Arab nations find a volunteer for the war in Libya

Yelena Suponina for RIA Novosti

The coalition fighting in Libya is not a strictly Western affair. Muslim Turkey is one of the 28 NATO countries taking part, and Qatari aircraft have been patrolling Libyan skies since March 25. The small but prosperous Gulf state is also heading up the recently established Libya Contact Group. Qatari diplomats are currently organizing the group’s first meeting. “It will take place in our capital Doha, perhaps as early as next week,” said a diplomat from Qatar who preferred to remain anonymous.

Although the Quran praises patience and Arabs are typically slow starters, in Libya time is of the essence. The longer the military operation lasts, the greater the backlash in Arab public opinion. Although Libyan rebels are more popular in the Arab world than Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the war should be wrapped up quickly, before public opinion starts to turn. Not to mention the fact that the rebels are in need of rapid assistance.

Cautious and not-so-cautious Arabs

The coalition needs the Libya Contact Group to define both the tactics and the strategy going forward. The group was formed at the international conference on Libya in London on March 29, which was attended by the foreign ministers of the world’s leading powers, as well as the secretaries-general of the UN, NATO and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was not invited to London to discuss Libya’s future with his colleagues.

Some Arab nations decided not to attend to be on the safe side. Algeria and Egypt did not send representatives. Saudi Arabia, which promised to provide the coalition with warplanes, is currently busy establishing order in Bahrain at the request of its monarch. Secretary-General of the Arab League Amr Moussa, a likely presidential candidate in Egypt, prudently sent his deputy to London.

Qatar, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) played the most active role at the conference. However, Jordan is only providing the coalition with logistical and intelligence support. UAE sheiks have so far failed to deliver on their week-old promise to send 12 aircraft (six F-16s and six Mirages) to Libya.

Mini-state takes the lead

While other Arab nations have vacillated, preferring to err on the side of caution, oil-and-gas rich Qatar has stepped up. The population of this tiny emirate on the Gulf coast is merely 1.7 million, guest workers included. But Qatar has volunteered to be the face of Arab participation in the coalition.

Gaddafi disdainfully called Qatar a “mini-state”, but this is unfair. The ambitions of its 59 year-old emir – the reformer Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani – extend far beyond the borders of his small country. The Al Jazeera television network, founded and based in Qatar, has become the mouthpiece for the Arab uprisings.

The emir is successfully marrying modernization with local traditions. He is moving his country closer to the West, while at the same time remaining a patron of numerous Islamic organizations, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar hosts prestigious tennis tournaments ever year. It was also selected to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022. I have spoken briefly with the emir on several occasions. He is a charming man. He even seems a bit soft, but he can get tough when he needs to.

Egyptian Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, considered a spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, has lived in Qatar for many years. Chechen separatist Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev was given refuge in Qatar. The emir was so enraged by his assassination in 2004 that the two Russian suspects were almost sentenced to death. But the emir ultimately opted for a diplomatic solution. After difficult negotiations and a trial, the suspects were allowed to leave the country.

The emir came to power in 1995 as a result of a bloodless coup – he simply took his father’s place while he was on a trip abroad.

Selling Libyan oil in wartime

Qatar is helping the rebels in the east of Libya in other ways, as well. The emirate has agreed with the rebel National Council to sell oil produced in fields held by the rebels. The war has reduced oil production, and foreign contracts are not being honored. Specialists from Qatar will help the rebels organize the production and sale of its oil on the international market.

Ali Tarhouni, a spokesman for the rebels, said that the first delivery of about 130 thousand barrels of oil will be made later this month, or in early April. By the middle of April, oil production in the region could grow to 300,000 barrels per day. Considering that a barrel of oil costs more than a hundred dollars, the rebels are looking at over $13 million per day. Before the war, Libya exported 1.6 million barrels of oil each day.

Qatari jets take off from Crete

But it was Qatar’s offer to help enforce the no-fly zone that most surprised the world. Today, only two Qatari fighter jets – French-made Mirages – are taking part in the action. Arab nations are quick to point out that they are not participating in the bombings. Together with the French, they are patrolling the skies in northeastern Libya. The aircraft are based on the Greek island of Crete, primarily in Souda, the location of a Greek air base being used by NATO aircraft. Apart from two fighters, two military transport aircraft have also arrived in Souda from Qatar. Several dozen Qatari pilots and engineers are being trained there as they await the arrival of more fighter planes.

“The United States, Britain and France will not forget those who supported them in this operation,” said Shadi Hamid, a political scientist from Qatar. However, the Qatari government is not seeking gratitude. This tiny country, once an Arab backwater, has used oil and gas dollars to realize its long-term strategy of becoming one of the region’s leading nations.

The Qatari emir will encounter a great deal of criticism and problems on this road. Yet, some of the bigger powers would do well to learn from Qatar’s experience – not from its participation in a dubious military operation but from its ability to set clear goals and achieve them.

Yelena Suponina is a Moscow News political analyst specializing in the Middle East; she holds a degree in philosophy.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

Leave a comment