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This tiny emirate has claimed an increasingly vital political role in the Middle East — and beyond.

Which are the most influential countries in the Middle East today? The big four come to mind — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Iran — but there is a fifth player whose star is rising: Qatar (pronounced CUT-ar).

The richest country in the world in terms of GDP per capita, Qatar is a tiny Gulf country (native population: 250,000) with big ambitions, not to mention large reserves of liquefied natural gas. Ever since a bloodless coup in 1995 installed Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani as emir, Qatar has been expanding its role in Middle Eastern politics and global economics.

The richest country in the world in terms of GDP per capita, Qatar is a tiny Gulf country with big ambitions.

Qatar’s aim to be a player on the world stage has taken it in interesting directions. From launching Al-Jazeera, the Arab world’s premiere television channel, to Qatar’s successful bid for the 2022 World Cup (led by Sheik Hamad’s fifth son), to playing political broker and aid provider in virtually all the region’s recent conflicts, wherever you turn in the Middle East today, you’re likely to see Qatar’s imprint.

This wide-ranging portfolio is largely the brainchild of two men, Sheik Hamad, emir until this past June, and the now former prime minister, Hamad bin Jassim. Unrestrained by government institutions — the nation has yet to hold parliamentary elections — Qatari foreign and economic policies are quickly implemented, allowing the country to be super responsive when a new opportunity presents itself. Buying Harrods in the U.K. for $2.3 billion dollars? Check. Mediating between the United States and the Taliban? Check. Supporting the Syrian uprising against Bashar al-Assad? Check. And the list goes on.

But all is not rosy in this minuscule emirate. The drive to be politically influential has led to some risky behavior. Qatari support for the Syrian opposition has involved arming unsavory Islamist jihadist groups. One such group, Jabhat al-Nusra, was recently named a terrorist organization by the U.N. And by using Al-Jazeera to rally support for its political projects, Qatar has replaced the channel’s director with a member of the royal family, thereby damaging the news organization’s credibility.

Then there are Qatar’s views on democracy, which are, shall we say, flexible. Its outspoken support of the revolutions that swept the Arab world in 2011 did not extend to its neighbors in Bahrain and Yemen. The wave of transition, it seems, must stay off the Gulf shores, including its own.

Sheik Tamim

The Qatari Edge

Source Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty

So, with a volatile mix of risky business and regional commotion, the future of Qatar is uncertain. And whether the wealthy nation can make the leap from regional playboy — young, opportunistic and promiscuous — to bona fide global player will depend in part on whether it can move past its ad hoc pragmatism to an approach based on long-term planning and commitment, including to its own people.

But a new generation of globalized Qataris is emerging, one that is painfully aware of the country’s political shortcomings. And with Sheik Hamad’s recent abdication in favor of his 33-year-old son, Sheik Tamim, questions about the nation’s future leadership have only grown.

A new generation of globalized Qatar is emerging, one that is painfully aware of the country’s political shortcomings. 

While Sheik Tamim has stated that he does not “take direction” as Qatar’s new leader, he nevertheless faces the challenge of keeping relations with other Gulf states smooth. Prominent Gulf commentator Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi says: “Although Qatar’s new Emir is very close in age to the median age of 30, he is half as old as the next leader in the Gulf and about a third as old as the King of Saudi Arabia. It will be interesting to see how he interacts with his much older fellow monarchs.”

This is particularly sensitive because of Qatar’s wide engagement in Arab affairs. Says al-Qassemi: “The UAE has been unhappy with Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia sees Qatar as challenging its traditional role as a dominant Gulf player, and Iran opposes Qatar’s backing of the Syrian rebels.”

When the Al Thani royal family visited the newly acquired Harrods in 2010, their custom-made, baby-blue sports cars — a $1.85 million Koenigsegg and $540,000 Lamborghini — parked illegally outside the department store made headlines when they were clamped by London police.

A not-so-subtle lesson: Even if you own the building and can pay the fine, if you want to be taken seriously, sometimes it’s best to play by the rules — and plan ahead.

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