Sultan Al Qassemi, the Emirati commentator and prolific tweeter, jokes that he tries to post one article every day on the rise of Qatar, the tiny Gulf sheikhdom at the heart of the Arab Spring. There's a formula, he says. Nearly all articles express the same points: Qatar is rich, small, hosting the 2022 soccer World Cup, underwriting the pan-Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera, and cheering on protesters across the Arab world -- yet it's hardly democratic at home.
Often the headlines venture into rank hyperbole: The Economist called Qatar a "Pygmy with the punch of a giant," while the New York Review of Books hailed its "strange power." Various outlets have dubbed the country's ambitious emir, 60-year-old Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the "Arab Henry Kissinger." Last year, in an off-mic moment with political donors, U.S. President Barack Obama called him a "pretty influential guy."
There's no question the Qatari royals have parlayed their small country's extraordinary wealth into outsized if utterly unlikely clout, whizzing from one conflict zone to another and inviting dissidents and diplomats to the capital, Doha, to kibitz, negotiate, and plot against one another -- usually at the Sheraton, the pyramid-shaped, 1980s-era hotel overlooking the city's palm-lined corniche. (Think Star Wars bar scene for the Persian Gulf crowd, with French paratroopers strolling by as djellaba-clad Darfuri rebels and Western oil executives sip tea in the hotel's towering lobby.) Over the past decade, secured by one of the most massive U.S. air bases in the world, Qatar has inserted itself into conflicts in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, positioning the emirate as a disinterested mediator, trusted -- or at least tolerated -- by all parties.
It helps that there's little to worry about at home. Qatar is the richest country on the planet, with its 250,000 or so native citizens floating comfortably on a per capita income estimated at well over $400,000 a year. Another million and a half guest workers from all over the world toil at its mammoth construction projects and copious megamalls, while a smaller cadre of Arab and Western expats files the paperwork and keeps the trains running on time. Opinion polls find that Qataris evince little interest in political reform, and no wonder: Aside from having to live in dowdy Doha -- a dusty, sweltering inferno half the year -- they've got it pretty good.
Until 2011, the emir seemed largely content with his role as a mediator, though Al Jazeera's critical coverage of politics (everywhere outside Qatar and the Gulf, of course) sometimes riled his fellow Arab autocrats. And his influence had certainly grown as leaders of the region's traditional powers, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, slipped into their dotage. But Sheikh Hamad's ambitions ballooned even more last year as his popular satellite channel became an unabashed cheerleader for the uprisings in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen (though not neighboring Bahrain), while the minuscule Qatari military joined the fight against Libyan tyrant Muammar al-Qaddafi. Even the mighty United States started looking to Qatar for help in bringing the Arab League along with its transformational agenda -- quite the turn of events given that Washington had long seen Qatar primarily as the backer of Al Jazeera, with its anti-American vitriol and al Qaeda snuff films.
This was heady stuff for a tiny "thumb" sticking out from the Arabian Peninsula, as Qaddafi once described Qatar. The country is, after all, not much more than a city-state the size of Connecticut, surrounded by some very heavily armed neighbors. In seeking to fill a vacuum -- and ignoring his own vulnerabilities -- had the emir finally gone too far?
FOR MOST OF its short history, Qatar has been an afterthought of an afterthought in global politics, an impoverished backwater that had often fallen prey to the schemes of stronger powers, from the British struggle with the Ottoman Turks for control of the Persian Gulf in the 19th century to the rise of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia next door in the early 20th. Like many leaders of small states, the Al Thani ruling family possesses a certain knack for survival, sometimes appeasing Qatar's larger neighbors, at other times irritating them and inviting outside protection, as Qatar did when it built the gigantic, billion-dollar al-Udeid air base in 1996, anticipating the closure of U.S. facilities in Saudi Arabia -- before the emirate even had an air force of its own.