Commander's Visit Part of Growing Role for Qatar
By JANE PERLEZ
[New York Times - 18 Sept]: DOHA, Qatar, Sept. 17 — The commander of American forces in the Persian Gulf, Gen. Tommy R. Franks, arrived here
today for talks about the rapidly expanding American military presence in this gulf state that is expected to play a key role
in a war against Iraq.
Relations remain somewhat strained between the United States and neighboring Saudi Arabia, a fact that has benefited the
hereditary ruler of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, in his assiduous courtship of the American military since assuming
power seven years ago.
The meetings between the general and the emir, as Sheik Hamad is known, represent an affirmation of a new relationship that
will allow the Bush administration virtually unfettered use of Al Udeid, the large airfield here, Qatari and American officials said.
Al Udeid, a 15,000-foot airstrip about 20 miles west of the capital, was described by American officials as the longest in the
Middle East. It provides for a wide range of military action, including bombing raids, air and ground surveillance, and air
refueling, they said.
The installation is capable of handling large numbers of fighters and transports, and includes warehouses and storage facilities that
would give protection against chemical and biological warfare.
There is nothing in writing to specify what the United States may or may not do from the base in the event of a war against Iraq,
the officials said. But the emir, who is also the defense minister, views the United States as his country's ultimate protector and is
unlikely to present any obstacles to the needs of the American military, the officials said.
The Qatari foreign minister, Sheik Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani, a cousin of the emir, encouraged the United States last
week to resolve the Iraqi situation peacefully but also indicated that it was up to Saddam Hussein, Iraq's leader, whether there
Also last week, General Franks announced that he would move about 600 officers, or about one-quarter of his staff, to Al
Udeid Air Base in November for a war games exercise. About 2,000 American soldiers are on the base, down from a high of
4,000 during the war in Afghanistan, American officials said.
The new complement of officers is likely to remain after the exercise in preparation for a war against Iraq, the Pentagon said.
In coming to Qatar, General Franks is following in the footsteps of Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense
Donald H. Rumsfeld, who were here earlier this year during the Afghan war. They inspected Air Force operations at Al Udeid
and spoke of the important role Qatar would play with the United States in the future.
Something of a maverick in the Arab world, the 52-year-old emir has actively sought an American military presence, said Gen.
Anthony C. Zinni, the former head of Central Command.
The Qatari leader has been eager to protect his nation's natural gas reserves from potentially meddlesome neighbors, General
Zinni said, and that desire for protection dovetailed with the desire of the United States in the late 1990's to "spread out our
presence" in the region.
In 1995, when the emir overthrew his father in a nonviolent palace coup, Qatar was considered little more than a spit of sand
with glorious pearl diving.
In his ensuing course of modernization, one of the emir's first moves was to develop, in concert with Exxon Mobil, the nation's
vast quantities of natural gas. Qatar is now considered one of the world's largest producers.
Other initiatives were meant to show that Qatar would not remain entirely inhibited by the conservative Wahabi strain of Islam
that dominates life here.
The emir started a satellite television channel, Al Jazeera, which is widely watched in the Arab world and beyond for its
unrestrained reporting on Arab issues. It is Al Jazeera that has been a source of several tapes from Osama bin Laden.
The emir also allowed the second of his three wives, Sheika Moza bint Nasser al-Misned, to head a foundation that has paid
$750 million for Cornell University's medical school to open a branch campus in Doha. The first pre-med classes of the school
began two weeks ago.
Qatari women are allowed to drive cars and voted in municipal elections two years ago. But, paradoxically, Wahabi beliefs
forbid the display of photographs of Sheika Moza, despite her prominent foundation role.
Another part of the emir's modernization drive was to expand his country's military capacity, officials said. But with only about
8,000 soldiers in his army, and 12 Mirage fighter jets bought from the French, he needed help.
That was where Washington came in. Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, the emir was warmly greeted at the White House,
and he contributed to the firefighters fund in New York City.
With 140,00 people — one of the smallest indigenous populations in the world — Qatar has a per capita gross domestic
product of $110,000 — compared with $10,000 for Saudi Arabia where the population is about 17 million, said Simon
Henderson, a London-based consultant for Saudi Strategies. That makes the Qataris far richer than the Saudis, a fact that heats
up historical rivalries, Mr. Henderson said.
General Zinni said Qatar was in a central position in the Persian Gulf and described the air base was "phenomenal," with "a lot of
American officials said that General Franks signed a "statement of intent" with the Qataris in July 2001. Immediately after Sept.
11, the officials said, American planes began operating from the base for the first time.
Though the operations were based on a handshake, as one official put it, the Qataris have not changed their minds. They are not
standing in the way of whatever the Americans need to do in the coming months, another said.