Qatar feels the chill
The objectivity of historians can be judged by what they include and what they omit in their narratives. The same criterion can be applied to evaluate the bias of politicians in power. Note, for example, that after becoming the interim prime minister of Iraq in June 2004, Ayad Allawi visited the capitals of all the neighbouring countries except Tehran. This omission endeared him to Washington.
As George Bush begins his nine-day tour of seven destinations in the Middle East today, the omission of Qatar from his itinerary stands out.
What lies behind this cold shoulder? It cannot be the small size of Qatar. Kuwait is not much larger, yet it is being rewarded with a visit by Bush.
Evidently, by calling on the ruler of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Sabah, Bush is showing his appreciation of the unqualified cooperation offered by the Kuwaiti emir and his late predecessor to the Pentagon in its plans to invade and occupy Iraq.
If that”s the test, then Qatar”s ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, should also get high marks. He allowed the Pentagon”s central command (Centcom) to set up its operational headquarters at al-Udeid air base in November 2002 to implement its war plans, including bombing of Iraq from various points on the globe.
Al-Udeid, built at the cost of $1bn by Qatar, 32 miles south-west of the capital Doha, is a sprawling military facility. In 2002, it became the destination of the state-of-the art command centre that the Pentagon had previously utilised at the Prince Sultan air base in Saudi Arabia until it found Saudi public opinion turning against the presence of its forces on the Saudi soil.
Though reduced, Centcom”s presence at al-Udeid continues. Interestingly, the fact that al-Udeid air base does not appear on the official maps of Qatar shows the regime”s reluctance to acknowledge it. It may also be the case that the ruler would rather not consort openly with the US president.
On the other hand, the unforgivable sin that the Qatari ruler has committed in Washington”s eyes is to bankroll the al-Jazeera satellite television channel and give it editorial independence. Though al-Jazeera began broadcasting in 1996, its real break came with the Palestinians” second intifada in 2000.
During the US-led military campaign against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in October 2001, al-Jazeera was the only TV channel operating from Kabul. It earned Washington”s ire by showing the devastating after effects of the American bombing. When, for instance, the Pentagon claimed on October 16 that its bomb had “mistakenly” hit Red Cross warehouses in Kabul, al-Jazeera showed that the buildings were clearly marked. In retaliation, the Pentagon bombed the al-Jazeera bureau, as discussed in my book, War Without End.
The pattern continued in Iraq. Al-Jazeera exposed the bogus claims of victories made early in the invasion by the Pentagon, thus inadvertently undermining the momentum that the US had planned on building up swiftly in its rush to Baghdad.
Little wonder that on the morning of April 7 2003, a US warplane fired two missiles at the al-Jazeera bureau in Baghdad, killing its star reporter, Tariq Ayub.
Two years later, a British whistleblower in London leaked the minutes of a meeting between Bush and Tony Blair at the White House, which detailed Bush raising the subject of striking the al-Jazeera TV headquarters in Doha. The news shocked the channel”s management. Its chief executive rushed to London to seek clarification from the prime minister”s office. He failed to get it.
The independent-mindedness of the Qatari ruler continues to infuriate the Bush White House. In early 2006, he criticised the failure of the US and other western countries to accept the democratic choice of Palestinians when they voted for Hamas in their parliamentary elections. Later his government offered financial aid to the democratically elected Hamas administration in the Palestinian territories.
Following the colossal damage caused by the Israeli bombing of southern Beirut and the Lebanese economic infrastructure during its 34-day war with Hizbullah in the summer of 2006 – described by the US state department as “the birth pangs of a New Middle East” – Sheikh Hamad al-Thani stepped forward with a generous grant for reconstruction.
Little wonder that the Bush administration has scores to settle with Qatar. One way is to ignore its diplomatic existence.