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A Marriage of Convenience in Gulf

Mideast: The growing military ties between the U.S. and Qatar as the threat of war looms bring advantages for both sides.

October 07, 2002|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DOHA, Qatar — Standing beside the ice skating rink at the center of the largest indoor shopping mall in the Persian Gulf region, Yousuf Haidar proudly explains what he sees happening around him.

"Qatar is joining the modern age," said Haidar, 40, a furniture store manager on a shopping spree with his family. "The world is finally learning about Qatar."

If the U.S. invades Iraq, the world will get a chance to learn a great deal about this once-isolated emirate, a moderate, pro-Western ally in a region conflicted about how to deal with the expected war.

Qatar is perhaps best known as the home of Al Jazeera, the upstart, sometimes biased, often-controversial pan-Arab TV network financed by the nation's ruling family. For five years, the station has attracted an audience of 30 million. It has provided a soapbox for the family's views, which include support for a free press and rapprochement with Israel.

Though neighboring nations are reluctant to be seen as overly friendly with the United States, Qatar's supreme ruler, Sheik Hamad ibn Khalifa al Thani, has put out the welcome mat for the American military, its troops, its heavy bombers and its command and control structure. Qatar has approved plans to greatly expand Al Udeid Air Base, outside Doha, the capital, a probable nerve center in the event of an attack on Iraq.

The new closeness between the U.S. and Qatar is a marriage made of considerable convenience even if it does annoy neighboring Saudi Arabia, whose Prince Sultan Air Base has previously been the major U.S. outpost in the region.

Qatar has only a tiny army and a dozen French-made fighter jets. By inviting the U.S. military, the nation gets the kind of security that it feels is necessary for economic growth in an unstable region.

The U.S. gets a foil to Saudi Arabia, which has criticized President Bush's go-it-alone rhetoric about Iraq and wants a strong U.N. resolution before allowing air sorties against Baghdad.

"Only the United States can balance the powers in this region and provide us with stability," said Hassan M. Saleh Ansari, director of the Gulf Studies Center at the 9,000-student University of Qatar. "This is a relationship that works for both sides."

S. Rob Sobhani, adjunct professor of international relations at Georgetown University, said the Qatari leadership could be hailed throughout the Arab world if its bases are used by the U.S. for a quick knockdown of Saddam Hussein, with few casualties. That acclaim, he said, would bring more respect for Hamad's vision of a pluralistic, pro-Western future.

"Qatar is doing things that are clearly going to expose Saudi Arabia's bankrupt foreign policy," Sobhani said by telephone. "Saudi Arabia is governed by men in their 70s and 80s who resist all change. The [Qatari] emir is in his early 50s, and his vision is much different."

Public opinion is difficult to gauge in a society that does not hold national elections and where dissent is often banned. Still, there are those who doubt the wisdom of the emir's invitation to the U.S.

Mohamed Saleh Musfir, former editor of a leading Arabic-language newspaper here and now a political science lecturer at the University of Qatar, finds the presence of the U.S. military "very provocative."

"This will lead the fundamentalists to be even stronger in their arguments and to be stronger in their actions," Musfir said. "Nobody knows what will happen; there is a gloominess, a darkness in our future."

During the 1991 war against Iraq, Qatar was a secondary staging area; Qatari troops joined the coalition forces and acquitted themselves well. In retaliation, Iraq fired a Scud missile at Qatar, but it landed in the vast desert.

In 1991, Musfir said, most people supported military action to liberate Kuwait. Now, there is no sense of urgency and also widespread disbelief that Iraq has stockpiled weapons of mass destruction as the Bush administration insists, he added.

"We believe this [expanded air base] is not to protect us but to protect U.S. interests and the Israeli influence in the region," Musfir said. "Once, Iraq was a potential enemy, but now it is the U.S. and Israel."

An estimated 2,000 U.S. Air Force and Army troops are stationed at Al Udeid, many living in a sprawling tent city. The base services several dozen transport and refueling aircraft that have been part of the air campaign over Afghanistan. With a 15,000-foot runway--the longest in the region--the base could easily accommodate heavy bombers. A Qatari official says the U.S. has suggested that it may want to station as many as 9,000 troops in the nation.

Next month, the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., is to bring 600 personnel here for a three-week exercise called Internal Look. The exercise is meant to test the command's ability to quickly reallocate forces needed to provide logistics and strategic coordination.

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