Tuesday, February 03, 2009

AP Analysis: Qatar at heart of Mideast 'cold war'

During back-to-back summits in recent days, tiny Qatar displayed some big mood swings.

First the Persian Gulf emirate hosted a Gaza crisis conference that included Iran's president and Hamas' leader and became a soapbox to bash America and its Mideast allies. Then three days later in Kuwait, Qatari leaders had lunch with Saudi King Abdullah and gushed about unity with Washington's top Arab partners.

President Barack Obama has inherited the familiar map of Arab-Israeli minefields. But off to the side -- sticking like an exclamation point into the Gulf -- Qatar could quickly become a quandary for the new White House.

"It looks a bit like a cold war in the Middle East now. There's the side firmly with the United States and (Palestinian President Mahmoud) Abbas, and the others backing Hamas and, by extension, seen as moving toward Iran," said Nadim Shehadi, a Mideast affairs specialist at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

"And, like with a cold war, no side is willing to push it too hard because the risks are so great," he added.

Nearly every high-stakes question in the Middle East these days somehow draws in Qatar, which is the just half the size of Belgium but strives for a place alongside Arab heavyweights such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

It is rich in oil and gas reserves, has wide influence in the Muslim world as the patron of the Al-Jazeera TV network, and has proved adroit at maneuvering between rivals.

"You sometimes get the feeling that Qatar has multiple personalities," said Mustafa Alani, director of national security and terrorism studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. "It's hard to say which one will show up."

Qatar once was content to leave the region's high-profile affairs to others. Then in 1995, a family coup brought the current emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, to power and he quickly began to carve out a new international identity for Qatar. Those ambitions have grown steadily bolder.

Qatar bid credibly though unsuccessfully for the 2016 Olympics. Last year, it brokered a complicated political accord for Lebanon, and it has offered to mediate talks to end the bloodshed in Sudan's Darfur region.

In the 1990s, it defied Arab hard-liners and allowed an Israeli trade office to open in the seaside capital, Doha. Last year, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni attended a Doha conference on Mideast peace.

It has long had cozy relations with Washington, hosts one of the largest U.S. air bases in the region, and allowed the Pentagon set up coordination hubs for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But now, Qatar appears to be steadying itself for even larger-- and potentially riskier -- gambits with Iran, Hamas and other Western foes.

The Gaza aid conference called by Qatar brought the potential pitfalls with the West into sharp relief.

Key U.S. allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia boycotted the gathering in solidarity with Palestinian leader Abbas. He has accused Qatar of funneling huge amounts of money to rival Hamas, which Washington and the European Union consider a terrorist group.

Hamas' Syria-based political chief, Khaled Mashaal, attended the meeting along with Syrian President Bashar Assad. The summit closed with a parting shot from Qatar: expelling the Israeli trade mission that represented one of the rare examples of tangible Arab-Israeli progress.

But the presence of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahaminejad at the gathering signaled perhaps an even deeper policy reassessment by Qatar. The United States and its main Arab allies are worried about Iranian efforts to shift the regional balance of power. Tehran makes no secret of its desire to expand its influence in the Gulf and elsewhere through proxy groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Qatar could be looking ahead for safer ground if the West's showdowns with Iran grow dicier. Qatar's apparent direction for the moment: trying to carve a path away from Saudi Arabia as its big brother while paying homage to Iran's growing clout and confidence.

But Qatar is still apparently interested in hedging its political bets. It may prove that Qatar is most comfortable being on the fence, some experts say.

"It does not have to be one or the other," said Mehran Kamrawa, a professor of political science at Georgetown University's Qatar campus. "What they are doing is playing all sides ... to maximize self interest, ensure a global and regional role and follow the logic of survival."

This approach appeared on display at the Kuwait meeting several days after Ahmadinejad left Doha. Qatar's prime minister, a member of the ruling family, called for "Arab reconciliation" and remained silent as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak lashed out at Arab leaders who have built ties with Iran.

Obama also has indicated that Washington could be willing to hold direct talks with Iran, and if a thaw sets in after a 30-year diplomatic freeze, Qatar could find itself very comfortable holding the middle ground.

"Qatar feels it has a role to play," said David Butter, Middle East regional director at the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit. "I am not sure what the end game is and I am not sure Qatar knows it either."

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