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How Qatar Dominates the World

How did Qatar’s capital Doha emerge as one of the most important world capitals in the 21st century?

January 14, 2003

How did Qatar's capital Doha emerge as one of the most important world capitals in the 21st century?

Throughout history, great international treaties usually took the names of great capitals. Think for instance of the Congress of Vienna, which divvied up Europe after the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars. Or take the Treaty of Versailles, which did the same after World War I.

Before that, the Treaty of Paris put an end to the Spanish-American War in 1898. And more recently, the Treaty of Rome proved to be the granddaddy of the European Union.

Great international economic treaties also used to be almost exclusively negotiated and concluded in the industrial world, even if that at times involved small places.

The post-World War II economic arrangement — which encompassed most of the world outside the Communist Bloc — was named the Bretton Woods System.

It is named after a resort in New Hampshire where the conference placing the dollar at the center of the global financial system — and establishing the World Bank and IMF — was held in 1944.

But in the final decades of the 20th century, that somehow became politically incorrect since developing nations felt left out. So the venues began to shift.

While the first round of talks on trade liberalization was called the Kennedy Round, after the U.S. President and the second the Tokyo Round, the round that started in 1995 — wouldn't you know it — became known as the Uruguay Round.

Similarly, a series of agreements giving preferential treatment to developing nations' exports to Western Europe have been called after a variety of obscure places in Africa and Asia—the Yaoundé Convention, the Lome Convention, the Cotonou Agreement and the Fuji Convention.

When the new round of World Trade Organization talks was being contemplated, the decision was made to hold the initial Ministerial talks in Doha, the capital of Qatar.

The new round of WTO talks, which will focus on liberalizing and promoting international trade in services, was launched in November 2001 — and it is now known as the Doha round.

Qatar seemed like a perfect place to rescue from total obscurity. Although rich in oil and located on a strategically important peninsula jutting out into the Persian Gulf, it has never been on most people's mind.

For one thing, it is extremely small. The country occupies an area of 4,000 square miles. That is half the size of pre-1967 Israel, and it has a population of around 750,000. Curiously, even this minuscule population reflects an oil wealth-driven, sevenfold increase over the past 30 years.

Then, all of a sudden, Qatar has been thrust under the international spotlight.

In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks against the United States, Qatar-based Arab-language television network al-Jazeera emerged as a major source of information about al Qaeda and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Furthermore, the elusive Osama bin Laden surfaces mainly on video tapes broadcast from Qatar.

But the "Qatar goes global" wave did not end with al-Jazeera. Now Qatar — which has three U.S. military bases on its territory, including Camp As Sayliyah — has been chosen to be the command headquarters for the impending war against Iraq.

Albeit a bit indirectly, it now appears on the news almost daily, as U.S. military brass either go to inspect its war room facilities there — or starts leave for more lasting combat duty.

Now, it's true that neither the U.S. military nor the U.S. media currently reveal where the command center is located. Evidently, that's done to ensure that life does not become too uncomfortable for the Amir of Qatar.

But it's surely a great irony that the seemingly impending U.S. war against Iraq will be fought from the very same locale where al-Jazeera broadcasts.

It is very likely that both on the battlefield and at the trade negotiation table the 21st century world, the tiny Gulf state will play a large role in shaping the future.