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The Little Emirate That Could

Qatar versus Qaddafi.

Sep 5, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 47 • By LEE SMITH
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The fact is that outside the Libyan rebels, elements of the Syrian opposition, and the Islamist component of the Egyptian revolution, Qatar has few real friends. It’s true that there was little daylight between the United States and Europe on Libya, which seems to be the case so far regarding Syria policy as well, but the State Department is said to be deeply suspicious of Qatar, since it is usually trying to undermine Saudi Arabia and by extension the United States. And yet as Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, notes, “the rise of Qatari influence coincides with Saudi decline.”

The same might be said about the rest of the region, for as the Arab Spring has made evident, the Arab political system is moribund. Even before Egypt unraveled in the wake of Mubarak’s downfall, the regime was static and loath to exercise the sort of positive influence that might have put it in conflict with radical actors like Iran and Syria. The Saudis are comatose, a ruling order whose chief concern is succession, and the king, crown prince, and his likely successor are all ailing. Riyadh has expressed its displeasure with the Obama administration, but as botched Saudi strategy in Iraq and Lebanon shows, the notion that the Saudi establishment is capable of crafting a coherent foreign policy is a fantasy.

For several years now, as Abrams notes, “it is the non-Arab powers [of the region] that seem to have been calling the shots, the Persians, the Turks, and the Jews.” However, the Libyan and Syrian conflicts have shown the limits of Turkish influence in the Arabic-speaking Middle East, while Israel has wisely stayed out of the conversation. Iran is a different matter.

Last week the emir of Qatar traveled to Iran to meet with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Presumably the main topic of conversation was Syria. Assad’s survival is a vital strategic interest for the Iranians, who need the Syrian border with Lebanon to supply Hezbollah with arms. If the Qataris are feeling their oats after helping to corner Qaddafi, the large gas field that Qatar shares with Iran still probably gives Tehran enough leverage to neutralize Doha and keep it from playing the same role in Syria that it did in Libya by arming and funding anti-Qaddafi rebels.

Qatar filled a vacuum in Libya. Unlike Syria, a life-and-death matter for Iran, Libya was no one’s core interest, seemingly mattering most to the Europeans with whom the Qataris aligned themselves. In a manner of speaking, Qatar is a vacuum power, a tiny country of 1.5 million that is running circles around the rest of the Arabs simply because there is someone in Doha who answers the phone. And that’s all Qatar wants—to stay on everyone’s speed dial.

Nimble and decisive, Qatar isn’t the first to play the role of regional spoiler, but few have pulled it off so successfully, and none before Doha has enjoyed the open field that the Arab Spring made available. Still, Qatar has no grand vision for the region, no politics or ideology to speak of, neither democracy nor radicalism, both of which might work against the ruling Al-Thani family’s favor.

It’s no coincidence that Qatar fought so hard to host the 2022 World Cup, since spectacle is what Doha is all about. They’ve managed to pick all the Arab Spring’s winners, which is to say that, if you want to understand where the Middle East is heading, it is important to watch what the Qataris are doing. For better and for worse, the new regional order is taking shape around them.

Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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