UNITED NATIONS — For years, the tiny oil sheikdom of Qatar has been a reliable U.S. partner in the Middle East — as a host to the largest American military base in the region and as a diplomatic bulwark against Iran. It has backed the fall of autocratic rulers in Libya and Syria.
Two years after the start of the Arab Spring, however, Qatar’s carefully cultivated reputation as a U.S. partner — and as a neutral broker in the region — is increasingly muddled. With billions of dollars in natural gas and oil revenue, it is bankrolling a new generation of Islamists across the Middle East, raising questions about its vision for the region and whether some of its policies are in direct conflict with U.S. interests.
Those questions are complicated by the country’s apparent eagerness to retain influence in the West. It is increasingly underwriting Qatari outposts of Western universities and think tanks, including Georgetown University and the Brookings Institution, to help inform Western views about the region’s future and Qatar’s role in it.
Among some observers, the overarching questions about Qatar, as one senior Arab diplomat put it, is this: What, exactly, does it represent?
“I think that is part of the conundrum that is Qatar,” said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity but whose government maintains close ties with the Persian Gulf country.
Officials at the Qatari Embassy in Washington and the Qatari mission to the United Nations did not make themselves available for interviews for this article.
In the past, Qatari officials have taken pride in their country’s growing role on the world stage.
Since deposing his father in a bloodless coup in 1995, the country’s emir, Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani, has transformed its capital, Doha, from a dusty Persian Gulf backwater into the undisputed intellectual and diplomatic capital of the Middle East. Slightly smaller than Connecticut and with a population of about 2 million, the country is home to now-global institutions, including the television network al-Jazeera.
Among other benefits, analysts say, Qatar’s growing clout and its alliance with the United States have won it diplomatic leeway from Washington.
When Turkey’s prime minister announced plans to visit the Gaza Strip recently, American officials made clear they opposed any engagement with Hamas, the Palestinian group that controls the strip. When Qatar’s emir visited Gaza last month, pledging hundreds of millions in reconstruction aid, the State Department was understanding.
“The Qataris have described this as a humanitarian mission,” spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. “We share Qatar’s deep concern for the welfare of the Palestinian people, including those residing in Gaza.”
Qatar has long sought to cultivate a reputation as a country interested in serving the public good. As part of that effort, the country’s foreign minister, Sheik Hamad Bin Jasim al-Thani, has combined deep pockets, extensive business investments and a vast conference center in Doha into a high-charged mediation juggernaut.
The Qataris invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the peace effort in Darfur, Sudan, hosting armed rebels, refugees and tribal leaders in luxury hotels in Doha for talks. In Lebanon, Qatar gained international plaudits for its skillful mediation, which fostered a national government involving pro-Iranian Hezbollah and a pro-Western faction.
Qatar has an ambiguous relationship with Iran, signing a military defense agreement with Tehran in 2010 and maintaining close ties with its traditional proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah. More recently, Qatar has served as a check on Iranian influence, backing the military overthrow of its closest ally, Syria, and seeking to replace Tehran as Hamas’s benefactor.
“They want to be seen as a big player, an important player that is respected and willing to bring peace to distant lands,” said Ibrahim Gambari, a former Nigerian diplomat who traveled to Doha more than two dozen times during peace negotiations on Darfur. “But they are very sensitive to this charge that they only use checkbook diplomacy to get their way.”
Analysts, however, say the country has lost some of its claim as an honest broker through its support for specific players in the Arab Spring.
In Libya, for example, Qatar was among the first countries to provide warplanes to a NATO air campaign against Moammar Gaddafi. But it also overplayed its hand after Gaddafi’s fall by supporting favored Islamist factions over the country’s transitional government.