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Commentary: The world's wealthiest

By ARNAUD DE BORCHGRAVE, UPI Editor at Large   |   Dec. 23, 2011 at 6:30 AM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Dec. 23 (UPI) -- Qatar is bidding to become the negotiating venue for an end to the 10-year war in Afghanistan.

A small peninsular nation the size of Connecticut that juts out of Saudi Arabia on the Persian Gulf, Qatar keeps punching above its weight on the international scene. With a per capita income nearly double the United States' ($84,000 versus $47,200), its 350,000 native-born citizens employ some 1.7 million workers, mostly from India, Bangladesh and the Philippines.

In 1995, the Sandhurst-trained Qatari heir apparent Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani was growing impatient with his indolent father, the Emir, Sheik Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani. The rest of the Persian Gulf was surging but Qatar was bone-lazy and surpassed by all its gulf neighbors.

So Hamad, crown prince since 1977, overthrew his father while he was vacationing in Switzerland. What he didn't realize at the time was that the state treasury was literally empty and that Khalifa had stashed everything abroad in a multitude of bank accounts on three continents.

Over the next four years, most of the state funds were recovered and father and son reconciled. And Hamad quickly made up for lost time, surpassing all his Persian Gulf neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, in per capita income. His cash cow: the world's largest producer and exporter of liquefied natural gas, which continues to grow, and the world's third largest natural gas reserves.

Most of the 1,500 members of the al-Thani and second largest al-Attiya tribe work in government jobs.

What Hamad the Ninth Amir (same as emir but weightier) and his distant cousin Prime Minister (since 2007) and Foreign Minister (since 1992) Sheik Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, and the ruler's favorite wife Sheikha Mouza, have accomplished in the past 10 years is unique, even by Saudi standards.

-- Sheikha Mouza negotiated agreements for seven U.S. universities to locate in Education City, a 2,500-acre campus where more than 150 nationalities study, entirely financed by Qatar. Men and women compete in higher education. A Medical City is also under way.

-- The giant Al Udeid Air Base has the longest runway (15,000 feet) in the Middle East and is forward headquarters for CENTCOM and for the U.S. Air Force's 379th Expeditionary Wing. At the height of the Iraq and Afghan wars, two dozen KC-135 tankers conducted air-to-air refueling from this $1 billion base.

-- The United States runs most of its regional operations out of Al Udeid, including patrols to counter and deter any sudden moves by Iran, 80 miles away.

-- Al-Jazeera's global television network has long surpassed the Voice of America in the number of bureaus and correspondents it has deployed all over the world. Its English-language programs and newscasts have even overtaken the world's onetime leader BBC, shrunk by government cutbacks.

-- Egypt's perennial firebrand cleric Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi is a steady diet on Qatari air waves despite a broadcast where he justified suicide attacks on Israeli children "because one day soon they will grow up and become Israeli soldiers."

-- Al-Jazeera's coverage of domestic Qatari affairs is limited but it never misses an opportunity to tweak the beak of fellow Arab leaders who crackdown on dissent.

-- When the uprising got under way in Benghazi against Moammar Gadhafi's despotic rule, Qatar was the first Arab state to contribute to NATO's no-fly-zone over Libya with three Mirage-2000 fighter-bombers.

-- Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Bin Jassem (HBJ as he is known to distinguish his first name from the ruler's) has spent more time aloft than on the ground negotiating cease-fires, truces and peace agreements on three continents.

-- Prior to 9/11, key al-Qaida operative Khalid Sheik Mohammed lived openly with a prominent local family while Israel was authorized to open a commercial office in Doha.

-- Attempting to distance itself from the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Oman), by being friendlier toward Iran, Qatar once invited Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to attend a GCC summit it was chairing.

-- While officially playing down Iran's nuclear ambitions, a ranking Qatari joked, "They lie to us and we lie to them."

-- Qatar has been chosen as the venue for the 2022 soccer World Cup.

-- The country's sovereign wealth fund purchased Harrods, the iconic London store, for $2.1 billion in late 2010, and owns a majority share in a British supermarket chain.

-- Qatar Airways puts every Western airline to shame -- with real beds on its long-distance flights to four continents.

-- A 22-year-old member of the ruling family, Sheik Khalid bin Hamad al-Thani, is spending $10 million a year to become the New York Yankees of drag racing.

Qatar's foreign policy, riddled deliberately with inconsistencies, is run by two men who like each other. It has been likened to the late French President Charles de Gaulle's "Tout azimuts" (all points of the compass) foreign policy.

With Amir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani due in Washington next April, it might behoove U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to emphasize the positive -- and ignore the negative.

The ruling pair doesn't believe in democracy if only because acting by consensus or parliamentary debate would waste precious time to achieve a mediocre result.

© 2011 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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