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Tiny Qatar takes outsize role in Arab Spring

  • Article by: ANTHONY SHADID
  • New York Times
  • November 14, 2011 - 9:00 PM

DOHA, QATAR - Qatar is smaller than Connecticut, and its native population, at 225,000, wouldn't fill Cairo's bigger neighborhoods. But for a country that inspires equal parts irritation and admiration, here is its résumé in the Arab revolts: It has proved decisive in isolating Syria's leader, helped topple Libya's, offered itself as a mediator in Yemen and counts Tunisia's most powerful figure as a friend.

This thumb-shaped spit of sand has emerged as the most dynamic Arab country in the tumult realigning the region.

Its intentions remain murky. Some say Qatar has a Napoleonic complex, others say it has an Islamist agenda. But its clout is a lesson in what can be gained with some of the world's largest gas reserves, the region's most influential news channel in Al-Jazeera, an array of contacts (many with an Islamist bent), and policymaking in an absolute monarchy, vested in the hands of its emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

Qatar has become a vital counterpoint in an Arab world where traditional powers are roiled by revolution, ossified by aging leaders, or still reeling from civil war, and where America is increasingly viewed as a declining power.

"Do they fill a void? Yes," said Bassma Koudmani, a Syrian opposition leader who credits the Qataris with a key role in the Arab League's startling decision Saturday to suspend and isolate Syria. "They are filling a space and a role that is not being taken up by other countries."

Flanked by the region's biggest rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran, Qatar has always played an outsize role in the Gulf, but never to this degree. It hosts a sprawling U.S. air base, but some U.S. officials are suspicious of its recent backing of Islamist leaders, particularly in the war in Libya.

Angry at its role in driving the Arab League vote, Syrian officials have called it a lackey of U.S. and Israeli interests. On Monday, Syria declared that it would boycott next month's Arab Games in Doha.

But for all the contradictions in its policies -- and there are many -- Qatar is advancing a decisive shift in Arab politics that many in the West have yet to embrace: a Middle East dominated by mainstream Islamist parties brought to power in a region that is more democratic, more conservative and more tumultuous.

"Qatar is a country without ideology," said Talal Atrissi, a Lebanese political analyst and commentator. "They know that the Islamists are the new power in the Arab world. This alliance will lay the foundation for a base of influence across the region."

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