Visit the rebel-held territories of Libya, and the influence of Qatar is everywhere. In the rebel capital of Benghazi, soldiers wear Qatari-supplied desert uniforms. A giant billboard of Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani can be seen outside rebel headquarters. Souvenir stands sell the white-and-maroon flag of Qatar. Near the frontline city of Misrata, which is bombed daily by Grad missiles launched by government forces, the Qataris have set up a fully equipped field hospital to care for wounded rebels and their families. According to the director of the Misrata airport, Qataris have offered to fly in humanitarian aid and fly out the wounded once NATO gives the go-ahead.
Qatar, a tiny Persian Gulf state that controls one of the largest natural gas fields on earth, is by far the most aggressive Arab state in the struggle to unseat Muammar Qaddafi. While NATO forces led by the French and British run the bombing campaign, Qatari Mirage jets have helped enforce the U.N.-imposed no-fly zone.
Since fighting broke out five months ago, the Qataris have provided $100 million in loans, according to Libyan rebel spokesman Mahmoud Shamman. Light weapons, including AK-47s, have come from Qatar, according to Suleiman Fortia, a member of the rebel opposition group. To help the rebels earn cash, Qataris have marketed rebel-supplied oil to outside customers. The Gulf state has even helped rebels create a television station using a French satellite to offset the influence of Qaddafi-controlled media. “Qatar put its weight behind the Libyan people logistically and financially,” says Guma El-Gamaty, a representative of the Libyan Transitional National Council in Britain.
The question is, why? Qatar is more than 1,600 miles away from Libya, on the edge of the Arab world; its nearest neighbors are Iran and Saudi Arabia. The emir strives to keep relations cordial with both countries. That sounds like plenty of work for a country of only 1.7 million—not to mention that Qatar hosts the most important U.S. military bases in the region.
The effort to oust Qaddafi fits into the diplomatic philosophy the 58-year-old Sheikh Hamad has followed for years: Use your wealth to secure influence and make good friends. Thus, Qatar has sent building materials to help rebuild Gaza in the aftermath of the 2009-10 war with Israeli forces. It has worked to find a durable solution to Lebanon’s political deadlock. And it has tried mediating between the warring parties in Yemen.
“Qatar cares about brand Qatar,” says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. “It was to their advantage to get out in front of what was going on in Libya and distinguish themselves from other Arab countries.” Sheikh Hamad also risks little by helping the rebels: If they prevail, Qatar, an autocracy, will win points as a supporter of the Arab Spring. If somehow Qaddafi wins, Qatar has little invested in Libya that Qaddafi could seize. Either way, the sheikh earns the gratitude of France, Britain, and the U.S.—which could come in handy if things ever heat up in the Gulf. “The Qataris have a very active foreign policy, and this is the most active they have been,” says Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London.
In this battle for influence, Qatar has a potent weapon in Al Jazeera, the television network based in the Qatari capital of Doha. The Libyan rebels regard Al Jazeera as the premier television network. Al Jazeera, alone of all the media, has access to the frontline areas southwest of Benghazi. Almost all the public statements and interviews given by the rebel president, Abdul Mustafa Jalil, go through Al Jazeera rather than through press conferences.
The rebels, if victorious, will have to manage their country’s oil and gas wealth. “After Qaddafi is gone, Qatari firms will be very well placed to manage [Libyan oil and gas] concessions,” says Christopher Davidson, who specializes in the study of the Persian Gulf at Durham University in the U.K. “Qatar is not good at many things, but it is good at the shipment and processing of natural gas.” Qatar’s North Field holds the third-largest natural gas reserves in the world, according to the International Energy Agency. Qatar is the world’s largest liquefied natural gas exporter.
Qatar, of course, does not need more gas. “It has 280 years of gas supply,” says Davidson. Yet it would be foolish to pass up an opportunity to profit from its support for the Libyan rebels. Libya has 1.3 trillion cubic meters of gas and 42 billion barrels of oil. There may be more: Its oil and gas fields have not been extensively explored using the latest technology. Once in power, the rebels might examine Qaddafi’s existing contracts with oil and gas companies and decide some are no longer legitimate. Then the Qataris will have an opportunity to step in.