The discovery of oil in 1940 allowed the Al Thani family to forge a collection of squabbling tribes and pearl fishermen into a small -- and wildly rich -- state. But it wasn't until 1995, when Sheikh Hamad ousted his father in a bloodless coup, that Qatar began building its little patch of desert into a force in the region and beyond. Under him, Qatar has become an expansionary power, a sort of latter-day Venice -- only its strength lies not in trade or maritime prowess but in the flow of natural gas. In this, Qatar has been more than merely lucky, making big, bold bets on the rise of liquefied natural gas and reinvesting profits in massive infrastructure projects at home and high-profile assets abroad like Harrods in London and the French soccer club Paris Saint-Germain. Eventually, the government hopes the interest on Qatar's $85 billion sovereign wealth fund alone will be able to fund its operations in perpetuity.
All that gas money has turned Doha into an unlikely entrepôt of political intrigue, a sort of Turtle Bay on the Persian Gulf. I lived in Qatar for a little more than a year, until last December, and the city offered a front-row seat as the Arab Spring unfolded -- masterminded, it sometimes seemed, from Doha. In October, I went to Souq Waqif, the Disneyfied market along the city's corniche, to attend a victory party Qatar was throwing for Libyan expats. The souq was festooned with banners celebrating the recent rebel triumph over Qaddafi, who had just been summarily executed and then grotesquely displayed in a strip-mall meat locker. The highlight of the party -- a sort of mosh pit filled with Libyans dancing to the revolutionary anthem "Raise Your Head High, You're a Free Libyan" -- proved too much for the authorities, and it was broken up in favor of a traditional Qatari sword dance.
For months, Doha had teemed with Libyan exiles, not so secretly funded by Qatar, which put up the rebel leaders at expensive hotels and bankrolled their satellite channel. Qatari cargo jets ferried tens of millions of dollars' worth of humanitarian supplies, weapons, and special-operations troops to rebel headquarters in Benghazi on regular flights; nearly the entire Qatari air force helped enforce NATO's no-fly zone. In August, when Libyan rebel fighters stormed Qaddafi's Bab al-Aziziya complex, they raised a Qatari flag in appreciation. Asked in an Al Jazeera interview just how much Qatar spent on the Libyan revolution, the prime minister simply said, "It's a lot. It cost us a lot."
Qatar insisted its only interest in Libya was freedom for the Libyan people. But a nationalist backlash over perceived Qatari meddling in Libyan affairs soon ensued. Abdel Rahman Shalgham, Qaddafi's former U.N. ambassador whose dramatic defection helped seal the dictator's fate, appeared on television to denounce Qatar as an alien, malign force. "Qatar might have delusions of leading the region," he said. "I absolutely do not accept their presence at all." Qatar's secular allies were soon forced out of the interim government, while its main Islamist proxy in Libya, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, was detained and humiliated at Tripoli's airport by rival militiamen. One year on, it's hard to see what Qatar gained from its North African adventure.
If Libya represented the apotheosis of Qatari power, Syria represents its limits. More than a year since their revolution began, Syrians are still braving bullets to protest the rule of President Bashar al-Assad -- and firing back with a few of their own. So far, all outside attempts to end the conflict peacefully have failed, including repeated Qatari-led efforts to come up with a diplomatic solution. If Assad survives, Doha will have aggravated the Syrian regime's biggest supporter -- Iran -- with which Qatar shares the world's largest gas field and maintains officially friendly ties, to little end.
Meanwhile, even opposition Syrians complain that Al Jazeera's coverage of the conflict has become unprofessional -- maudlin, biased, and often untrustworthy. Ali Hashem, a highly regarded Al Jazeera reporter, resigned in March, alleging that his reporting on armed fighters had been squelched in favor of the official narrative of a peaceful uprising. And with a member of the Qatari royal family now directly in charge after the ouster of longtime head Wadah Khanfar, the satellite network's credibility and independence are now widely questioned.
SYRIA IS NO exception. For all the media attention, few of Qatar's diplomatic initiatives have actually borne fruit. Lebanon's 2008 political settlement, brokered in Qatar, looks like a rare success story, but the others remain question marks. In May 2011, Qatar walked away from its peacemaking efforts in Yemen, while Bahrain that same month brushed aside a Qatari offer to mediate its internal conflict. Doha has volunteered to house the Taliban-U.S. peace talks aimed at resolving the decade-long war in Afghanistan, but the Taliban have yet to open their office there and the U.S. Congress spiked a prisoner-swap deal that might have built confidence for further negotiations. The Darfur agreement, negotiated at the Sheraton over the course of more than a year, didn't even include all the warring parties. Qatar's promising efforts to wean Hamas away from Iran haven't earned it any goodwill from its neighbors, either: A recent meeting of Arab leaders in Riyadh, focused on Iran, pointedly excluded Sheikh Hamad, distrusted for his warm(ish) ties to Tehran.
Nor is Qatar's cash cow -- natural gas -- by any means secure. A global supply glut has sent prices plunging. Australia is projected to surpass Qatar in the production of liquefied natural gas by 2020, and the shale-gas revolution in the United States and Eastern Europe (not to mention out-of-the-way places like Mozambique and potential new players like Libya) threatens to extend the bear market far into the future.
As for the World Cup, perhaps the crown jewel in Qatar's ascension to the global big-boy party, it is far from clear that Doha will be basking in soccer glory a decade from now. Not only are questions being raised about the viability of hosting a tournament in temperatures that reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, the limited availability of alcohol, and Qatar's risky, heat-busting stadium designs, but FIFA, soccer's international governing body, may soon launch an investigation into allegations that Qatari officials bribed their way to victory in the selection process. In any case, Qatar needs to import millions of tons of raw building materials -- including, of all things, sand from Saudi Arabia -- to make the World Cup a success. That will give the Saudis, with their retrograde foreign policy and their long history of meddling in Qatari politics, leverage for years to come.
So let's hold the accolades for Qatar. There's a reason most city-states throughout history have avoided provoking their larger neighbors -- sooner or later, they strike back. And isn't being incredibly rich good enough?