Qatar in spotlight in absence of Arab heavies

DUBAI, Taieb Mahjoub- The conflict in Libya has swept small but wealthy Qatar into the diplomatic and military spotlight in the absence of traditional Arab heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Egypt, analysts said on Wednesday.
Qatar last week became the first Arab state to take part in Western-led military operations against the regime of Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi.

It has since scored another regional first by recognising the transitional council of the rebels battling Kadhafi as legitimate representatives of the Libyan people.
On Tuesday, leaders at an international conference held in London on the Libya crisis appointed gas-rich Qatar to host the first meeting of a follow-up Contact Group.
"This all confirms Qatar's ambition to play a role as leader of the Arab world in the absence of the region's traditional heavyweights such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt," said London-based analyst Abdelwahad BadraKhan.
Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassem Al-Thani said in the British capital that the conflict in Libya was an Arab affair in which regional states should become more involved.
Qatar's high-profile role "shows the determination of its leaders to put their small country on the regional political map," just like they are on the sporting calendar as host of the 2022 football World Cup, said BadraKhan.
"With a stable regime and reassured by a large US air base in Qatar", the emir, Hamad bin Hamad Al-Thani, has been taking the initiative "in consultation with" Washington and Riyadh, according to BadraKhan.
The Lebanese analyst said Saudi Arabia would have played a more prominent role if it had not been for the unrest in neighbouring Bahrain, where Shiite Iran's alleged meddling has troubled the region's Sunni monarchies.
And Egypt is only just emerging from the February revolution which toppled its longtime president Hosni Mubarak.
Eclipsed since independence by "big brother" Saudi Arabia, Qatar has turned into a player in its own right, with help from Doha-based news channel Al-Jazeera and its blanket coverage of the so-called "Arab spring" of revolts.
Doha has played the role of mediator in complex regional crises in Lebanon, Yemen and Sudan, with varying degrees of success.
Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy head of Brookings Doha Center, said a new order was being put in place.
"Qatar has a role to play in all this with its financial muscle, a moderate political vision and opening, and expertise it has gained from being involved in resolving regional crises," he said.
Sharqieh pointed out the country has good ties with the United States and arch-foe Iran, and has had political contacts as well as trading with Israel.
Despite being a monarchy, "Qatar is coherent with its policy, in favour of change in the Arab world that is breaking with authoritarian regimes in favour of democratic systems," said Mohamed Mesfer, a university lecturer in Doha.
He said the low profile kept by Syria and Algeria was also serving to boost Qatar, which apart from the United Arab Emirates has been the only Arab state untouched by unrest popping up across the region since January.
On the domestic front, Qatar has lined up legislative elections without being forced to bow to street protests.
Libyan rebels say the Gulf state has signed a contract to market oil from the rebel-held east of the country, and it aims to host and help launch a rebel television station.

Wednesday, March 30th 2011
Taieb Mahjoub

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