Qatar, the world’s richest country, is playing a dangerous gameby Sam Mendelson / April 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
“And the winner is… Qatar!”
On 2nd December a tiny country just 100 miles long and 50 wide, with summer temperatures well above 40C and the population of a medium-sized English town, was named host of the 2022 World Cup. To worldwide astonishment, Fifa, the international governing body of association football, awarded Qatar the prize even though the country has no professional football league and no record in World Cup competition.
Some put Fifa’s decision down to a triumph of lobbying by Qatar’s ruling royal family in their constant and lavishly expensive pursuit of the world’s glittering prizes. Over more than a decade, Qatar, a former British protectorate, has amassed a huge collection of assets in Britain and elsewhere, some of them trophies, but many of them are shrewd investments. It has paid for them with the wealth from the oil and gas fields that have made the kingdom, per head, the richest country in the world.
But diplomats say the award legitimately reflects Qatar’s efforts to turn itself into an international player, which go far beyond trophy hunting or financial clout. Qatar has pitched itself as the stable point in a region in turmoil, on the side of modernity—and of the US. It deals with all of its neighbours, even if they hate each other: Israel and Iran included. This spring, it took its riskiest step yet—joining the Nato-led assault on Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya. It sent its six French-built Mirage fighter jets to help the coalition; it was the first Arab country to recognise the governing council of the “rebels”; it has said it will sell oil from rebel-held ports in east Libya.
“Qatar aspires to a leadership role, to be driving the agenda,” said Toby Jones, a Middle East expert at Rutgers University, New Jersey. “The royal family believes it has a role to play in shaping the terms of what it means to be Arab in the 21st century.”
The risk is that the strategy—and even the kingdom itself—could collapse under contradictions. Qatar’s critics warn that its role in the Libyan military action could provoke attacks from Gaddafi or its neighbours. In supporting Saudi Arabia by sending forces to quell Shia dissidents in Bahrain, Qatar risks enraging the Shia regime in Iran—which shares the huge gas field that underpins Qatar’s wealth. Above all, even though Qatar’s leaders sided with pro-democracy rebels in Libya, and host the al-Jazeera TV network that is a voice for dissenters across the region, they do not want to contemplate more democracy at home. That disparity is lost on no one, least of all Qatari citizens.