Vulnerable Qatar plays it safe by aligning with US



DERWIN PEREIRA, our roving correspondent in the Middle East, is in Qatar to assess preparations for a possible war on Iraq. He explains why the tiny oil-rich sheikhdom is so intent on supporting Washington when anti-American sentiment in the region is rising.

QATAR has emerged as a valuable Arab ally for Washington in its war plans against Iraq at a time when anti-American sentiments are on the rise in the Middle East and old allies are turning their backs on the US.

The tiny oil and gas-rich sheikhdom has hitched its prospects with the United States, even if there is creeping resentment among locals against any attack being launched on Iraq from their soil.

During the past year, it has spent more than US$1 billion (S$1.75 billion) upgrading the Al-Udeid airbase for American forces and did not bat an eyelid when the US built itself an outpost which will be the nerve centre in any war campaign against Saddam Hussein.

Explaining the rationale for Qatar’s policy, Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jasem Al Thani told reporters: ‘We are a very small country. We feel endangered because we have many resources that need to be protected.’

Qatari officials said such comments underscored the tiny sheikhdoms’ vulnerability in a volatile region.

A nation of about 750,000, Qatar operated in Saudi Arabia’s shadow for years.

The Iraqi invasion in August 1990 jolted the government and forced it to expand ties with the US after seeing the Saudis flounder at defending themselves, let alone other Gulf countries.

In 1991, the US and Qatar quietly signed a defence cooperation agreement that gave Washington a green light to set up operations here.

That relationship was stepped up after Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifaal-Thani overthrew his father, then the emir, in a bloodless coup in 1995.

Sheikh Hamad took over power while his father went into exile in Saudi Arabia. Relations with Riyadh since then have been edgy.

Indeed, sources here said that there were minor clashes between both sides in 1995 in the border area of Al Khufos. A Qatari official told The Straits Times that the driving force in forging close links with the Americans was the new emir. The 52-year-old emir is a graduate of Britain’s Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst.

He came under the spotlight in the 1991 war after his brigade earned a reputation as being one of the best-trained units in the region in fighting the Iraqis.

After taking over power in 1995, he began liberalising the country – pushing for free trade, allowing municipal elections and even allowing women to vote – an issue which is taboo in other Gulf states.

The official noted: ‘He drew a lot from his experience in the West and he trusted that only the Americans could protect his regime. This made him a prime catch for the US.’

Indeed, Doha has gradually emerged as vital real estate for US military strategy in the Persian Gulf, culminating in December with the setting up of a command centre.

But the government’s close links with Washington flies in the face of anger that the US is using Qatar as a base to attack another Arab country.

Residents of Doha have grown accustomed to the regular roar of fighter jets and the deeper rumble of military transport aircraft above the city’s glass and marble tower blocks and palm tree-lined highways by the picturesque sea.

But symptomatic of the mood in other Arab countries – barring Kuwait that is perhaps Washington’s staunchest ally in the Gulf – there is concern over American ‘hegemony’ and ‘unwarranted aggression’ against another country in the region. Wearing the traditional Deshdasha dress, the red-white check Khetra, 28-year-old Qatari trader Abdullah Jomah speaks animatedly about his opposition to the Americans:

‘We don’t support Saddam Hussein. He did a lot of bad things to his country. But we don’t like Americans also. They hate Islam and support Israel against Palestine.

‘Why should I support their presence to attack another Arab country? They are here only to control our region and take our oil.’

Others like Sudanese immigrant Intisar Ahmed, a customer service officer, worry about possible retaliatory strikes by Iraq against Qatar.

‘It is OK if they visit us a tourist. But if they fight a war from here, Saddam might attack us for supporting them.’ On the surface, there appears to be indifference and no inkling of a crisis in Qatar.

The largest supermarket here, Carrefour, is well-stocked, with anything from Cadbury chocolates and Pringles to milk and dairy products.

But as one official points out: ‘The government can live with such resentment which is everywhere in the Arab world. But it cannot live without the Americans.’

$1.75b spent on airbase

QATARI Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifaal-Thani had no qualms about spending US$1 billion (S$1.75 billion) to upgrade an airbase for US forces. The British-educated leader who led a brigade against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War has liberalised his country and sees the US as the only ally Qatar has that is capable of defending its interests.

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