“It’s nothing but a short lady in high heels”, one Arab politician described Qatar to me after it was named the 2022 host of football’s world cup. The reaction is typical, in that a mix of envy, cynicism and disparagement colours the attitudes (whether publicly or privately expressed) of Arab “big brothers” towards this tiny yet wealthy and influential Gulf state. No wonder, for Qatar boxes above its own weight, and is efficient and ambitious on various fronts. Its clear lesson to larger yet lazier neighbours, particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia, is that size doesn’t matter.
Its triumph in winning the bid to host the world’s biggest sporting event is, after all, a continuation of previous successes. Its organisation of Asian sports, Asiad, in 2006 provoked similarly stunned reactions. But by winning the contest over 2022, Qatar scored not only regionally but also globally, particularly against a battered United States and (as England was also a competitor) Britain. Yet sport is perhaps the softest side of the Qatari story.
The roughness comes with politics. Qatar’s aggressive and proactive diplomacy has been causing waves of nervousness across those Arab capitals that like to think of themselves as “regional leaders”. Washington too has joined the club of the irritated. Much of Qatar’s regional diplomacy has deviated from preferred American positions, especially its relations with anti-American countries and movements. The sympathies of (Qatar-based and -owned) Al-Jazeera with causes opposed to Washington also play into this; some of the ensuing annoyance is revealed in the Wikileaks documents.
In relation to a number of protracted regional issues, it is the Qataris who have succeeded in mediating and brokering deals. To Egypt’s south, the Qataris have fronted efforts to bring peace between in Sudan's government and rebels in Darfur, while Cairo merely watched. To Saudi Arabia’s south, the Qataris have engaged the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels in talks, gaining the confidence of both parties, while Riyadh merely watched. In 2009, it was the Qataris who effectively prevented Lebanon from sliding into what appeared another imminent civil war by convening the main protagonists in Doha and striking a last-minute agreement.
A risky game
The larger picture is no less telling. Qatar at the same time hosts the biggest American military base in the world, has a friendly relationship with Iran, and maintains open commercial links with Israel (which have survived tremendous strains, including the second Palestinian intifada [2000-05], and Israel‘s war against Hizbollah in Lebanon  and Hamas in Gaza [2008-09]; all the more remarkably in that Qatar enjoys the confidence of both these organisations as well as many other Islamist movements).
The ruling Qatari Emir and his globally active wife, Sheikha Moza, are close friends to a number of Arab presidents and ruling families. Yet Qatar is also the main destination for the leading political opponents (mainly Islamist) of many of those Arab regimes. Doha may be committed to the policies and decisions collectively adopted by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the regional body (controlled by Riyadh) that comprises all six Arab Gulf states; but it has created margins in which to manoeuvre its own independent diplomacy, frustrating the other GCC states in the process.
Its tactic of inducing each major player with a different prize allows Qatar to float above threats, remain off-target and build regional and global status. Within the current intra-Arab rivalry between the “axis of moderation” (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE and most Gulf states) and the “axis of resistance” (Iran, Syria, Hizbollah and Hamas), it is difficult to pigeonhole Qatar. It chooses to stay close to the middle-point, shuttling relatively freely across sides.
A state in full
The question that arises is less why the Qataris are doing this than, perhaps, why the Egyptians or the Saudis are not. It is deeply puzzling for Arab intellectuals and publics alike how timid the big Arab countries have been over the past decade or so. The result of their inactivity or ineffectuality in most regional issues (Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia...) has been to create a political-regional vacuum that allows Iran and Turkey (states with regional agendas of their own) to assume more energetic roles - and opened space for small states like Qatar to stand out and gain prestige.
The benefit for Qatar extends far beyond mere pride and appearances, for with the prestige comes further layers of success and networking that becomes a strong aspect of its national-security strategy where potential threats are offset against each other and deflected away from the tiny state. The risks are evident: a strategy that has the US and Israel on board along with Iran, Hizbollah and Hamas requires iron nerves. If the extreme brinkmanship fails the consequences could be catastrophic.
Money helps. Doha would have never been able to achieve what it has thus far without resting on comfortable reserves of gas that make Qatar’s GDP the highest in the world. But money does not function on its own: examples of wealthy failures abound in the region and beyond. Qatar’s economy and finance are less based on credit and loans than its neighbours, allowing it to escaped the fate of Dubai, which found itself at the heart of the global financial whirl.
The ambitious Qatari Emir has supplemented active diplomacy by making his country a leading media hub, with Al-Jazeera now a flagship global brand; a leading regional education laboratory, with first-rate American and European universities establishing branches there; and a sports destination, with various international tournaments (the Asian football cup as well as the world contest) moving to Doha.
By allocating around $50 billion to build the infrastructure for the 2022 world cup, Qatar has set out both to outstrip wounded Dubai economically and to continue to surpass the much bigger Arab-Islamic states in the region in prestige and political clout for at least the next decade.