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Thu 31 Mar 2011 01:09 PM

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New world order

Tiny state of Qatar flexes its diplomatic muscles in Libya campaign

New world order
GLOBAL PLAYER Led by Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, Qatar has transformed itself into a high-profile diplomatic arbiter and peace broker in recent years (Getty Images)

By joining Western-led aerial patrols over Libya and recognising rebels as the country's legitimate representatives, Qatar is taking a gamble as it bids to capture popular Arab feeling and boost its diplomatic clout.

Energy-rich Qatar was the first Arab country to contribute planes to police the UN-backed no-fly zone over Libya last Friday - a move that helped the United States to argue that the Western-led air strikes have Arab support.

On Monday it became the first to recognise the rebels, a day after a senior Libyan rebel official said Qatar had agreed to market crude oil produced from east Libyan fields no longer under the control of leader Muammar Gaddafi.

The moves reflected the boldness of Qatar's ambition to punch above its weight on the world stage, as exemplifed when it won the right last December to host the 2022 soccer world cup.

"Qatar cares about how ordinary Arabs perceive it, and with Libya, has fashioned itself as one of the few Arab countries aligned with Arab popular sentiment," said Shadi Hamid, director of research at Brookings Doha Centre.

"It has increasingly been playing a leadership role in the region, so it only makes sense that they take the lead on Libya as well," he added.

A tiny peninsula jutting into the Arabian Gulf, Qatar has transformed itself into a high-profile diplomatic arbiter and peace broker in recent years, attracting international attention for its mediation attempts in numerous regional conflicts.

It has sponsored peace talks between the Sudanese government and rebel groups, and last year pledged to contribute $1bn to a fund to reconstruct the African country.

Though small - its native population numbers slightly more than 200,000 - Qatar is an economic powerhouse.

A close US ally that hosts a large US military base, Qatar's copious natural gas reserves have made it one of the world's richest countries and the largest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG).

It is also home to government-financed Al Jazeera, the news network that has played a pivotal role in the "Arab spring" unfurling across the region. Several of its crew were kidnapped in Libya earlier this month and another was killed in an ambush.

Qatar has said it will build a hospital in Benghazi in honour of the slain journalist.

Libya presents Qatar with a chance to distinguish itself from other Arab countries which have until now been hesitant to get involved. Already it has received considerable attention for its contribution to the military operation.

"Doha's elite appears to believe that while the Arab world has many self-proclaimed leaders, it has few who will actually stand up and be counted," said David Roberts, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute, based in Doha.

Greek Defence Ministry officials have said the six Qatari Mirage 2000 fighter jets using the Souda airbase are only engaged in patrolling and have not engaged in strikes.

The United Arab Emirates has offered humanitarian aid to Libya and said it would send twelve aircraft for patrols.

Qatar is not likely to be criticised for its action on Libya by other Gulf states, many of whom may seek to follow its lead.

But its actions are not without risks. The tiny state is aware that Gaddafi has a record of reaching beyond Libyan borders to strike at dissidents or back favourite militant groups and causes. Saudi Arabia once accused him of planning to assassinate King Abdullah.

"There are some people in the Qatari government who are queasy about this. They have concerns," said one Doha-based source familiar with Qatari diplomacy.

But Doha could garner considerable prestige if the gamble pays off.

"Their motivation comes from the fact that there is a wave of revolutions across the Middle East," said Hassan Ibrahim, an analyst and documentary producer based in Doha and Cairo. "The right side of history is that of the Arab people, and any government who supports them will reap the benefits later on."

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