Qatar at World Cup pinnacle after years of Mideast turmoil

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Hosting the World Cup marks the culmination of Qatar’s efforts to emerge from the shadow of its larger neighbors in the wider Middle East, where its politics and rising ambitions have attracted both international attention and regional ire.

The road to the tournament – and Qatar’s increased prominence on the world stage – has been fueled by the country becoming a leading exporter of natural gas. This new wealth has built the stadiums that fans will fill for the tournament, created the Arab world’s most recognized news network, Al Jazeera, and opened up Doha diplomatically to the world.

But this rise has not been without intrigue. A palace coup in 1995 installed a more assertive ruler in the country, who used Qatar’s wealth to back Islamists who emerged stronger in the 2011 Arab Spring protests – the same numbers as his colleagues Gulf Arab leaders viewed them as threats to their regime. A years-long boycott of Qatar by four Arab countries that began in 2017 nearly sparked a war.

And while overt tensions have eased in the region, Qatar will likely be hoping the World Cup will serve to bolster its position as it balances its relations abroad to guard against any danger to the country abroad. coming.

“They know there are these potential threats; they know they are very vulnerable,” said Gerd Nonneman, professor of international relations and Arab Gulf studies at Georgetown University in Qatar. “Anything they can do to have an international network if not of allies, at least of sympathetic elements, they will do.”

Qatar, a little bigger than Jamaica or just smaller than the US state of Connecticut, is a peninsular nation that juts out into the Persian Gulf like an inch. It shares just a 60 kilometer (37 mile) border with Saudi Arabia, a nation 185 times larger, and is just across the Gulf from Iran.

Through its sovereign wealth fund, Qatar owns the famous Harrods department store in London, the football club Paris Saint-Germain and billions of dollars in real estate in New York. That wealth comes from its sales of liquefied natural gas through an offshore field it shares with Iran, with most of it going to Asian countries such as China, India, Japan and South Korea.

This wealth tap started flowing in 1997, just after two major events rocked Qatar. The first, Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing 1991 Gulf War, saw Doha and other Gulf Arab countries realize the need for a long-term US military presence. as a cover, said Kristian Ulrichsen, a researcher at Rice University’s Baker Institute.

Qatar built its massive Al-Udeid airbase, which now houses some 8,000 US troops and the forward headquarters of the US Army’s Central Command.

The second event that shook Qatar was in 1995, when Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani seized power in a bloodless coup against his father who was in Switzerland. Sheikh Hamad then put down a 1996 coup attempt by his cousin.

Under Sheikh Hamad and full of money, Qatar created Al Jazeera, the satellite news channel that gained worldwide fame for broadcasting the statements of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The United States railed against the channel after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, although it provided the Arab world with something beyond state-controlled television for the first time.

In December 2010, Qatar won its bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Just two weeks later, a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire in protest and eventually succumbed to his burns , lighting the fuse for what became the Arab Spring of 2011.

For Qatar, this marked a pivotal moment. The country has doubled its support for Islamists in the region, including Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood who would be elected president in Egypt after the fall of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Doha has poured money into Syrian groups that oppose Bashar al-Assad’s regime, with some funding going to those America later portrayed as extremists, such as the Islamic State group.

Qatar has long denied funding extremists, although it maintains relations with the Palestinian militant group Hamas which rules the Gaza Strip, working as an interlocutor with Israel. But analysts say there was recognition that things may have moved too fast.

“They realize they’ve stretched their necks too far too soon…and they’ve started to recalibrate that,” Nonneman said.

The Arab Spring quickly turned into winter. A counterrevolution in Egypt backed by other Gulf Arab states saw the installation of military general-turned-president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in July 2013.

Just over a week earlier, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the son of Sheikh Hamad, had taken over the leadership of Qatar, with the ruling family itself acknowledging that a generational change was needed.

Gulf Arab countries, however, remained angry. In 2014, a dispute over Qatar’s support for Islamists saw Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates withdraw their ambassadors, only to bring them back eight months later.

But in 2017, after then-President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, those three countries and Egypt began a year-long boycott of Qatar, shutting down air traffic and severing economic ties even as stadium construction continued.

Things got so tense that Kuwait’s late ruler Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, who at the time brokered the dispute, suggested that “military action” at some point was a possibility, without giving More details.

The dispute ended as President Joe Biden was about to take office, although regional tensions remain. Yet Qatar has found itself hosting negotiations between US officials and the Taliban, as well as aiding the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Russia’s war on Ukraine has seen European leaders come to Doha, hoping for additional natural gas.

“They are the center of attention again,” Ulrichsen said. “It gives them a seat at the table when decisions are made.”

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Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.

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