December 15, 2014:
Despite being an active and helpful ally of the United States, the Persian Gulf state of Qatar is not a strong believer in exclusive relationships. When the Americans criticize Qatar for being the source of many large cash contributions to Islamic terrorist groups they are simply told that Qatar does not support Islamic terrorism. Some American officials believe Qatari support for American counter-terrorism efforts is largely symbolic and that Qatar unofficially does business with terrorists and criminals as long as it is profitable. It’s no secret that the emir (ruler) of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani has contacts with all sorts of people, on both sides of the law. That includes many terrorist organizations. At the same time he is quite active against Islamic terrorism and bad behavior in general. For example in 2011 the emir criticized the Arab League for not intervening to prevent Libyan dictator Mumar Kadaffi from slaughtering his subjects. Qatar sent some warplanes to join the no-fly zone operations over Libya, one of the few Arab nations to do so. This contribution was made after the Arab League, which had first asked for a military effort to curb Kaddafi, and then changed its position when Western (but not Arab) nations stepped in to do so.
Western counter-terrorism experts point out that many Islamic terrorist groups do their banking in Qatar, something that is very profitable for Qatar and the Qatari government. To Qatar this is just business and has nothing to do with the official policies of the Qatari government. Qatar has long survived, and prospered, by keeping business and politics separate. All this was with the understanding that all the “customers” and “allies” would respect the continued existence of Qatar. The United States has a hard time accepting this outlook, which is common in the Middle East.
Meanwhile the emir is one of the more enlightened monarchs in the Arab world, and has brought many improvements to Qatar's economy, educational system and governance. He founded satellite news channel al Jazeera, and has largely kept clear of any editorial decisions. Al Jazeera, which is based in Qatar, freely criticizes problems in other Arab countries, protected from retribution by the emir. Not much criticism of Qatar in al Jazeera, but then there's not much criticism of the emir within Qatar from anyone. Qataris understand that the emir can play rough and be decisive about it. The emir forcibly (but bloodlessly) removed his less competent father from power in 1995, which was a generally popular move within Qatar. The emir allows the U.S. to maintain air and naval bases within Qatar, but refused to do anything about anti-American coverage on al Jazeera. That has given al Jazeera a lot of credibility in the Arab world. To the emir this credibility is a valuable asset.
Qatar is one of the many emirates that occupy the western shore of the Persian Gulf. In the 19th century, the coastal emirates (city states that depended on trade, pearls and fishing) allied themselves with Britain, for protection against the Turks (who controlled what is now Iraq), Iran (always a threat to the Arabs) and the interior tribes of Arabia. Britain was interested in suppressing pirates (which often operated out of the emirates) and halting Turkish expansion. In 1971, seven of the emirates formed a federation; the UAE (United Arab Emirates). There were immediate disputes with Saudi Arabia about where the land and water borders should be. Some of those disputes are still unresolved. The Saudis consider themselves the leader of Arabia, but most of the population (in Yemen, Kuwait, Oman and the UAE) often disagrees. There is lots of friction. Nevertheless, in 1981, the Gulf Cooperation Council was formed by Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The UAE was the chief organizer of the council, and has constantly quarreled with Saudi Arabia over leadership issues.
Qatar is small (11,437 square kilometers/4,416 square miles) with a population of 2.1 million. Only about 12 percent of the population are citizens. Most of the foreigners are there to do the work of making the place work. This is common with oil rich states in this part of the world Qatar has large oil revenues, giving it a per-capita GDP of over $80,000 (the highest in the world). The emir has made sure that the money is shared, making the population tolerant of being ruled by a monarchy. The emir has recognized that most of the oil and gas will be gone within 40 years, and is trying to build a "knowledge economy" that will keep Qatar prosperous after the oil boom is over.
The emir introduced voting in the late 1990s, and pledged to gradually introduce democracy. Meanwhile, he has appointed a 30 something old son as his successor as emir, so it's unclear if there will be a peaceful evolution of Qatar into a democracy or constitutional monarchy. Many Qataris would like that, but for now, with all that oil and gas money and a progressive monarch, there's not a lot of agitation for political change.