Qatar Impact: From Doha to Benghazi

When the ‘Arab Spring’ as it has become known, began blooming in early 2011, asks Doha-based news anchor Kamahl Santamaria, who would have thought Qatar would be playing a leading role on the military, political and economic front?Of course the country’s made no secret of its desire to be an influential Middle East, if not global player, but with Qatari jets carrying out no-fly-zone missions over Libya and pictures of the Emir posted across Benghazi, there was definitely an added dimension.This is a topic which has been well covered, but I wonder if we’ve considered what sorts of risks this tiny country took in putting itself so far into the Libya conflict.

For me, the gambles taken were some of the biggest issues.

For one thing Qatar, along with the United Arab Emirates, actually joined the NATO mission. And while the Arab League did give its backing to the no-fly-zone, it was very much against the actual bombing of Libya which eventuated. Still, Qatar stayed with the Western alliance.

It also aligned itself with the rebel base of Benghazi from a very early stage, and became the first Arab nation to recognise the National Transitional Council (NTC) in late March.

These were all bold moves. Imagine how they could have backfired if other Arab nations didn’t eventually join the chorus?

Qatar also gave a lot of money and assistance to the NTC in Benghazi. Some reports say it was worth more than US$400 million (QR1.5 billion). It assisted in selling and marketing Libyan oil – one million barrels worth which brought in US$129 million (QR470 million) for the rebels at a crucial time. It went so far as to supply weapons and training for their fighters.

While you can debate the rights and wrongs of supplying firepower, the rest may turn out to be inspired. Libya’s oil economy, unshackled from the stigma of pariah status, has the potential to be both a powerful force and useful for anyone who can get on board.

While in Doha at a donors’ conference, the NTC Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril said, “Qatar rescued us during a crisis, to help us generate some income.” He went on to say that the Libyan people would be the ones responsible for restarting Libya’s oil production, but it would not surprise anyone to see the Qataris alongside them in either advisory or investment roles.

Physical reconstruction of the country, outside of oil and gas, will be another area of opportunity. Construction and development companies in Qatar have already shown what they can do in a relatively short time. The desert sands of Libya would provide another blank canvas for new projects.

And remember what specifically made Qatar rich – natural gas. Exploration and investment in Libya’s natural gas reserves, which some estimates put at 1.5 trillion cubic metres, has been quite limited. Qatar’s experience in turning gas into money would benefit not just Libya, but potential European markets thirsty for an option other than those presented by Russia.

So, maybe there is a lesson to be learnt here. There have been a lot of comparisons between post-Saddam Iraq and post-Gaddafi Libya. And while I don’t think you can directly compare the two conflicts – Iraq was an invasion, Libya was essentially an internal battle – the battle for control and regeneration is not dissimilar.

It needs to be about assistance and support at the height of the crisis, not simply coming in post-war and looking for opportunities. Those who help are unlikely to be forgotten.

At the very least, Qatar’s prominence in the Libya conflict has meant exposure for the country; much in the way the 2022 World Cup brought the world’s attention.

It was the Emir HH Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani standing front and centre with French president Nicholas Sarkozy at the ‘Friends of Libya’ meeting in Paris, chatting with British prime minister David Cameron during the photo call. United States secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, for example, was much further off to the side.

Kamahl Santamaria is a Doha-based news anchor with Al Jazeera English, and host of the channel’s business and economics programme ‘Counting the Cost’.

This article first appeared in TheEDGE 3.10, October 2011.



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