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A humbler Qatar still wants to punch above its weight

The Gulf emirate of Qatar is tiny, but it’s made a name for itself by placing big bets.

Thanks to vast reserves of natural gas, its 2.6 million residents enjoy the world’s highest per-capita income: $129,700 a year. Qatar has acquired more than $335 billion worth of assets around the globe, buying up trophies such as London’s Shard, the tallest building in Europe.

The emirate has also drawn attention as an outsized power-broker in a volatile region, and it will be center stage globally in 2022 as the host of the World Cup.

Its support for opposition groups challenging other Arab governments has enraged Qatar’s neighbors, and so far its soccer preparations have attracted mostly bad press. Qatar is still figuring out how to stay in the deal-making business.

After huge investments made Qatar the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, a global production glut has cut prices and driven a downturn in the country’s fortunes.

Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, who assumed the throne in 2013, has focused more on domestic affairs than foreign adventures. Qatar’s first budget deficit in 15 years has prompted the government to restrain spending.

The state-backed global TV station Al Jazeera has shed employees and shuttered its US operations. After a probe by soccer’s governing body, Qatar was cleared of charges that it secured the World Cup through bribery.

Still, the preparations have been clouded by reports of abuse of migrant workers building the facilities. The country’s sovereign wealth fund hasn’t lost its appetite for high-profile deals: In the last few months, Qatar pumped money into Turkey’s biggest poultry producer and Russian oil giant Rosneft.

It’s the third-biggest shareholder in Germany’s Volkswagen and remains one of the largest investors in Barclays, after it helped rescue the UK bank during the 2008 financial crisis. Qatar also owns the Paris Saint-Germain Football Club.

A peninsula off Saudi Arabia’s eastern coast, Qatar emerged from the shadow of its powerful neighbor in 1995 when Emir Tamim’s father, Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, overthrew his father in a bloodless coup and put Qatar on an ambitious course.

Al Jazeera launched the next year, breaking regional tradition by including news that embarrassed Arab leaders. When Saudi Arabia ejected the US air operations center for the region in 2003, Qatar took it on; today the emirate hosts 10,000 US troops. In the Arab Spring uprisings that began in 2010, Qatar, uniquely among Middle Eastern governments, broadly supported groups agitating for change — as long as it was outside the Gulf.

The emirate’s leaders backed Muslim Brotherhood groups challenging authorities in Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Egypt, calculating that they would prevail and confident that Qatar’s own prosperous population would not rebel.

Since then, Brotherhood groups have mostly foundered, and Qatar reeled back its support for them in 2014 when faced with diplomatic threats from its Gulf neighbors. In Qatar itself, political parties are prohibited and freedom of expression is severely limited. Just 300,000 of Qatar’s residents are citizens; the rest are foreign workers with few rights.

Qatar aspires to be the region’s indispensable mediator. Its leaders have connections with a wide range of parties, such as warring tribes in Libya as well as both the US and the Taliban. On the other hand, by choosing sides during the Arab Spring revolts, it weakened its standing as a neutral party.

Relations with Saudi Arabia remain cool, and its ties with Iran, once cordial, are tense. The capacity of Qatar’s leaders to focus on foreign affairs is being squeezed by the pressure of domestic concerns. Like other petro-states, Qatar is determined to diversify its economy to reduce dependence on finite fossil fuels, though some analysts question the value of spending on infrastructure projects for the World Cup.

Still, Qatar’s gas reserves aren’t apt to run out soon: by one estimate, they’ll last another 135 years. The government continues to face very little open opposition, but it does have critics. And a planned reduction in public sinecures invites more citizens to question their riches-for-silence contract with the monarchy.

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