Middle Israel: The sheikhdom that roared

Qatar is a metaphor for the waste of riches that could have changed the Arab future.

Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani attends the 25th Arab Summit in Kuwait City (photo credit: REUTERS)
Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani attends the 25th Arab Summit in Kuwait City
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Like Grand Fenwick, the remote duchy that declared war on the US in The Mouse that Roared, the sheikhdom of Qatar teased powerful neighbors with impunity – until this week. Now the wrath of its brethren has laid bare the Qatari farce, and with it the tragedy of Arab treasure that the tiny emirate helped waste.
Though half the size of minuscule Slovenia and having but 313,000 citizens, the peninsula that points north from the Arabian Desert’s eastern coast fashioned itself as a pain in everyone’s butt.
Like Peter Sellers as Count Mountjoy, the provincial leader who makes good political use of the super-bomb his troops accidentally seize in New York, Qatar made wonderful use of foreign assets that its petrodollars bought with ease. Such, for instance, was Al Jazeera, the TV station that Qatar’s emir of the day launched in 1996, shortly after deposing his unsuspecting father during his vacation abroad.
Like schoolkids spraying their teachers with a fire hose, the Qataris had a wonderful time annoying Arab leaders by broadcasting unflattering footage from their troubled lands and critical punditry from beyond their realms.
Even funnier – for the Qataris – was Western applause for their “democratic” innovation, even though no Qatari prince ever let Al Jazeera report what was happening in the sheikhdom that peeked from its headquarters’ windows.
An even funnier capture of a foreign creation was the emirate’s purchase – there is no better way to describe this – of the right to host the world’s greatest athletic event, soccer’s World Cup.
Having allegedly spent $150 million on bribing officials, Qatar’s bid won despite its inhospitable heat and woeful lack of a serious soccer league or substantial fan base.
It all didn’t matter to the Qataris, whose de facto motto, “Anyone can be bought, and any purchase can be excused,” had thus been vindicated in a way that even left Qataris speechless.
And if such whoring could be done in journalism and sports, it certainly could be done in geopolitics.
REALIZING THAT their mostly empty flatland is an ideal air base and its location opposite Iran is priceless, the Qataris let the US plant on their soil a major military hub that is home to 11,000 American troops, features the longest runways in the Gulf at 3,810 meters, and can park 120 jets at any time.
Which is all fair enough, even after considering that Qatar won through this association a large, American-trained air force and a superbly equipped military – provided it behave like a loyal proxy. Yet for Qatar, a strategic deal is not an alliance but, like the World Cup, just another deal.
And so, it turned out that the Qataris invented a new type of foreign policy, one that can be called counter-neutrality, meaning that they were the opposite of Switzerland: Rather than take no side, they took all sides.
While hosting America’s troops, Qatar coordinated gas production with Uncle Sam’s Iranian nemesis. While joining the Saudis’ war in Yemen, the Qataris paid anti-Saudi, Iranian-backed Iraqi militias a staggering $1 billion in hostage ransom.
While doing business with Israeli firms, they financed Hamas. While signing contracts with the Egyptian government, they backed its archenemy, the Muslim Brotherhood. And while wooing European investors, they financed anti-Western fundamentalists in Syria.
Set against this backdrop, seven Arab governments’ severance this week of diplomatic ties with their unruly sibling seems so plausible that one might think Qatar’s is the story of one treasure island victimized by one clan’s megalomania, vanity and whim.
Alas, Qatar’s shenanigans are but a metaphor for the much grander tragedy of the Arab world’s steadily drowning riches.
QATAR’S resources – originally oil and now mostly liquefied gas – created a political deformity, a land whose 2.6 million inhabitants are nearly 90% foreigners. The glitzy high-rises the aliens help build and maintain are but social castles in the sand. There is no solid, organic society underpinning Doha’s skyscrapers, and in this regard the Qatari principle is much the same as what happens in the rest of the oil-rich Arab states. Fearing social mobility, their assorted emirs, princes and sheikhs deliberately import foreigners as their unskilled workforce, rather than invite the broad Arab world’s poor masses, most notably nearby Egypt’s and war-torn Syria’s.
Instead of seeing in such immigration a moral duty, a social asset and an economic engine, the way Israel did with its Russian and Ethiopian immigrations, the Gulf states fend off Arab immigrants, even Syria’s refugees, sending them instead to brave Mediterranean waves and ram European walls.
Worse yet, Qatar’s world-leading $130,000 annual per capita income – besides excluding its foreigners, and besides reflecting geological deposits rather than economic work – reaches a minuscule nobility rather than the Arab masses whose despair sparked multiple civil wars and destabilized the world.
Worst of all, oil’s golden era is drawing to a close, as alternative energies abound, prices plunge, and even a production-cut deal between OPEC and Russia last year failed to impress commodity markets.
In this regard, the only difference between Qatar and Saudi Arabia is that the straying princedom’s budget deficit has climbed to $8b., while its royal neighbor’s soared to $80b.
Indeed, in spending billions on collecting stakes in non-Arab causes such as Volkswagen, Deutsche Bank and British Airways, as the Qataris have; or on $110b. worth of arms deals, as the Saudis just did, rather than use their fortunes to end the economic misery and social despair of their Arab brethren – all Gulf states, not just Qatar, have brewed the epic tragedy that the Arab world has come to face.