DOHA, Nov 18 (Reuters) – World Cup host Qatar, an energy, investment and media powerhouse which also wields influence as a diplomatic power-broker, will come under the spotlight when the competition begins on Sunday.
The Gulf Arab state has used a complex web of friendships nurtured by its gas riches to become a go-to mediator in global diplomacy, hosting both the Middle East’s biggest U.S. airbase while opening its doors to Islamists and forging ties with Iran.
Employing wide-ranging political ties, it has helped to free hostages and secure peace agreements from Sudan to Somalia.
Here is a look at the international role and immense wealth of the small desert peninsula country.
Few moves appear to have paid quite as large a diplomatic dividend as Qatar’s role over Afghanistan, cultivated since it let the Taliban open the group’s main international office in 2013. Qatar also provided the venue for peace talks that led to last year’s U.S. agreement to withdraw.
As temporary home to the evacuated Afghanistan embassies of the United States and several European allies, it has served as a central mediator for Western efforts to engage the Taliban.
Analysts describe the Afghan role played by Qatar — a small state surrounded by better-armed rivals — as part of efforts to strengthen Qatari security by becoming indispensable as an international mediator.
Qatar has opened its doors to leaders of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that rules the Gaza Strip. Doha has also played a role in ceasefire negotiations between Hamas and Israel. Qatar has helped Gaza pay its fuel bills and has provided humanitarian aid.
At the same time, in a sign of Doha’s pragmatism, Qatar has authorised direct flights between Tel Aviv and Doha during the World Cup despite having no formal relations with Israel. A Qatari official has said the agreement on flights is part of Qatar’s commitment to FIFA’s hosting requirements and “should not be politicised”.
Between 10,000 and 20,000 Israelis are expected at the month-long matches in the Gulf emirate, an unprecedented influx after years in which it admitted only low-key delegates.
Hamas is one of several anti-Western groups such as the Taliban and Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front hosted by Qatar. Doha also provides a haven for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which opposes the absolute rule of the Gulf’s hereditary rulers.
Qatar’s critics accuse Doha of backing militant Islamists in Libya and elsewhere and helping enrich militant kidnappers by paying ransom for hostages, a charge Qatar denies.
Fellow Gulf states Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, along with Egypt, cut relations with Doha in 2017, accusing it of supporting terrorism. Doha denied the allegation.
Qatar infuriated neighbouring states when it backed pro-democracy movements and rebels across the region during the 2011 Arab Spring.
Qatar became a major backer of rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad after war erupted in Syria in 2011, providing weapons and other support.
While Qatar denied backing groups with al Qaeda ties, it had channels to the Nusra Front, a group that was formerly al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria and is listed as a terrorist group by the United Nations. Qatari mediation helped to secure the release of numerous captives held by the Nusra Front, many of them foreigners.
Qatar has established itself as a major player in news media since the Doha-based Al Jazeera network was set up in 1996.
Reflecting Qatar’s perspective on regional and international affairs, Al Jazeera has helped to shape public opinion in many Arab countries, prompting bans in countries such as Egypt.
Qatar also owns beIN, a media conglomerate that is the official broadcaster of the World Cup in most countries in the Middle East and North Africa, and also in France.
Qatar’s wealth is mostly controlled through the Qatar Investment Authority, estimated by wealth fund tracker Global SWF to manage $445 billion in assets.
QIA owns a wide array of business interests, including huge real estate and hospitality holdings in Britain.
It also owns a 19% stake in Russian state-backed oil giant Rosneft.
QIA is also one of the largest shareholders in troubled Swiss lender Credit Suisse.
Qatar is the world’s largest holder of proven gas reserves after Russia and Iran. Its North Field is part of the world’s biggst gas field that Qatar shares with Iran, which calls its share South Pars. Qatar is currently expanding its gas production capabiliities and expects a more than 60% increase in output by 2027.
Reporting by Michael Georgy and Ghaidaa Ghantous, Editing by William Maclean
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