September 5th, 2011
05:27 PM GMT
(CNN) – Qatar can be simply defined in the 21st century as the “little state that does.” From near bankruptcy 20 years ago in the face of declining oil reserves and a record budget deficit, the Gulf Arab state with a population of up to 1.6 million, roughly one-fifth of them Qataris, is punching well above its weight.
Qatar’s foray into the global investment arena is hard to miss. Its sovereign fund, the Qatar Investment Authority, has only been around since 2005, but its footprint is a long and wide one. The QIA has taken high profile stakes in German auto giants VW and Porsche, global banks Barclays and Credit Suisse, the London Stock Exchange and British supermarket giant J. Sainsbury and it even bought outright the luxury icon Harrod’s. The big splash year was 2009 when it invested $32 billion on a variety of transactions.
According to Jones LaSalle, the building and real estate group, Qatar was the largest property investor globally in 2010. It has taken high profile positions across London in the Canary Wharf financial district, Chelsea Barracks near the Thames River, and is owner of the current U.S. Embassy in Grosvenor Square.
That is Qatar’s financial muscle at play thanks to sitting atop one of the world’s largest gas fields, which it shares with Iran. Qatar has 13.5 percent of global natural gas reserves, but it was Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani’s big bet in the early 1990s on gas-to-liquid technologies which continues to pay huge dividends for him today. From their strategic location in the Gulf, Qatar’s fleet of more than 50 gas trains can go where the growth is, whether it is east or west.
So first comes financial clout, and then comes diplomatic maneuvers. The Emir made an early call - well before it was fashionable - to support Libya’s rebel movement now known as the National Transitional Council. This effort included military backing and a plan to market oil and gas on behalf of the NTC when cash was in short supply.
Sheikh Hamad is taking what are seen in the region as very bold steps around what are considered potential Middle East landmines. On August 25th he made a quick stop in Tehran to meet with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Emir talked of expanding economic ties with Iran, partially viewed as an effort to protect Qatar’s strategic gas interests with direct engagement. That relationship to date had been mostly in the hands of Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, someone the Emir dropped into to see in Istanbul five days later.
The leader of the small Gulf state sat with Erdoğan, leader of one of the region’s most populous countries, discussing the future of a region with too much on the boil: Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria – the latest country the Emir decided to get involved with. He utilized his television channel Al Jazeera to say “it’s clear that the Syrian people will not turn back on their demands.”
It is all part of a bigger plan this tiny state is putting into action which includes that other global power plays - chairing the one-year, rotating presidency of the United Nations General Assembly and in the decade to follow hosting the 2022 World Cup.
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