Mideast unrest highlights tiny Qatar's big role

As political protests swelled across the Middle East, the embattled leader of Yemen placed a call for help to the emir's palace in tiny Qatar. There aren't many places higher in the Arab pecking order.

Hyper-rich Qatar is again showing its outsized influence as patron of Al-Jazeera, the pan-Arab broadcaster whose blanket TV coverage of the upheaval in Egypt and elsewhere is blamed by some critics for encouraging unrest and hailed by many others as a voice of Arab empowerment.

Qatar is getting well accustomed to this kind of big-moment attention.

In a generation, this spur of sand sticking into the Persian Gulf has gone from near obscurity to one of the hardest-charging countries in a region full of giant national egos.

In December, Qatar stunned the world by outclassing the United States and other rivals to host the 2022 soccer World Cup. Qatar also has tossed its political weight in every direction across the region, giving Israel its first foothold in the Gulf, hosting one of the largest American air bases on the Arabian peninsula and acting as peace broker in Lebanon and Sudan.

Its oil and natural gas, meanwhile, have bankrolled global shopping sprees that include owning London's Harrods department store and a buying a stake in Hollywood's Miramax Films.

"No one can say Qatar is shy about its ambitions," said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of Mideast affairs at Emirates University.

In the Arab mind, perhaps nothing symbolizes it more than Al-Jazeera, which was founded by Qatar's rulers in 1996. Modeled on CNN and other international news channels, it also broadcasts in English and claims to reach 220 million households in more than 100 countries, including Israel and parts of the U.S.

But it has collided head-on with many Arab governments that are unaccustomed to free media. Last week Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, phoned Qatar's emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, asking him to rein in al-Jazeera, according to Yemen's state-run Saba news agency. It said he denounced the network as "an enemy of the Arabs." On Thursday, dueling rallies were held in Yemen for and against Saleh.

Al-Jazeera said "gangs of thugs" stormed its Cairo office Friday, set it on fire and damaged equipment. The office had been closed last week by Egyptian authorities, but the network managed to maintain coverage with fixed rooftop cameras and reports by phone.

"It appears to be the latest attempt by the Egyptian regime or its supporters to hinder Al Jazeera's coverage of events in the country," an e-mailed statement from the network said.

Al-Jazeera has not specifically addressed claims of bias in the current turmoil, but in the past has often defended its coverage as balanced.

The network is a rarity among Arab broadcasters for offering a platform to controversial voices. It runs extensive interviews with Israeli figures and allows pro-Israeli comments on its website.

At the same time, it faces a $1.2 billion lawsuit filed in a New York court in July by 91 Israelis wounded by Hezbollah rockets during a 2006 war. The suit accuses Al-Jazeera of pinpointing rocket landings in violation of Israeli military censorship and thus helping Hezbollah improve its aim.

Neither Qatar's emir nor top envoys have made any statements about Al-Jazeera's work, which was no surprise — getting into messy public spats is decidedly not the style of leadership in this country of 1.7 million people.

Qatar is seen by some as leaning toward the protest movements in the region, but it's among the most autocratic Gulf states, with virtually all power in the hands of the ruling clan.

It also plays wide political margins. It maintains close relations with Iran and militant groups such as Hamas while hosting the U.S. base and branches of institutions such as Northwestern University and the Brookings think tank.

It defied Arab hard-liners and allowed Israel to open a trade office in 1996, only to order it closed in January 2009 after Israel invaded the Gaza Strip.

Egypt, meanwhile, apparently began to bristle at Qatar's expanding political reach as a possible rival to Cairo's traditional role as the region's chief trouble shooter.

Two years ago, Mubarak stayed away from an Arab League summit in Qatar's capital, Doha, in what was widely seen as a personal snub to the emir. Then, Egypt and Saudi Arabia boycotted a Qatar-led Gaza aid conference because of the presence of Hamas' political chief, Khaled Mashaal, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Qatar mediators also played a role in 2008 in ending a flare-up of sectarian violence in Lebanon and it is hosting peace talks with Darfur groups.

"Qatar looks to be trying to claim ownership of the unrest in the region, knowing that it may one day come knocking at their own door," says Christopher Davidson, a Persian Gulf expert at the University of Durham in England.

On Tuesday, Qatar's news agency reported that the emir made a call himself: to Syrian President Bashar Assad to discuss "developments in the region."

Did it have anything to do with moves by opposition groups to foment protests in Syria?

No one was saying.