Reaching Out to a Powerful Friend

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The ceremony, with Qatari and American VIPs in attendance, made history. Inside a huge tent on the outskirts of Doha, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani arrived with his wife Sheika Mouza, shattering an old taboo against Persian Gulf leaders appearing in public with their spouses. While the emir remained seated, it was his wife who got up and delivered the speech — in English, wearing a loose head scarf that took nothing away from her film-star looks.

Mouza's recent appearance was a blow to gender apartheid in the ultra-traditional gulf. Beyond that, the occasion sent another provocative message through the region. By opening a local branch of an American institution, the Weill Cornell Medical College, the reform-minded emir was defiantly signaling Islamic militants: Qatar is promoting modernization and friendship with the U.S. "They have treated us so well," says Dr. Daniel Alonso, dean of Weill Cornell's Doha campus. "We feel at home here."

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The hospitality of the tiny oil sheikdom (pop. 128,000, not counting foreign laborers) may soon extend to thousands more U.S. soldiers. The country is already host to 2,000 troops from the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, placed there to assist the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Now, Qatari officials tell TIME, Doha and Washington are wrapping up secret negotiations that will clear the way for the U.S. Central Command, headed by General Tommy Franks and with headquarters in Tampa, Fla., to establish a key beachhead in Qatar.

Qatar's new al-Udeid Air Base could serve as the command-and-control center for any American-led war against Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. Such a center already exists in Saudi Arabia, but the regime there is hesitant to let the U.S. use it in a new confrontation, for fear that anti-American sentiment would rebound against them. Qatari officials, on the other hand, are eager "to handcuff themselves to the U.S.," as a Western diplomat puts it. The emir is gambling that, in return, Washington will provide protection for the country against a resurgent Saddam, a shaky Saudi Arabia or an irate Iran. "We in Qatar think we need the United States," Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al Thani says. "And we think they need us."

For the emir, who seized power from his father in a 1995 bloodless coup, sticking his neck out is nothing new. Six years ago, he shocked the region by establishing the Jazeera Satellite Channel, which delights in criticizing other Middle Eastern leaders and giving airtime to the likes of Osama bin Laden as well as Israeli officials. Balancing acts are Hamad's trademark. Al-Jazeera's sensational talk shows and its Arab-nationalist perspectives are a counterweight to Qatar's pro-American tilt.

In a bid to make Qatar the gulf's most democratic country, the emir is drafting a new constitution that creates a parliament based on universal suffrage, even if he will appoint a third of the seats. The emir wins praise for scaling back military purchases; he believes they encourage corruption and that Qatar is too small to defend itself against a major attack anyway. Hamad has begun to reform the education system, with the ambitious aim of upgrading it to U.S. standards.

With a per capita income of more than $21,000 a year, on par with much of Western Europe, Qatar has found that wealth keeps discontent down. Still, many ordinary Qataris display anger over U.S. policies in the Middle East. "If you are coming for peace, good," says computer-science student Mohammed Lari, 21. "But if you are coming to fight a war, then we don't like it."

Nobody is tracking Qatar's political winds more closely than the U.S. troops stationed at al-Udeid. Meeting journalists last month, the force's buoyant commander, Colonel Timothy W. Scott, said Qataris seemed pleased by the growing American presence. "You drink a lot of tea, you talk, and you get to know each other," he said. "It's just a real friendly environment." But days later, after two terrorist attacks on U.S. troops in Kuwait, Scott canceled the passes that had allowed his troops to head into Doha on their days off to down some burgers at the local Chili's. Perhaps Qatar doesn't feel completely like home yet.