Qatar at World Cup pinnacle after years of Mideast turmoil

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Hosting the World Cup marks the culmination of Qatar’s efforts to escape the shadow of its larger neighbor in the wider Middle East, where its political and upstart ambitions have drawn both international attention and angered the region.

The road to the Championship – and Qatar’s growing prominence on the global stage – has been fueled by the country’s emergence as one of the top gas exporters. This newfound wealth built stadiums where fans would attend games, created Al Jazeera, the Arab world’s best-known news network, and allowed Doha’s diplomatic clout to expand into the wider world.

But the rise is not unattractive. A palace coup in 1995 installed a more assertive ruler in the country, who used Qatar’s wealth to back Islamists who grew stronger during the 2011 Arab Spring protests – his Gulf Arab state. Leaders see these men as a threat to their rule. Four Arab nations have imposed a years-long boycott of Qatar starting in 2017, nearly sparking a war.

While apparent tensions in the region have eased, Qatar may hope the World Cup will boost its status as it balances ties abroad against any future danger to the country.

“They know there are these potential threats; they know they’re very vulnerable,” said Gerd Nornemann, a professor of international relations and Gulf Arab studies at Georgetown University in Qatar. “They can do anything to build an international network, if not an ally, at least a sympathetic person, and they will.”

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A little bigger than Jamaica and a little smaller than Connecticut, Qatar is a peninsula country that juts out into the Persian Gulf like a thumb. It shares only a 60-kilometer (37-mile) border with Saudi Arabia, which is 185 times larger, and across the Gulf from Iran.

Through its sovereign wealth fund, Qatar owns London’s famed Harrods department store, Paris Saint-Germain football club and billion-dollar real estate in New York City. The wealth comes from the sale of liquefied natural gas through offshore fields it shares with Iran, much of which goes to Asian countries such as China, India, Japan and South Korea.

The taps of wealth began to flow in 1997, just after two major events rocked Qatar. First, with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the subsequent Gulf War in 1991, Doha and other Gulf Arab states realized the need for a long-term U.S. military presence as a hedge, said Christian Ulrichsen, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute.

Qatar built its sprawling al-Udeid air base, which houses some 8,000 U.S. troops and is now the forward headquarters of U.S. Central Command.

The second event that rocked Qatar came in 1995, when Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani was removed from his headquarters in Switzerland in a bloodless coup. Power was taken from the hands of the father. Sheikh Hamad later crushed his cousin’s 1996 coup attempt.

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Under Sheikh Hamad, well-funded Qatar created Al Jazeera, the satellite news channel best known for broadcasting statements from Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the world. After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the US slammed the channel, though it offered the Arab world something beyond tepid state-controlled television for the first time.

In December 2010, Qatar successfully bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Just two weeks later, a Tunisian fruit merchant set himself on fire in protest and died of his burns—igniting the 2011 Arab Spring.

For Qatar, this marks a pivotal moment. The country double-downed on its support of Islamists across the region, including Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood who would be elected president in Egypt after the fall of the longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Doha to oppose Bashar al-Assad Assad-ruled Syrian groups — some of which went to groups that the U.S. would later label extremists, such as the Islamic State group.

Qatar has long denied funding extremists, though it does maintain a relationship with Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, as an interlocutor with Israel. But analysts say there is a recognition that things may have moved too quickly.

“They realize they’ve stretched their necks too far too early … and they start recalibrating that,” Nonneman said.

The Arab Spring quickly turned into winter. In July 2013, a counter-revolutionary movement in Egypt saw military general-turned-president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi rise to power, backed by other Gulf Arab states.

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Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the son of Sheikh Hamad, took over as ruler of Qatar more than a week ago, with the ruling family acknowledging the need for a replacement.

However, the Gulf Arab states are still angry. A 2014 dispute over Qatar’s support for Islamists led Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to withdraw their ambassadors — only to return them eight months later.

But in 2017, after then-President Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia, the three countries and Egypt began a years-long boycott of Qatar, shutting down air traffic and severing economic ties even as construction on the stadium continued.

Things have become so tense that Kuwait’s late ruler, Sheikh Sabah Ahmed Al-Sabah, who was mediating the dispute at the time, hinted at the possibility of “military action” at some point, without elaborating.

While regional tensions remain, the dispute is over as President Joe Biden prepares to take office. Still, Qatar has found itself hosting negotiations between U.S. officials and the Taliban and assisting with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Russia’s war on Ukraine has seen European leaders come to Doha hoping for more gas.

“They’re in the spotlight again,” Ulrichsen said. “It gives them a seat at the table when decisions are made.”

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Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.



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