DOHA, QATARYou say "Qa-TAR," I say "QA-tar." So which one is it anyway? Abdulaziz Almahmoud, chief editor of Al Jazeera Net, says the proper pronunciation in English is "Kat-TAR" and in Arabic "Ha-TAR," with the first syllable coming from deep in the throat. Further complicating matters, he says, is that people have other ways of saying Qatar "based on their different Arabic dialects." Although he doesn't approve, Almahmoud concedes some call it "Cut-ter" or his least favorite, "Gut-ter."
However you pronounce it, Qatar, a finger-shaped peninsula the size of Connecticut, has made itself strategically important by giving shelter to the United States military. This year, Qatar finished building a 15,000-foot runway, the longest in the Persian Gulf, for the U.S. Air Force. Its emir allowed the Americans to assemble a sprawling forward command headquarters south of town to prosecute the war on terror and the looming conflict with Iraq.
For Qataris, the American alliance provides a buffer against rival neighbors, especially the oil colossus next door, Saudi Arabia. For the United States, the relationship secures the economic well being of a potential source of natural resources. Qatar has the second-largest liquefied natural gas reserves in the world, enough to potentially heat all of American homes. "The security presence protects our energy projects," says Khalid Fahad Al-Khater, director of the Doha-based International Center for Strategic Analysis, "and makes American, Western companies more at ease investing in Qatar."
The United States also prefers the mellower interpretation of the Wahhabism sect of Islam practiced by Qataris. As in Saudi Arabia, many women here wear the al-battoulah, the black mask that covers the face except for the eyes, nose, and mouth, and the al-darraa, the traditional black gowns. But others favor Western dress, and female citizens are allowed to drive and vote. In addition, a vibrant press aggressively reports on the Middle East, a sharp contrast with Riyadh's tight media controls. Al Jazeera, the nation's highly popular satellite television station, has needled the Saudi regime about alleged corruption, causing a diplomatic crisis in which the Saudis threatened to withdraw diplomats from Doha. Qataris also have allowed an Israeli commercial officer to live in Doha and maneuver behind the scenes to foster ties. One U.S. official who has done work in the region calls the Israeli presence here "another way of sticking it in the eyes of the Saudis."
Perhaps the most fundamental concern revolves around the land. Qataris say Saudi Arabia has encroached on their territory, grabbing terrain in the south near the country's border with the United Arab Emirates. Most of the disputes have been resolved, but the resentment lingers. People in Qatar also say that Saudi Arabia closes the roads when its monarchy becomes angry with Qatar and that the little country is hurt because the roads are the principal land trade route for goods. Hamad Y.M. Al-Naimi, a branch manager at Q-tel, the privatized state telephone company, compares Qatar to the smaller brother who is learning and studying and trying to improve. He sees Saudi Arabia as the big brother who is not behaving and is rattled by his rival sibling's success. "The big brother kicks the small one and says, 'Shut up,'" he says.
Qatar doesn't want Saudi Arabia to dictate to it anymore, so the country's absolute monarchy has turned to the United States. A war with Iraq could complicate matters and spur anti-American protests, but most Qataris are complaisant and content to live in a generous welfare state. Thanks to the oil and gas, unemployment is low. The per capita gross domestic product for citizens averages $28,972, making Qatar competitive with Western Europe. Medical plans also are provided free to all citizens.
The bounty is not shared by all. Medical benefits are not guaranteed to the foreign workers who make up a majority of the population. The latest State Department Report on Human Rights called Qatar's treatment of foreign workers "poor" and said some were abused and denied wages. The report also concluded that Qatar had a problem with trafficking in women and children, who are imported by "guardians" and made camel jockeys. What's more, although the regime has ordered up a constitution, until it is approved, freedoms of speech and the press are not guaranteed. Labor unions and collective bargaining are banned. Regarding the legal system, the report concluded, "The Government administers most corporal punishment prescribed by Islamic law but does not allow amputation." In the Persian Gulf, that kind of legal system qualifies as progressive.