Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011

Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani

The affable Emir of the tiny Gulf state of Qatar (population 1.7 million) might not strike the casual observer as a major Middle East power player, but appearances can be deceiving: Qatar has played a leading role shaping events in the Arab political turmoil of 2011. The first response of Arab autocrats facing the wrath of their restive youth populations is to blame al-Jazeera. And the cable news network that makes Arab strongmen so uncomfortable is, of course, owned by the al-Thani family — an effective vehicle of Qatari "soft power". But Qatar hardly limited itself to soft power: It took a leading role in the international military intervention to topple Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, not only sending fighter planes to join the NATO air campaign, but also deploying its Special Forces units on the ground to guide the rebel assault on Tripoli. In this more muscular role, Qatar has certainly attracted critics. But there's no doubting the growing influence of this tiny country with the world's largest natural gas field, as it positions itself as a diplomatic mediator between the West and Iran. And the achievements of al-Thani's Qatar in 2011 were capped by landing that ultimate prize in global prestige — the right to host soccer's World Cup, in 2022.