Iran General NewsQatar steers between U.S., Iran, using gas to boost...

Qatar steers between U.S., Iran, using gas to boost influence

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Bloomberg: For Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim bin Jaber al-Thani, Qatar’s prime minister and chief diplomat, it’s natural to host the U.S. military while sharing one of the world’s largest natural-gas fields with Iran. By Janine Zacharia

March 4 (Bloomberg) — For Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim bin Jaber al-Thani, Qatar’s prime minister and chief diplomat, it’s natural to host the U.S. military while sharing one of the world’s largest natural-gas fields with Iran.

Qatar’s royal leadership has learned to balance contradictory political interests as a means of national preservation for the tiny country, which is roughly the size of Los Angeles. A neighboring Saudi kingdom friendly with the U.S. overshadows Qatar’s western border, and anti-U.S. Muslim clerics rule Iran just across the Persian Gulf.

The Qatari strategy may be a peek into the future of international politics. As the U.S. and Europe increasingly rely on new sources of energy and capital, they may be dealing with more independent-minded countries like Qatar that play all sides to their advantage and favor no major power exclusively.

“Our ambition is to have prosperity for our people,” Sheikh Hamad, who also oversees Qatar’s $60 billion investment fund, said in an interview in the booming seaside capital, Doha. “We would like to be friendly with everyone.”

Qatar is asserting itself economically. Tankers filled with Qatari natural gas will arrive routinely at a Texas terminal by 2009. Enriched by the third-largest gas reserves in the world, Qatar plans to invest as much as $15 billion this year shoring up U.S. and European banks struggling with mortgage losses.

Awash in Cash

Awash in cash, Qatar “is trying to think of the future, and they want to place themselves as an important player” in the Persian Gulf, says Jean-Francois Seznec, a specialist in the Gulf’s petrochemical industry at Georgetown University in Washington and a senior adviser to PFC Energy, a Washington consulting firm.

“They’re next to a very big power, Saudi Arabia, with which they have a rather mediocre relationship,” Seznec says. “They’re next to Iran, a powerful country of 75 million people. They’re caught with the Americans in Iraq. They have to be very careful.”

Five years ago, U.S. military commanders based in Qatar ran much of the air war against Saddam Hussein’s forces in the opening stages of the attack on Iraq. Now it is hard for the U.S. to gauge the loyalty of the desert nation, which still allows American forces to use an air base to send supplies to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Coaxing

In November, Qatar coaxed Arab states to attend President George W. Bush’s Middle East peace summit in Annapolis, Maryland. A month later it upset the U.S. by inviting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has vowed to wipe Israel off the map, to a summit in Doha.

American diplomats have objected to what they consider biased coverage of the Iraq war on Qatar’s pioneering Arabic satellite news station, Al Jazeera, which is financed by the Qatari government. They also say Qatar isn’t joining with other Arab governments to pressure Syria to stop interfering in Lebanon.

Still, Qatar isn’t always out of sync with U.S. interests. While Qatar defended Hezbollah in its 2006 war against Israel and gave millions to rebuild homes in the militant group’s stronghold in southern Lebanon, the emirate still welcomes Israeli athletes and executives.

Last month Sheikh Hamad attended the opening of the Brookings Doha Center, affiliated with a Mideast policy unit at the Brookings Institution in Washington funded by Israeli entrepreneur Haim Saban.

Unwanted

The royals have a history of sheltering the unwanted of the world: Chechen rebels, members of Saddam Hussein’s family and former mujahedeen from the Afghan-Soviet war. Al-Qaeda operative and alleged Sept. 11 terrorist-attack plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed stayed there before he slipped away and was later captured by the Americans, according to a U.S. commission that investigated the attacks.

“They keep the exiles here as a way to guard against terrorism,” says Patrick Theros, the former U.S. ambassador to Qatar who now heads the Washington-based U.S.-Qatar Business Council.

It’s part of the balancing act, Qatari officials and Middle East observers say — both unique and necessary. Qataris “have to do their little maneuver,” says Peter Rodman, a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense now at Brookings in Washington. “That’s how they survive.”

Protecting Wealth

Protecting its gas wealth is the country’s chief objective. Qatar produces 32 million tons of liquefied natural gas a year; most is sold to Asia. Within three years, total LNG production may reach 77 million tons, making Qatar the world’s biggest exporter.

That leap will occur as LNG ships start heading to the U.S. Gulf Coast. Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil Corp. is building a $1 billion facility near Port Arthur, Texas, to unload and process Qatari gas.

Qatar’s economic influence in Europe and the U.S. is already soaring. When Sheikh Hamad said in an interview last month that Qatar had started purchasing shares of Zurich-based Credit Suisse Group, the bank’s stock rose 3.2 percent and carried other European shares higher.

Democratically, Qatar is moving in a direction the U.S. favors for the Arab world. Women can vote, it’s holding municipal elections and is planning for its first parliamentary elections later this year.

All this progress hasn’t stirred Washington. Bush skipped Qatar during his Persian Gulf trip last month, even as his military commanders praised Qatar’s cooperation.

Asked about Bush’s snub, Sheikh Hamad says simply: “It’s his choice.”

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