This tiny Persian Gulf emirate, which actively courted Western troops in recent years and was rewarded with the regional U.S. military headquarters, now finds itself reluctantly along for the ride as the Bush administration moves toward war with Iraq.
With the planned U.S. invasion unable to win backing from the U.N. Security Council, and Washington under criticism in many capitals, some Qataris say they feel exposed as the hosts of the U.S. Central Command. This sentiment was captured by a cartoon today in the local peninsula newspaper depicting an American fist squeezing Iraq while the world tries in vain to pry the fingers open. An Arab, recognizable from his traditional headdress, sits idly on the American forearm, looking away.
Qatari officials have said little publicly in recent weeks about the pivotal role they would play in any U.S.-led campaign, which includes hosting not only the headquarters of Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, chief of the U.S. Central Command, but also a bustling military supply depot and an air base for U.S. and British combat aircraft. But Qatari analysts have repeatedly described their country's current situation as "difficult," citing widespread opposition to an attack on a fellow Arab country. They said this was not what officials had envisioned when they agreed to accept U.S. forces as a guarantee against threats from regional powers, including Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
A U.S. official said Qatar's leaders had not expressed any regret for developing military ties with Washington, a relationship that grew out of the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and accelerated after the current emir, Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa Thani, ousted his father in a bloodless coup in 1995.
"The decision for a military partnership with the United States was made with eyes wide open," the U.S. official said. "These are guys who have been in tight spots before and managed that situation."
Even harsh Qatari critics of the U.S. troop presence continue to express confidence in the emir's leadership. Unlike in Saudi Arabia, Western bases have not proved a source of serious domestic discontent here.
A dusty, largely barren thumb of land that protrudes from the Arabian Peninsula, Qatar is half the size of New Jersey. Hassan M. Ansari, director of Gulf studies at the University of Qatar, recalled that he enjoyed attending University of Michigan football games while in graduate school because he could scan Michigan Stadium, which seats 107,000 people, and imagine nearly all his fellow Qatari citizens fitting in the stands.
The emirate has reported natural gas reserves of 900 trillion cubic feet, the second-largest in the world after those in Russia. This makes Qatar the envy of its neighbors. It also necessitates political stability because, more than the oil industry, natural gas development requires long-term contracts and security for investors.
Qatari analysts said they discovered their vulnerability 12 years ago when Hussein's forces invaded Kuwait. "Kuwait's a country with very big resources of oil and gas, and in one moment, Iraq took a decision and invaded Kuwait and destroyed it," said Senan Muslemany, deputy editor of the Al-Watan newspaper.
Qatar also realized that it could not depend on the protection of the Gulf Cooperation Council, an alliance of six Gulf states dominated by Saudi Arabia. Ansari recalled that Saudi Arabia had to rely on U.S. forces for defense.
Qataris speak openly about their distrust of Iraq and Iran. In softer voices, Qataris also point to the threat they perceive from Saudi Arabia, which they depict as a regional bully. Government officials, for instance, blame Saudi Arabia for sponsoring a failed coup against the emir in 1996, less than a year after he took power.
Relations between the countries have grown increasingly strained in recent years as Qatar took steps toward democracy, including holding municipal elections, offering women the vote and lifting some restrictions on the news media. While these reforms were modest by Western standards, Saudi Arabia's authoritarian government has tried to discourage liberalization on its doorstep, analysts and diplomats said. Especially galling for Saudi Arabia were broadcasts by al-Jazeera television, the Arab satellite network based in Qatar, that were unflattering to the Saudi royal family.