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Qatar relationship strained { December 22 2002 }

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U.S. Has Precious, Yet Precarious, Ties With Qatar
By Mark Fineman
Times Staff Writer

December 22 2002

DOHA, Qatar -- DOHA, Qatar -- Just 10 miles north of a strategic command center where a U.S. general was orchestrating war games, a Persian Gulf War veteran reggae-rapped the night away here on a beachfront stage.

"Hello, Qatar!" bellowed Jamaican American fusion artist Shaggy to more than 3,000 foreigners and a smattering of Qataris this month. "I was told by reliable sources that nobody party like Qatar party!"

Then, in a conservative Islamic land where 95% of the women still dress in black head-to-toe abayas, the ex-Marine hip-hopped his way through lyrics about rude boys, naughty girls and sexy ladies. The few dozen Qatari men on hand stood rigid and wide-eyed, remarking about the weirdness of it all.

Such are the kaleidoscopic contradictions of today's Qatar, a fast-changing nation that has emerged as one of America's most strategic military allies and the likely headquarters in the event of another U.S.-led war with Iraq.

This Connecticut-size thumb of sand jutting into the Persian Gulf -- with sufficient gas reserves to heat every American home for more than a century -- has thrown itself headlong into this new relationship with the U.S. The ties are as precious as they are precarious for both nations.

The relationship is born of the crusade by Qatar's progressive young emir, Sheik Hamad ibn Khalifa al Thani, for modernity and security in a region awash with hostility and religious antipathy.

The alliance was underscored Saturday by a visit by Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and earlier this month by the military exercise under Central Command chief Army Gen. Tommy Franks. The maneuvers involve more than 1,000 U.S. military officers and enlisted personnel throughout the region at a new, mobile command-and-control facility at Qatar's Camp As Sayliyah.

The command post duplicates a facility at Prince Sultan Air Base in neighboring Saudi Arabia, which has been hesitant to support any U.S.-led war on Iraq. But the military's "Internal Look" exercise merely capped a strategic relationship here dating back several years.

Qatar (pronounced KAH-tar) has spent more than $1 billion upgrading Al Udeid Air Base for American forces, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld stopped in Doha, the capital, recently to sign an agreement that will expand U.S. use of the facility. Al Udeid already boasts a 15,000-foot runway and is home to more than 5,000 U.S. military personnel.

The Shaggy concert, sponsored by this nation's Olympic committee and a state-run company that owns resort hotels in Doha, echoes a U.S.-Qatari cultural relationship that dates back almost to the day seven years ago that the emir exiled his father in a bloodless coup.

Qatar is spending $1 billion on a new "Education City," a futuristic spread of Islamic and Western architecture, which will open in June and be staffed by U.S. professors. It is the future home for satellite campuses of Cornell University's Weill Medical College, Virginia Commonwealth University and several other American institutions. Cornell has already started its first year of premed classes in temporary space nearby.

The project's director and chief advocate is the emir's second wife, Sheika Mozah Nasser Misnad, who is emerging as the region's first American-style first lady. The sheika selected only U.S. universities for the new city, which she hopes will be a mecca of higher learning for students throughout the Arab world.

And the Mall in the heart of Doha stands as a citadel to icons of U.S. commerce: Starbucks, KFC and McDonald's line the atrium leading to the Cineplex, where "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" has been sold out nightly. This month, the Mall's centerpiece of model Qatari dhow fishing vessels and Arabian coffee urns was replaced by a North Pole Christmas set.

Yet some Qataris at the Shaggy concert spotlighted growing resentment here over the American military presence and tough new immigration rules in the United States.

"Let them leave. The sooner the better," a British-educated 21-year-old at the concert said about American troops.

"Look, man, I can't go to the U.S.A.," said the Qatari, who would only give his name as Omar. "Look at me. If I go to Los Angeles, the LAPD will be all over me. I'm afraid to go there. So why should your guys be here?"

The following day at Qatar's Foreign Ministry, Khalid Rashid Mansouri, director of European and American affairs, gave a knowing nod. "This a burden we share together -- Qatar and America," he said of Omar's views.

Mansouri, a diplomat at the Qatari Embassy in Washington for six years, helped cement the U.S. military alliance. He noted that Qatar is merely the latest of the Gulf nations, from Kuwait to Oman, to host U.S. military facilities. But he acknowledged that those ties happened suddenly in most Qataris' eyes.

"We went from, say, Stage 3 to Stage 10 almost overnight," he said. "But we were very honest and open with the Americans and with our people. We told them that we have a base. We have a relationship with the Americans. And we put it on television for all to see."

Qatari officials argue that the country needs the American presence to protect its people, its vast resources and the investment by energy companies such as ExxonMobil, which now tops $30 billion.

"After the Gulf War, we were convinced there was nobody in the region to protect us," Mansouri said.

Some Qataris are unconvinced.

"Qatar has a choice whether to accept this presence or not," said Mohammed Saleh Musfir, a political science professor at Qatar University. He rejects it.

"Saddam Hussein is not a threat to Qatar unless the American facilities here make the country a target," he said.

"There is no more love for the American government among the Qataris -- among most of the Gulf people," he added. "We used to hold them up as a model of democracy, of freedom.... But not anymore."

American-style democracy nonetheless is being introduced here. In 1999, Qatar held municipal elections, and the government is planning to stage parliamentary balloting in a few years.

Qatar also was the first Gulf state to let women vote and run for office, although none of the female candidates won three years ago and 80% of the women voted for men.

"This time is the golden age of women in Qatar," said Sheika Abdulla Misnad, a vice president of Qatar University, where more than two-thirds of the 9,000 students are women.

She said the election outcome and the fact that the overwhelming majority of Qatari women still wear the abaya are the result of a woman's right to choose.

"Wearing the abaya gives you freedom -- freedom to move, to dress as you wish underneath without feeling that people are staring at your body," she said, adding that Qatari women traditionally have run the household and remain deeply conservative.

"Now it's upon women themselves to decide what they want. And the government has encouraged this."

The greatest encouragement has come from Misnad's niece, the first lady.

The biggest push came in October, when her highness shocked the nation and the region by standing at a podium, her face uncovered and her husband in the audience, and delivered a televised speech in English.

The following day marked the rare event: Local newspapers at home and in the region carried a picture of a Gulf first lady. The occasion was the inauguration of the new Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar.

"This was a remarkable event in more ways than you can imagine," said Daniel Alonso, the school's resident dean.

At a time when tough rhetoric from Washington and regional war games seem to signal a looming confrontation with Iraq, most Qataris point to the Cornell school and Education City as symbols of the relationship they prefer with the U.S.

"We're not just buying the physical buildings. We're buying the whole thing -- all the same standards of quality and excellence -- and it isn't just for the Qataris, it's for the whole region," said Hassan Ansari, a Qatar University professor and government advisor.

"Our strategic relationship with the U.S. is different than the other countries in this region because it is not purely military. And it didn't start that way. It started with the economic investment in the gas fields and with projects like Cornell."

Ansari, who has a doctorate in Middle East history from the University of Michigan, added: "Some people think we're moving too fast. Some people think we're moving too slowly.

"The point is, it's a package. And what's at stake is nothing less than our future as a nation and as a people."
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Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times

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