less stern than others in the region. However, if one believes an opposition Qatari prince cited in a recent book by Robert Baer, the onetime CIA agent, the regime's relationship with Islamists has been no less ambiguous than Qatar's other affairs. The prince, who had been economy minister and police chief before failing in an effort to overthrow Emir Hamad in 1996, said he had proof that the Qatari authorities, including the emir, once harbored the (now-captured) Al-Qaeda operative Khaled Sheikh Mohammed and helped him get Qatari papers. According to Baer, the prince was later captured by the Qataris and imprisoned.
Central to Qatar's ambitions, or obsessions, is Saudi Arabia. That the Saudis dislike Emir Hamad is obvious. Between its inability to control Al-Jazeera and resentment against the emir's regional independence, not to mention its displeasure with Qatari influence in Washington, the Saudi regime has much to lament. Riyadh has also been stung by the fact that the emir has successfully sustained a game of smoke and mirrors that, in the kingdom's case, was exposed after September 11, 2001.
In deploying ambiguity to better ensure Qatar's survivability and relevance, Emir Hamad has surpassed the Saudis. And no one likes being shown up by an upstart.