When Saddam Hussein’s forces rolled into Kuwait in August 1990, the royal family in this neighboring Persian Gulf state went into crisis mode. As Qatari troops nervously guarded the streets outside, rich sheiks barricaded themselves in their seaside villas, feverishly hiding their money and gold. Many Qataris taking their traditional summer vacations in Europe simply stayed abroad, fearful Saddam’s forces had designs on their nation, too. This time, as the gulf region braces for another conflict with Iraq, Qataris are not cowering.
FOR QATAR’S RULING royals, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was a watershed moment.
A country the size of Connecticut with a population of 150,000, living in the shadow of larger and unpredictable neighbors Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Qatar made national security a priority after Saddam’s foray into Kuwait.
In the 12 years since the Gulf War, the government has mounted a calculated campaign to protect this tiny - and extremely wealthy - nation from regional bullies that seem to plague the Persian Gulf by luring multinational corporations and a U.S. military presence.
Now, as the United States moves toward another war with Iraq, Qatar’s decade-long political and financial investment in its future will be put to the test.
After watching Saddam’s forces pillage Kuwait’s wealth in 1990, Qataris underwent a national soul-searching over the country’s own security, officials say, but nowhere was it more focused than in the Dewan Alamirey, the royal family’s imposing white palace on the gulf in Doha, Qatar’s capital.
The debate over Qatar’s future even split the royal family and contributed to a decision by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Qatar’s current leader, to oust his father in a bloodless coup in 1995, Qatari officials say. Sheikh Hamad set out to modernize his nation, parlaying his country’s immense natural gas and oil resources into a long-term security strategy for Qatar.
For one of the smallest nations in the world, that meant partnering with a superpower. The United States had long concentrated its Middle East military might in Saudi Arabia, but Sheikh Hamad did not let that discourage him.
In a patch of desert a half-hour drive from his palace Sheikh Hamad constructed the longest runway in the Middle East, even though Qatari’s air force only had a few dozen planes. More on that later.
On the economic side, Sheikh Hamad threw open the doors to foreign investment. Exxon-Mobil had already signed a $30 billion development deal for Qatar’s gas and oil reserves. Qatar’s ruler, now 52, attracted other multinational firms with 49 percent stakes in joint ventures ranging from fertilizer to petroleum products.
But instead of sitting back and funneling the billions in profits to Swiss bank accounts — something the emir’s father, Sheikh Khalifa, is accused of doing — Sheikh Hamad turned his attention toward his conservative citizens, whose support would be crucial to opening up Qatar to the world and asking for the world’s protection.
The emir, who studied in Qatar and at Britain’s Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, made education a priority. He invited U.S. and Canadian universities to staff co-educational campuses in Qatar, in return for generous donations. Qatari women were given the right to vote in new municipal elections and to hold office. They also drive. Such liberties are absent in neighboring Saudi Arabia.
Sheikh Hamad also gave a five-year, $130 million grant to found Al-Jazeera, the pan-Arabic satellite news channel whose editorial line has often irked Washington but won praise as a rare voice critical of authoritarian Middle East regimes.
As usual, these changes in Qatar were imposed from above. But Sheikh Hamad, using Qatar’s uniquely limitless budget, also beefed up social benefits for his population. The elaborate system of perks and payoffs guarantees all Qataris a tax-free job, a plot of land and an interest-free loan of $180,000 upon graduation from university. The closer Qataris are to the emir, the better the deal. One high-level official who supported him in the 1995 coup was handed a choice property on the Qatari capital’s seaside “Corniche,” where a lavish skyscraper is being built today. “If you count the skyscrapers in Doha,” said one former Qatari security official who spoke on condition of anonymity, “they are all rewards for loyalty to Sheikh Hamad.”
SEDUCING UNCLE SAM
Having lulled Qataris with comfort, making them less likely to challenge his vision, Qatar’s ruler made final preparations to seduce his superpower.
During the war in Afghanistan, the emir allowed the U.S. military to use a former army barracks as a key depot during the war on terrorism. Washington invested millions of dollars in the facility, called Camp As Saliyah, expanding it to include more than 30 climate-controlled warehouses.
Meanwhile, the billion-dollar Al-Udeid air base, with its 15,000-foot runway, was completed. U.S. KC-10 midair refueling tankers were based there during operations over Afghanistan.
When President Bush began publicly calling for a “regime change” in Iraq, fortune smiled broadly on Qatar. Next door in Saudi Arabia, Riyadh was imposing almost unworkable conditions for use of the state-of-the-art Prince Sultan air base. Pressure from a faltering economy and a restless population weakened the Saudi royal family, already under fire from hard-liners over support for the United States.
Unable to rely on the Saudis, the Pentagon turned to Qatar. Last fall, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld negotiated nearly unrestricted access for U.S. warplanes at Al-Udeid. Camp As Saliyah’s warehouses have been transformed into a high-tech command post, where the U.S. Central Command, headquartered in Tampa, Fla., will move in the event of a war with Iraq.
America and Qatar’s shared threats — Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia, where most of the Sept. 11 hijackers came from — make the alliance a natural fit. “We cannot secure our future without having powerful friends standing next to us,” said Hassan Ansari, director of Qatar University’s Gulf Studies Center.
AT WHAT EXPENSE?
At home, Sheikh Hamad has deftly played down the close association with U.S. policy in the region. His emissaries have met repeatedly in recent months with Saddam, leading calls by Arab states for the Iraqi strongman to accept exile. Qatar signed a free trade deal with Baghdad last June, and the emir’s government publicly supports a diplomatic solution to the Iraq crisis.
InsertArt(2009361)There is little mention of Qatar’s courtship of the United States in the local press. And the Qatari government has imposed a virtual blackout of foreign and domestic media coverage of Al-Udeid and As Saliyah. Al-Jazeera’s hard-hitting criticism is generally reserved for other gulf countries.
Qatar’s strong relations with the United States have irked Saudi Arabia, which has long used the Prince Sultan air base to monopolize Middle East military ties with Washington. Saudi Arabia has withdrawn its ambassador to Doha over Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the kingdom.
Still, gulf watcher Ansari says, the gamble is paying off. The might of the United States has become tiny Qatar’s trump card.
“We have limited options,” Ansari said. “In this part of the world, nobody will leave you alone.”
MSNBC.com’s Preston Mendenhall is on assignment in the Persian Gulf.