Wealthy Qatar goes its own way, and pays for it

Wealthy Qatar goes its own way, and pays for it

Wealthy Qatar goes its own way, and pays for it

For the emir of Qatar, there has been little that money can't buy. As a teenager, he dreamed of becoming the Boris Becker of the Arab world, so his parents flew the German tennis star to Qatar to give their son lessons. A lifelong sports fanatic, he later bought a French soccer team, Paris St.-Germain, which last summer paid $263 million for a Brazilian striker - the highest transfer fee in the history of the game. He helped bring the 2022 World Cup to Qatar at an estimated cost of $200 billion, a major coup for a country that had never qualified for the tournament.

Now at age 37, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani has run into a problem that money alone cannot solve. Since June, tiny Qatar has been the target of a punishing air and sea boycott led by its largest neighbours, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Overnight, airplanes and cargo ships bound for Qatar were forced to change course, diplomatic ties were severed, and Qatar's only land border, a 40-mile stretch of desert with Saudi Arabia, slammed shut.

Qatar's foes accuse it of financing terrorism, cosying up to Iran and harbouring fugitive dissidents. They detest Al-Jazeera, Qatar's rambunctious and highly influential satellite network. And - although few say it openly - they appear intent on ousting Qatar's young leader, Tamim, from his throne.

Tamim chalks up the animosity to simple jealousy. "They don't like our independence," he said in an interview in New York in September. "They see it as a threat."

The boycott turned out to be the first strike of a sweeping campaign by the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, that has electrified West Asia. Obsessed with remaking his hidebound country and curbing the regional ambitions of its nemesis, Iran, the young, hard-charging Saudi has imprisoned hundreds of rivals at a five-star hotel in Riyadh, strong-armed the prime minister of Lebanon in a failed stab at Iran and stepped up his devastating war in Yemen.

The Saudi prince has shaped the Trump administration's approach to West Asia and his endeavours could have far-reaching consequences, potentially driving up energy prices, upending Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and raising the chances of war with Iran.

Qataris, Saudis and Emiratis stem from the same nomadic tribes, share the same religion and eat the same food. So their dispute has shades of quarrelling cousins, albeit ones armed with billions of dollars and US warplanes.

The crisis took an alarming turn last week when the Emirates accused Qatar's warplanes of harassing two Emirati passenger airliners as they crossed the Gulf. Untrue, said Qatar, which fired back with its own accusation that Emirati warplanes had breached its airspace twice.

For much of the 20th century, Qatar was a barren Persian Gulf backwater where pirates once lurked. Its people were desperately poor, typically diving for pearls in the summer and herding camels in the winter. Then, in 1971, Qatar struck gas.

The emir, Tamim's father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, took a huge gamble. He poured $20 billion into a sprawling liquefaction plant at Ras Laffan, on Qatar's north coast, with help from energy giant Exxon Mobil. The company was then headed by Rex Tillerson, who is now secretary of state. The bet paid off spectacularly. Gas boomed, and by 2010, Qatar accounted for 30% of the global market.

Since then, Qatar's citizens, numbering 3,00,000, have become very rich, very fast. Their average income of $125,000 is the highest in the world, more than twice that of the US or Saudi Arabia. But Qatar's swagger is deeply contentious among its neighbours. In their reach for global influence, the al-Thanis have pursued ambidextrous, sometimes contradictory policies - preaching the virtues of peace, education and women's rights while bankrolling Islamist extremists in Syria and hosting the biggest US military base in West Asia.

To Saudi Arabia and the Emirates - and Bahrain and Egypt, who have joined them in the boycott - Qatar is a nation of vexatious meddlers, intoxicated by its own wealth, that needs to be cut down to size.

A fight's origins

The crisis that set off the Gulf's biggest confrontation in decades started with a series of random, seemingly unrelated events. They involved fake news and the new US president, Donald Trump.

In April, a private Qatari jet carrying $300 million landed in Iraq to free a party of 26 Qatari falcon hunters, including nine royals, who had been kidnapped by a pro-Iranian militia. Although who ultimately benefited remains shrouded in mystery, Tamim's critics pointed to the episode as proof of his willingness to recklessly indulge extremists.

Even before Trump landed in Saudi Arabia in May, on the first foreign trip of his presidency, he appeared to be firmly in the Saudi camp.

Trump met with Tamim, and the Qatari leader thought it went well. But two days later, back in Doha, the emir was shaken from his sleep with disturbing news: someone had hacked the state-run Qatar News Agency and posted on its website a report of the emir calling Iran a "superpower," lauding Hamas and speculating that Trump might not last long in power.

The report was pure fiction, but Qatar's neighbours pounced on it as the real thing. Within minutes, pundits at Emirati and Saudi television stations were expounding on the perfidy of Qatar and issuing heated denunciations. Tamim frantically called his ministers and had the article taken down.

But over the following weeks, Emirati and Saudi news outlets accelerated their attacks on Qatar,
accusing it of threatening Gulf stability. Several conservative think tanks in Washington joined the chorus. Then on June 5, without warning, the four-country boycott crashed onto Qatar.

The boycott has inflicted some pain on Qatar. With its only land border closed, its ships blocked from passing through Emirati ports and its planes restricted from flying over neighbouring airspace, import costs have soared. The stock exchange lost one-fifth of its value last year.

But for the most part, daily life in Doha is largely unchanged. Pricey wine flows in five-star hotels, work continues on a new metro system, and a striking National Museum is set to become the city's latest architectural marvel. Qatar's central bank says it has a $340 billion war chest to help weather the crisis.

For Tamim, the ultimate aim of his neighbours is to oust him from power. In the interview with The Times, he cited as precedent the 1996 Saudi-sponsored coup attempt against his father. His fears may be justified.

In the early days of the boycott, two US officials said, Saudi and Emirati leaders mulled possible military action against Qatar. The precise details were unclear, but the talk was deemed serious enough for Tillerson to personally warn the Saudi and Emirati leaders against precipitous action. Trump later repeated that advice in a call to Saudi leaders.

Yousef al-Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador to Washington, denied that there was ever a military plan. "We never contemplated it," he said.

As the dispute moved to the skies last week, with accusations of Qatari warplanes buzzing Emirati commercial jets, it highlighted how easily the crisis could escalate. Both sides are bolstering their militaries. Since June, Tamim has ordered 36 F-15 warplanes from the US, 24 Typhoon jets from Britain and 24 Rafale fighter jets from France - a sevenfold increase for an air force that has just 12 aircraft.

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